The pandemic has been a test tube for a rapidly developing process by which social media platforms – particularly the overwhelmingly dominant Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – plow ahead with the purging of false information. There is good reason for their efforts: they created platforms that make the spread of even the craziest ideas incredibly easy. Those who oppose these fringe ideas celebrate as the platforms shred ideas deemed dangerous, but have we genuinely considered the cost?
Today brought this whole mess to everyone’s attention again as the President and his son tweeted out information from a controversial group of doctors and Donald Jr. quickly found himself in a sort of Twitter purgatory for spreading false information. Those who love the president were outraged at Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and company for taking away their “free speech;” many of those less inclined to wear a red hat see it as social platforms doing civic duty against a dangerous man.
I get the delicate balance social platforms face as they try to weed out false information. They have spent years cultivating an image as the modern town square, but they remain private companies who have a right to their own agendas. (Including appeasing the majority, lest boycott efforts, such as the one currently hitting Facebook’s advertising, cut off the revenue that allow them to operate.)
Many Trump supporters have rightly worried in recent years as progressive forces have sought to erode business owners’ rights to uphold their consciences’ demands while doing business (be they florists or large craft stores that close on Sunday). Those same folks would do well not to demand that social media platforms be forced against their will to allow posts the platforms view as disinformation to remain. The knife cuts both ways.
That said, we’ve never been closer to the editing of thought and speech George Orwell described in 1984, so it should not be only MAGA Country that finds recent “fact checking” trends alarming. Most people depend on social media for the interchange of ideas today and those companies’ actions should cause us to seriously consider making efforts to return to the more decentralized Internet of the early 2000’s blogosphere. Yes, it was a wild place, but by vast interlinking, blogrolls, trackbacks and other means that seem rudimentary compared to today’s Facebook tagging and Twitter’s retweets, information was effectively exchanged without any centralized gatekeeper.
Today Twitter might remove disinformation I am glad to see gone; tomorrow it might be something I desperately need to say.
We need to look to the ramifications beyond the post staring back at us on our screens today or event that is fodder for cable news tonight. Looking beyond the immediate is precisely the point that has led me to passionately oppose backdoors in devices such as the iPhone when law enforcement demands it after some horrible mass shooting.
Today, that backdoor might be used to convict a purveyor of domestic terror, but tomorrow it will be used by a totalitarian regime to suppress dissent.
I am looking at you, China.
To have freedom, we must protect privacy and not allow it eroded for the sake of expediency in solving crime. I have praised Apple CEO Tim Cook for taking the unenviable stand of refusing government overtures for backdoors into phones despite enormous pressure and even potential threats to his company’s wellbeing.
Who wants the task of protecting an evil murderer’s privacy?
Cook understands that if he does not defend privacy universally, there will be no privacy. If the State gets to decide who has a “right” to be free of surveillance, then the State can always take away that “right.” Do we want Chinese dissidents fighting for freedom to be spied on by one of the most repressive and powerful regimes in the world? Do we really want to assume our own government will always resist its own darkest tendencies?
For almost anyone who has thought about encryption and computer security, the answer is “no.” And, that “no” should be echoed when we consider if we want to have information flow almost exclusively through platforms that remove the record of information they deem unhelpful or wrong.
Tech journalist Paul Miller tweeted out a quote from 1984 this morning. “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” How do we end up in the dystopian world of Orwell? So far, it seems by gleeful leaps and bounds.
“Deplatforming” began with the worst elements of the Internet – the unapologetic racists, the most offensive conspiracy theorists and their like – just as the demands for technological backdoors always start with the most distasteful of perpetrators. It is hard to worry ourselves with such repugnant elements. Yet, we should. As we acclimate to the slight, but growing realm of “deplatformable ideas,” we set up for Orwell’s future.
The most reasonable, thoughtful people will at some point hold an idea, even a right idea, that does not fit within the cultural zeitgeist’s demands.
For companies like Apple, the privacy issue has been – for the moment – solved by their efforts to decentralize data as much as possible, keeping users’ information on their own devices, keeping itself ignorant of users’ encryption keys and so on. Apple’s stand has cost them some bad press and made its efforts to do tasks like photo recognition harder than it is for less privacy concerned competitors, but it is a clear win for everyone who values freedom around the world.
Moving some of our love of sharing online back to the more decentralized blogosphere is rife for similar inconveniences, but it will lead to freer internet, and, by extension a freer world.
Editor’s Note: Welcome back to Open for Business. We are returning after an eight-year hiatus to join in that more democratized and free discussion of information that we were once a part of in 2001-2012. Please join us as our slate of authors again speaks on ideas, culture and technology.