by Mary Harrington
Tuesday, 20
July 2021

Digital censorship is inevitable now

Governments are increasingly controlling the flow of information
by Mary Harrington
(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

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-à-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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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