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Digital censorship is inevitable now

(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

July 20, 2021 - 7:00am

Big Tech and government shuffled another step closer to an open China-style merger in the West this week. On Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki appeared to suggest in a briefing that social media platforms should collude more proactively to ensure government-approved messages are transmitted to the general public.

Activists in the UK pointed out that an equivalent dialogue between tech platforms and UK government also exists here. Civil servants have ‘trusted flagger’ status with the platforms, meaning their concerns are prioritised by tech platform censors.

Of course, ‘misinformation’ and ‘harmful posts’ are a movable feast. Psaki was referring specifically to information relating to coronavirus, but once it’s generally accepted that the government has not only a right but a duty for — as Psaki puts it — “the public health of the country” to root out “misinformation” and “harmful posts”, that rubric can be easily applied to other topics deemed important.

In the US, for example, Big Tech censored the New York Post regarding the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop during the presidential election campaign, a story subsequently acknowledged to be true but at the time deemed (one presumes) ‘misinformation’.

Much of the debate about Psaki’s apparent call for overt collusion between regime interests and Big Tech has turned on its incompatibility with the ideals of free speech and pluralism still widely supported by liberals on both Left and Right. But to my eye the bigger story is the inadequacy of liberal political ideals full stop for a de-materialised society.

This is especially the case when that de-materialised public square is governed by a similarly de-materialised state, that deploys the same digital technology to track, shape and discipline its polity. This is illustrated by another breaking story this weekend on the intersection of Big Tech and the state.

Pegasus, a spyware tool sold by Israeli company NSO Group to regimes around the world, was revealed to have on its lists academics, presidents, prime ministers, and more than 180 journalists. NSO Group reportedly conducted ‘rigorous vetting’ of a regime’s human rights record before selling it iPhone hacking software; but this is self-evidently not working to rein in the regimes in question.

If the technology exists, those in power will use it. And the flip side of this is the point raised by Psaki’s statement: if the technology exists and those in power don’t use it, it will become a weakness for less idealistic opponents to exploit. To put it more plainly: in the digital age, our regimes are obliged to institute appropriate measures of monitoring and censorship — because if they don’t, they’ll be wide open to the bot farms of China and Russia. And as evidenced by the strategic manoeuvring of Google, Facebook et all vis-Ă -vis the Chinese regime, private tech firms are not on the side of ‘right’ — they’re on the side of power.

In our emerging 21st-century technostates, then, we might as well accept that censoring ‘misinformation’ is a given, and contesting this on principle is futile. What should concern us instead is the moral commitments and political allegiances of those who are in power —  because it is they who define and enforce the terms of on which the inevitable censorship takes place.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

And how, given that the elite is now more or less insulated by a group-thinking MSM, and immunised against democracy, thanks to the capture of the legacy parties by the deep state, do you propose that we effect this control of the “commitments and… allegiances of those who are in power”?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Every time I log on here I am a bit surprised to find I still may enter. Pretty much anywhere I have been a poster I get banned.
So how is Unherd navigating this minefield, Mary? Do you have meetings on what level of covid – race – political outrage, and so on, … can be printed? Because I am easily the most extreme here, yet I am allowed to say my conspiracy theories and such with very little censoring.

The biggest question there is is why the Billionaire class turn so repressive. They all do, the seemingly Liberals all become little Hi* lers once they cross a certain power level. Maybe a story on the Billionaire Class is due. You do like stories on class and what the ramifications of it are, well how about that class? Devos, Soros, WEF, Sun Valley, Tech, Banking, and so on – you know, the ones who own us.
When you say digital censorship is inevitable, it is only because these ones decided it must be.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago

Why am I beginning to think that Private Fraser (Dads Army) was less a doom monger than a sage or soothsayer, with Orwellian levels of foresight.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

It seems the only sensible thing to do is opt out altogether and go off grid. Facebook, twitter etc are easy enough – never had them anyway. But what about UnHerd membership?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Apparently Trump is taking Big Tech to court. Further there is apparently email trails between Fauci, Pelosi and Harris with Big Tech companies.
Jen Psaki is evil. I saw her statement – it was very clear. They are engaging with Big Tech to control narratives.

Last edited 2 years ago by Lesley van Reenen
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

My dream is the Republicans get back the house and Impeach Biden. Just imagine the HUGE, vast, monstrous, amounts of evidence which will be laid out for all to see. ‘Just Deserts’, and likely then chains of evidence to link one bad actor to the next, and on.

If USA does not drain the Swamp the whole West will sink into it like the Fall of the House of Usher.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

A very interesting article that stops just short of suggesting practical strategies for dealing with on-line censorship.
The author states, “In our emerging 21st-century technostates, then, we might as well accept that censoring ‘misinformation’ is a given, and contesting this on principle is futile. What should concern us instead is the moral commitments and political allegiances of those who are in power…
Fair enough, but we’re now in a profoundly divided era. People are aligning with fairly extreme right or left-wing positions. The chance of principled, moderate politicians in power are increasingly slim. Seems to me, if we can’t prevent some level of on-line censorship and government/big tech collusion, we have to constantly challenge the most egregious examples. Name and shame.
I hope Unherd posts articles on how to resist this type of censorship and, like its coverage of cancel culture, not confine itself to describing the problem.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Agreed – a debate on how to hold the collusion of big tech and big state to account is a must.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Back in the grand old days, censorship was impossible. Those were the discussion days within a service called Usenet (still existing). No central authority in a distributed system that few are even aware. But we value ease of use, so we have Facebook and Twitter. I would rather them take hands off and allow the various communities to attack fakers, misinformation and the like. Who can decide what opinions are valid?

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
2 years ago

‘Big Tech & Big Govt ‘ will always collude … only ‘Small Govt’ will have the courage to resist ‘Big Tech’

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

No one is going to accept the following fundamental unavoidable truth, until they are forced to, until the realities of the 21st century are bearing down on them with full pressure, and as increasingly larger numbers become victims, or disenfranchised or just plain fall ever further behind as tech driven change ramps. There is only one way out of the conundrum described by the author, to be able to retain some degree of control in the ’emerging 21st-century technostate’ as the author puts it: become IT literate to a level where you understand how technologies work, become aware of what is being done by technology, and you can make informed choices – so we are able to put pressure on our ruling classes while we still can. This is parallel to the way most people are now literate – as in most stay in education till 18 and beyond, but didn’t a mere few decades ago. The difference now is, much faster change has to be embraced by everyone, because like it or not, everyone is going to see multiple paradigm shifts within a single working lifetime, where they are forced to adapt every time – and another wave arriving just as you have got your head above the water is nothing other than stress inducing.
Populations (or to be more specific, generations) won’t accept this willingly for lots of reasons: because it’s not something remotely human scale Because it forces people out of their comfort zones in totally unprecedented ways. Because rapid change becomes ever more stressful past your twenties. Because inertia. Because people believe their own ‘self-myths’ (I’m not good at this at all but I’m only good at that, I can’t do this I don’t have the mindset) and so on and so forth. Because.
But questions for all of us. *We* (in the advanced nations) created our modern world, and not much of what is happening now was not already anticipated, so how can we now turn around and say, “I don’t much like this modern world we have created”. We had better embrace it as it is and improve it, unless anyone thinks the option truly exists to turn back the clock – to some mythical past which is not too hot, nor too cold, no coercion but everyone does the right thing, all freedoms allowed but no one misuses the freedoms by actually exercising them, all the ‘good’ modcons of technology exist (so I won’t die during childbirth or by a mine collapsing on my head) but none of the disadvantages like your every move monitored and your thoughts second-guessed by machines without a single human involved, this ‘just right’, temperate world, which coincides funnily enough to my twenties and thirties in the the eighties and nineties. You wouldn’t give your children the option to opt out of the modern world by not going to school for eight hours a day every day to learn new things, and instead play video games all day, you know what the consequences of such a licence would be, so why are we older generations giving ourselves this option?

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I agree with you. Soon the planet’s entire population will be controlled by the techie elite. Unless we catch up we are helpless pawns. Even on a pedestrian level think of the banks, the businesses, the traffic control, our utilities, agriculture, the list is endless – even cars are driven by computers. Never mind social engineering. With each passing decade we become more powerless and dependent. Our authority, our autonomy, our ability to think for ourselves, is being eroded. All this has come about in one lifetime. Who is going to instigate advanced computer studies in our schools?

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

As some one who has had email back in the 70’s and was around to see Micronet turn into Compuserve while Usenet existed as a parallel universe, I’m not new to many of these issues. But from a technology point of view many of today’s users lack many skills, not the least critical thinking which is required to process conflicting information. That suggests we must do better in educating people.
But it is true that knowledge has expanded exponentially over a fairly short period. Some topics in physics that in my graduate days would be deemed impossibly difficult have become possible because of immense computing power. The knowledge expansion has forced a narrowing of scope in technology details.
Humans have changed very little which is why some constructs remain and help guide us if we pay attention. The concepts of morality, justice, etc. are often lost in an attempt to rationalize or justify our misapplication. The tricksters and fraudster live on forever and some will be duped. The technology that surrounds us has remarkably little to do with human-human interaction. We can’t save ourselves without doing the critical thinking about what we are being told.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

Misinformation or Disinformation. Not the same.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Knave New World