All content on this blog from Tim McGhee has moved to the Tim McGhee Substack, and soon, Lord willing, will be found only on that Substack.

Friday, November 27, 2020

The chilling effect of censorship

Social media in and from America has begun to flex its muscle that some always feared it could, but always trusted to restrain itself from excessive use of power.

It seems the era of President Donald Trump has pushed them over the edge. The dam broke, and now it's an all-out battle over information and the truth.

If Twitter can slap a label on your Tweet, or make you disappear altogether, then that will make people think twice before invoking the wrath of the supposedly unbiased algorithm.

Perhaps this is partly inevitable when a company has around 1,000 employees and hundreds of millions of users. There's no choice but to deploy blunt algorithms for the sake of preserving already-established forms of user-to-user interaction.

Those of us born before 1980 recognize the signs of socialism, and those who lived through it are sounding the alarm. Strangely, it's not even subtle anymore, yet many still deny the potential harm in denying human nature and in concentrating power.

I remember when an HR consultant once said that social media was no longer a secondary form of identity but was becoming the primary form because that's what employers would see of a person first.

Perhaps it's not a surprise, then, that suppression on the internet can feel like suppression in real life, too. Under Communist China today, the censors regularly make individual posts disappear. On social media, companies keep people on a short leash and sometimes pull the plug on their online existence altogether.

One blogger from China feels that the pressure to self-censor in the US is greater now than when she was in a forced labor camp in China.

Laurence Jarvik, another with firsthand experience facing communism, had issues with Twitter, then quit, and now after issues with LinkedIn is quitting there, too. He called it, “Chilling foreshadowing of repression to come.”

It's not just a stand-alone algorithm, though. Algorithms can be written to supplement the human censors. Outside algorithms can also be written and deployed to manipulate the inside algorithms against people whose speech they don't like.

Algorithms that amplify what's “trending” also modify what's trending. Sometimes it feels like a lot of Twitter traffic is little more than manipulation of the latest hashtag trend.

The original Twitter had a lot of value. Perhaps its time to have somewhere else for that value to go, apart from the noise and the silencing.

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