I entered that story lugging old-fashioned, legalistic, American views about rights, …
But after looking at thousands of emails and Slack chats, I first started to get a headache, then became confused. I realized the old-school Enlightenment-era protections I grew up revering were designed to counter authoritarianism as people understood the concept hundreds of years ago, back in the days of tri-cornered hats and streets lined with horse manure.
What Michael [Shellenberger] and I were looking at was something new, an Internet-age approach to political control that uses brute digital force to alter reality itself.
We certainly saw plenty of examples of censorship and de-platforming and government collaboration in those efforts. However, it’s clear that the idea behind the sweeping system of digital surveillance combined with thousands or even millions of subtle rewards and punishments built into the online experience, is to condition people to censor themselves.
In fact, after enough time online, users will lose both the knowledge and the vocabulary they would need to even have politically dangerous thoughts. What Michael calls the Censorship-Industrial Complex is really just the institutionalization of orthodoxy, a vast, organized effort to narrow our intellectual horizons. …
Michael and I found correspondence in Twitter about something called the Virality Project, which was a cross-platform, information-sharing program led by Stanford University through which companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook shared information about Covid-19.
They compared notes on how to censor or deamplify certain content. The ostensible mission made sense, at least on the surface: it was to combat “misinformation” about the pandemic, and to encourage people to get vaccinated. When we read the communications to and from Stanford, we found shocking passages.
One suggested to Twitter that it should consider as “standard misinformation on your platform… stories of true vaccine side effects… true posts which could fuel hesitancy” as well as “worrisome jokes” or posts about things like “natural immunity” or “vaccinated individuals contracting Covid-19 anyway.”
This is straight out of Orwell. Instead of having “ambiguities” and “shades of meaning” on Covid-19, they reduced everything to a binary: vax and anti-vax.
They eliminated ambiguities by looking into the minds of users. In the Virality Project if a person told a true story about someone developing myocarditis after getting vaccinated, even if that person was just telling a story — even if they weren’t saying, “The shot caused the myocarditis” — the Virality Project just saw a post that may “promote hesitancy.”
So, this content was true, but politically categorized as anti-vax, and therefore misinformation – untrue. …
The new censorship is nastier and more authoritarian, because it tackles the person not their speech:
Old-school speech law punished speech, not the speaker. As a reporter I was trained that if I commit libel, if I wrote something defamatory that caused provable injury to someone, I would have to retract the error, admit it, apologize, and pay remuneration. All fair! But the court case wouldn’t target me as a person. It wouldn’t assume that because I was wrong about X, I would also be wrong about Y, and Z.
We saw NGOs and agencies like the FBI or the State Department increasingly targeting speakers, not speech. The Virality Project brought up the cases of people like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The posts of such “repeat offenders,” they said, are “almost always reportable.” They encouraged content moderators to make assumptions about people, and not to look on a case-by-case basis. In other words, they saw good and ungood people, and the ungood were “almost always reportable.”
Over and over we saw algorithms trying to electronically score a person’s good-or-ungoodness. We found a Twitter report that put both Wikileaks and Green Party candidate Jill Stein in a Twitter “denylist,” a blacklist that makes it harder for people to see or search for your posts. …
One last note. As Michael and I found out recently with regard to the viral origin story, things deemed politically good often turn out to be untrue, and things deemed ungood turn out to be true.
I can recite a list if need be, but many news stories authorities were absolutely sure about yesterday later proved totally incorrect. This is another characteristic Orwell predicted: doublethink. …
What to do:
What happens to a society that doesn’t square its mental books when it comes to facts, truth, errors, propaganda and so on? There are only a few options.
Some people will do what some of us in this room have done: grow frustrated and angry, mostly in private.
Others have tried to protest by frantically cataloging the past.
Most however do what’s easiest for mental survival. They learn to forget. This means living in the present only. Whatever we’re freaking out about today, let’s all do it together. Then when things change tomorrow, let’s not pause to think about the change, let’s just freak out about that new thing. The facts are dead! Long live the new facts!
Has communist China become more like the West, or has the West become more like communist China?