We are now seeing an accelerating rollout of censorship and high-precision thought-management across the most dominant services of the Internet. In a recent video, “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams quite chillingly explains that there are countless persons and subjects that one can no longer even name in a YouTube video without having the video’s comments blocked or it being automatically “demonetized” (the resemblance of this word to “demonized” is, surely, a blameless if wondrous coincidence).
Moreover, considering that social media 1) has more than enough following and influence within the electorate to swing election results on a national scale, 2) is now equipped with more powerful persuasion-managing algorithms than ever before, and 3) that these algorithms are in the hands of social-media conglomerates whose leadership have strongly apparent (leftward) political biases, Adams comes to the stunning but plausible conclusion that the free democratic process in the United States has likely already completely ceased to exist.
Henceforth, we and our elections are to be largely pawns of the censoring, content-micromanaging conglomerates, suggests Adams—raw behaviorist material to be guided, instructed, and shaped not only for profit but for intellectual and political hygiene. And for the most part, since the whole thing is proprietary, we will not even be able to recognize when it is being done.
Similarly to YouTube, a spate of “deplatformings” of high-profile but controversial figures has occurred on Twitter and Facebook, and in a short span of time, giving an impression of a coordinated crackdown. Such bans usually are summary and Kafkaesque, with at most a vague explanation along the lines of having “violated content guidelines”, and no process of appeal.
Those banned range from absurdist provocateurs to real alt-right ideologues to tellers of what used to be called “offensive”, “off-color” or “distasteful” jokes. But from what data is available, there is a clear pattern: the censorship appears to be overwhelmingly biased against right-wing personalities and opinions.
On the left, meanwhile, even advocates for violent groups such as Antifa remain largely untouched; in an interesting twist, a researcher who found evidence that many Antifa leaders are being actively courted by journalists was himself recently suspended by Twitter, with no reasons given.
In this new climate of “repressive tolerance”, it seems, only rightists can be “extreme”—a fine touch of Marcusean theory in action.
One can debate the merits of the banned individuals’ ideas and contributions, many of which are mean-spirited and a few grotesque, but the momentum points unmistakably towards something larger, for which these are but outliers and test cases.
But what is that larger thing? Nothing less than consolidated control of thought and expression and political will, all under the auspices of preventing “hate speech”—a dangerously nebulous concept all too easily remodeled, and now actually being remodeled, into the expansively Orwellian demand that nothing upsetting or offensive be said concerning anyone We like.
It has long been a truism that the way we handle offensive speech is a kind of bellwether for the fate of all speech. But it now seems we are very quickly leaving such early-modern sentimentality behind.
Evelyn Hall‘s famously idealistic cry, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, or the left-leaning ACLU’s defense of the right even of neo-Nazis to demonstrate and speak, give testimony of an era when upholding the principles of free speech and assembly to the very letter was understood to be far preferable to uncorking the genie of centralized censorship (or now, “deplatforming”), even if in order to score victories against the most repellent ideology. This was also an era that had the courage and clarity to recognize that these two approaches are, in the end, mutually exclusive.
But for all the dangers we now see to free thought and its expression, here is the deeper calamity: that we allowed our national political life to become so pitifully dependent on the Internet and on these three companies, that “freedom of speech” and “participation in the political commons” are now viewed as functionally indistinguishable from “access to social media platforms”.
Let me say it straight up: the Internet is now mostly an unmitigated disaster, exceeded only by the lemming-like enabling behavior with which billions have greeted it. Driven by a long-inculcated and ingenuous faith in technology as a moral good, these billions walked right up to the Internet somewhere in the late ‘aughts and, without understanding or caring quite what they were doing, as quickly as they could handed over nearly our entire social commons and civic life to what just so happens to be the most atomizing, delusion-breeding, monopolistic, emotionally toxic and conformity-inducing technology ever created.
And so now a huge and forlorn midsection of this country and others finds itself not only quite addicted to this digital crack (as was intended all along), but largely unable to remember or care how older generations ever made friends, formed communities, carried out politics, or pursued ideas and knowledge without it (even though every indication is that we did all of these things considerably better pre-Internet).
We have lost the physical world; we have lost our own efficacy. But this is not all. For when it became broadly apparent that this Internet, this beloved new manifestation of immersive techno-escapism, might in fact be a cult generator that continually buries truth and amity under foetid tides of rhetorical sludge (leading, to a much greater extent than the alleged Russian collusion ever did, to the election of our current president), our wise and virtuous elites somehow concluded that therefore, massive social-media monopolies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google should correct (read, censor) the Internet as they pleased—thereby rescuing us all from our deplorable selves!
The upshot is that the Internet rapidly is transitioning from a place of mob-based mudslinging, that is at least limited by being chaotic and decentralized, to a monolithic system of hyper-efficient eavesdropping and technocratically-curated falsehood. Now there’s a capital improvement!
The promise of Internet as a tool of “liberation” is and always was a fool’s promise, as a few writers farsightedly grasped. While it can serve to enable dissident organization, its overall course tends and always has tended, by its very nature, towards the dissolving of real-world social bonds in favor of the consolidation of remote social control. Indeed, real-world social bonds can be seen as a kind of coarse-grained and dangerously unpredictable rival to the power of the fine-grained algorithmic panjandrums, hence to be replaced by atomized conformity with all dispatch.
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If it were the case that the censorship and thought-control were largely confined to the social media realm—and I have already made no bones about the latter’s perniciousness—then the situation would be less concerning. It might even be salutary, by driving more people away from these stultifying and addictive media and back into the far healthier, if now quixotic channels of original-source research, long-form discourse, and in-person interaction.
Alas the evidence has been coming in for years now that this great “closing of the online mind” is not just a matter of social media or even of the Internet generally, but is instead rapidly developing at the far more worrying level of government-abetted censorship, and in countries with a long tradition of speech and liberalism no less: in Australia, whistleblowers can now face life sentences and whole news networks can be raided—with carte blanche to “add, copy, delete or alter” information—with scarcely a shrug. In the UK, the government has now banned any advertisements containing gender stereotypes deemed “harmful” (like housewives doing chores, or masculine men), and police appear to be actually criminalizing opinion.
This real-life Minitrue carefully monitors social media accounts for any signs of thoughtcrime, ready to pounce with the threat of actual imprisonment. It even declares, portentously: “we take all reports of malicious communication seriously”. All reports…!
Speech on religious matters is far from immune either. In many parts of the European Union, criticism of Islam and its founder in ways that show it in an unflattering light can now lead to outright legal penalties. Even in daily life, even limited face-to-face disagreement with new orthodoxies on gender identity and gay marriage, to name the biggest examples, has rapidly become potentially career- or friendship-ending.
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The First Amendment buys time in the USA against the governmental censorship seen elsewhere, by spelling out “free speech” in big capital letters, so to speak, on the doorstep of the nation. But if we take seriously the warnings of Snowden and other whistleblowers—now already 5 years behind the times and the tech—eventually the First Amendement will be swamped, or simply redefined out of existence. For the Amendment, already a somewhat impressionistic and porous barrier by virtue of its very generality and simplicity, is now charged with holding back two huge floods from opposite directions: from the “private” sphere of the social media masterminds as well as from the “public” sphere of government.
This double attack is a consequence, not only of the oligarchic-fascistic merging between government and corporate power that has been underway for decades in the USA, but also of the fact that the ranks of new government officials ultimately flow from academia, which since the 1960s has been increasingly dominated by admirers of just such Orwellian doublespeak doctrines as “repressive tolerance”.
(If it seems unfair to describe only the left as Orwellian here, bear in mind, firstly, that institutional and philosophical legitimacy is overwhelmingly being accorded to even quite extreme leftist theories over rightist ones, while the latter are, as we have seen, disproportionately censored; and secondly, that Orwell chose to name the dominant political party in 1984 “Ingsoc”, or English Socialism, for very definite and pressing historical reasons.)
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Speech has power, both to bind and to disintegrate. This always has been so; it is why rulers have sought continually to restrict it, to varying degrees. And with this power of speech has inevitably come the prospect of causing emotional distress or embarrassment.
But this risk has always been thought a very tolerable price to pay, because the project of free thought, accountability of power to truth, and ultimately individuality itself depends profoundly on the ability of individuals to independently call things as they see them, even at the risk that they may be in error or end up disliked.
This applies not just to the subjective-narcissistic “my truth”, now so lauded under the fork-tongued modern sense of “inclusivity” but, much more importantly, to actual truth and reality—to that which, as Philip K. Dick put it, “when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away”.
Instead, the days of “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me” has given ground instead to the “word that wounds”, and wounds endlessly; with the license of subjectivism, insult and offense have been smuggled into the domain of “violence”. Caught in a great and growing mire of pain, obsession, and resentment, the whole project of the open society founders. The remedy? Suppression of all strong and sincere feeling, unless backed by a sufficiently powerful identity group (or corporation).
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What will happen now? The same thing that always has to happen when power attempts to commandeer history, thought and opinion, but a determined minority is unwilling to accept such: alternative, covert or semi-covert channels of information and organization will have to percolate and spread. Some of these already exist; for instance smaller, anonymized, encrypted, or more libertarian communication methods such as Telegram or the “Dark Web” may be options. Blogs remain relatively untouched, but there are indications that WordPress is beginning to test the censorship waters as well.
But the problem remains that these are all still online tools, ultimately dependent upon gigantic server infrastructures maintainable only by governments and large corporations, and hence susceptible to the strange collectivist-yet-top-down control inherent in any highly networked yet centralized information system—and the flexing of those muscles of control is exactly what is at issue.
The only likely solution is to collectively, drastically cut our usage of the Internet and, as much and as soon as possible, prize it from its stranglehold over the social metabolism of our lives, our thoughts, and our nation.
Perhaps there will begin to be a trade in thumb-drives, or other physical media, or even—Heaven forbid, what atavistic blasphemy! Dare one even say it?—actual meetings and interactions of groups of real people, in actual places, to discuss matters that concern them and form actual interpersonal bonds and initiatives aimed towards the addressing of those matters. (Indeed, I suspect that we will soon see put to the test the extent to which that other essential component of the First Amendment—freedom of association—still lives.)
In past ages, freedom was won and maintained through the vigorous pursuit of the written word, and through direct personal meeting of actual humans, not tweets or flash videos. If we are not able to find the will to recover something of that tradition and that skill, which has been essentially left for dead in the lust for false progress, then we will soon find ourselves living under genuinely totalitarian conditions. And Orwell will then prove (rather as I think Malthus will, but that is another story), to have been not so much wrong, as late.
Unfortunately, this may already be inevitable. Aside from the widespread addiction to social media that has already rendered it compulsory to much of the adult and most of the youth population, the greatest risk is that the vast majority simply will not see or care enough to extricate themselves. For totalitarianism is like swimming in a fast-moving current: so long as one obeys it, one does not even feel that it is there.