Tuesday, March 06, 2018

The Internet "Defeated Censorship"? What A Quaint Notion...,


oftwominds |  This opaque corporate censorship amounts to a private-sector Stasi, pursuing an Orwellian world of profits reaped from the censorship and suppression of dissent
My longtime friend GFB recently suggested I revisit my position on RussiaGate, the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
I have been dismissive of the investigation because the idea that a pinprick of Facebook advertising ($100,000) could influence the sprawling ocean of public opinion struck me as preposterous.
But GFB suggested I look a bit deeper and consider the consequences of the Russian interference, however modest it might have been; and I have taken his sage advice and reconsidered.
I've reached the conclusion that Facebook, Google and Twitter should be operated as public utilities, not as for-profit corporations beholden solely to their shareholders and managers.

Here is my thinking:
1. As GFB so insightfully observed, Facebook says it sells advertising, as this is uncontroversial. But what Facebook is actually selling is data on its users. This enables enterprises to deliver adverts to highly specific audiences (surfers between the ages of 18 and 34 with an interest in traveling overseas, etc.), campaigns that are known only to the advertiser and Facebook, not to the targeted users. But it also enabled the Russian crew to target audiences most likely to be receptive to divisive, inflammatory content.
2. If we follow this dynamic to its conclusion, we realize that these for-profit corporations are threats to democracy, or incompatible with democracy, if you prefer that wording, as they directly enable the relatively affordable and easy sowing of intentionally divisive content. 

A recent wired.com article, Inside the Two Years that Shook Facebook--and the World, describes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's realization that the technology he'd assumed was both incredibly profitable and helpful could be used as a force for exploitation and propaganda.

3. In response, the social media/online advertising quasi-monopolies--Facebook, Google and Twitter-- have all pursued censorship as their "solution" to "fake news."
But as we all know, censorship isn't quite as easy as the corporate technocrats reckoned; algorithms designed to sort out "fake news" inevitably end up axing legitimate content, particularly legitimate dissent, which often shares certain traits with what's conveniently labeled "fake news," that is, anything that veers from supporting the conventional status quo.

As the failure of the quick-and-dirty algorithms has became painfully visible, the for-profit quasi-monopolies have hired humans to sort the wheat of legitimate "news" (and what exactly defines legitimate news?) from the chaff of "fake news," and discovered to their dismay that the people they hired are biased against various dissenting views.
4. This opaque corporate censorship amounts to a private-sector Stasi, pursuing an Orwellian world of profits reaped from the censorship and suppression of dissent, all in the name of "getting rid of bad players."

5. Democracy depends on the free and open distribution of a wide spectrum of opinion, and an electorate which is skeptical enough to decide for themselves what's inflammatory nonsense and what contains kernels of truth that deserve further inquiry. The dominance of corporations seeking to maximize profits via selling user data invites the sort of private censorship we are now witnessing--a trend that is poisonous to a free press and democracy.