Thoughts on Big Tech Censorship
The biggest change agent of our lifetime is undoubtedly social media. While other aspects of the internet have revolutionized various ‘industries’ (we all have a lot of opinions on Amazon and Uber), it’s social media that has most dramatically altered our two most important cultural relationships: social engagement with close family and friends, and social engagement with the broader society via culture, literature, arts, and other forms of creative media. In other words- social media has dramatically altered our methods of social and self expression, and in ways we won’t fully understand for decades to come.
The hottest topic these days in social media land is censorship- the idea that ‘big tech’ is squashing out intellectual dissent in the name of mainstream conformity and, I guess, some form of New World Order globalism and/or baby-eating satanism. The point is that there’s now being attributed insane amounts of intention behind the new social landscape that is, frankly, just the collateral damage of a few college dropouts trying to be the first to turn a half-million loan from their parents into a trillion dollars.
That Democrat Ate Your Baby (said in an Australian accent)
Here’s the top case study of the week: Amongst the bevy of unproven Covid therapies out there, the new hot commodity is Ivermectin, as it’s becoming championed as this year’s hot reboot of hydroxycloriquin. Full disclosure, this conversation really has nothing to do with whether or not Ivermectin helps treat Covid, which remains an open scientific question. The controversy is more concerned with the fact that if you go on YouTube and talk about the potential of ivermectin as a treatment, you may see yourself “silenced” and potentially shut down. And yet, is this censorship?
When people cry “censored”, the first big question is- compared to what? Compared to fifty years ago? Seriously, try to orchestrate getting a message out to tens of thousands of strangers in the nineteen seventies, how would you literally have done it without going through a gatekeeper like a television station or newspaper? Fifty years ago, Q-Anon would’ve been the guy on the street corner holding a sign that reads ‘The End is Near (for the globalist left-wing pedophiles)’. Now he has 4chan and a pseudonym alongside his dog-eared copy of The Turner Diaries.
And yet with the advent of the internet, we feel entitled to stand on any platform with a “like” button. The reality is, this whole idea of free amplification (like the fact that YouTube was recommending Alex Jones to more people than watch the Super Bowl) is bonkers. Why should any internet company have to amplify whatever you write for free anyway? If you had a crazy, non-mainstream view fifty years ago, good luck. If you have them now, it’s great as long as your viewers click those targeted ads once in a while.
I’m not arguing that these tech companies should or shouldn’t remove controversial content from their platforms. From their perspective, I would wager that they shouldn’t remove content because it’s self-defeating (look up the Streisand effect). But I’m less interested in Mark Zuckerberg’s perspective on, well, anything. I’m more interested in our individual perspectives as the rats in Zuckerberg’s lab. Thirty years ago, it would be insane to expect NBC to carry my opinions on the 5 o’clock news. There’s absolutely no reason for us to expect it. Jump ahead to this year, and suddenly it’s censorship to kick someone off your platform, when they still have the entire internet to scrawl on. Was it any less effort to build YouTube than it was to build Dateline NBC? Why do we feel so entitled to the recommendation algorithms?
Meet the new Boss, same as the old Boss
We believed that the internet would democratize publishing, that it would tear down the gatekeepers and let the truth ring. Five minutes after that happened, we realized that there’s a lot of dumb-ass people in the world, who want to “share their truths”. There’s no so much information, that filtering has become even more important than amplifying. So we built new gatekeepers who could handle the scale of intellectual feces our monkey brains were throwing out. These new gatekeepers aren’t even human, they’re mostly algorithms, algorithms who can’t really tell if you’re arguing that Ivermectin cures cancer and increases penis size or that Ivermectin should be safely researched in a double-blind clinical trial so we can learn if it’s one of many effective treatments against Covid. The algorithm simply can’t tell what’s been written in good faith, the same way Google photos can’t tell if you’re in a photograph if your skin isn’t white. It’s just a shitty set of decisions made by a bunch of college grads who were more interested in microdosing LSD than reading science fiction or studying history and ethics.
True, we used to have a few select institutions who set the narrative. NBC decided what entertainment was and the CDC decided what science was. We certainly democratized that- now your kids decide what entertainment was and anyone with a white lab coat can jump on Instagram live and convince thousands of people that they’re an expert. It’s different, but it’s not better. And the homemade video of a “doctor” is certainly not any more true than the medical establishment of the nineteen fifties prescribing cigarettes and mercury.
When people complain about platform level censorship, what they’re really complaining about is the fact that the internet didn’t solve any of the problems we thought it would. We expected the Arab Spring and yet we got genocide in Myanmar and a rise in authoritarianism and election instability around the world. We thought it would bolster the public discourse by increasing access for marginalized groups, but it actually just provided another method for the economically elite to consolidate their own power and control the narrative at an even deeper and more automated level. The internet and social media were supposed to create a better version of our social interactions and a flourishing of our creative media. While it certainly increased the raw amount of creative expression available to us, the jury is out on whether it really is quantitatively better that Tiktok and Teen Mom has usurped Tolstoy as the cultural center.
So I think the biggest takeaway we need to pull is how much bullshit there is and how it will never go away. The same people who are so distrustful of ‘big pharma’ and wouldn’t go near aspirin with a ten foot pole have been the first to jump on ‘miracle medical treatments’ as proof of conspiracy. The same people who were so mistrustful of the curated narrative of the entertainment industry, are blindly trusting of any video served up by an algorithm designed by essentially the same group of people. The amount of trust we’re putting in the hands of strangers is mind-boggling these days, especially when people falsely feel like they’re more “independent” and “free-thinking” than ever before.
This is the lesson of the censorship debate: stop expecting massive multimillion-dollar global companies to do the work for you. Stop. Stop being mad that YouTube doesn’t agree with your contrarian take or that their algorithms aren’t sensitive enough to understand controversy versus intentional misinformation. Stop. Stop being surprised when they take down an undercover reporter’s video inside a KKK rally, but leave the KKK’s posts untouched. Stop expecting Facebook posts to be true or what you see on YouTube to be unfiltered. Be smarter than that. Those websites can show you billions of pieces of content at any given moment. They’re already filtering your reality.
You can’t say you’re a skeptic if everything you learn actually came from a secret algorithm clearly designed to make you mad enough to stay engaged and feed even more invasive advertising. The internet cannot truly democratize information, if everyone is just going to hitch themselves to the same few companies wagons. If you’re going to rely on these companies for how you communicate with other people, good luck. Does anyone truly believe that interpersonal relationships and communication have gotten better over the last twenty years?
At a certain point, we have to blame the smoker if they want to ignore the surgeon general’s warning. If you’re still surprised at Facebook and YouTube for being the shithole mind-warpers that they are, that’s on you.