Censorship on the Web is Winning

Earlier this year, I argued in my column that the best way to handle the widespread circulation of misleading and apocryphal news content on the internet was to arm the public with basic secondary research skills. I reasoned that the ideal purpose of the internet was to empower the public—and thereby strengthen democracy—by serving as a universally accessible global communications platform that enabled unfettered access to information. Any attempts to limit the public’s access to information would undermine that purpose. Unfortunately, following several months of pervasive news stories regarding alleged Russian influence campaigns during the 2016 elections, major internet companies opted for censorship.

Google led the way with its Global News Initiative (GNI). This initiative includes favoring certain news outlets in the Google search algorithm as well as helping certain news organizations to monetize their content more effectively. Later in the year, Google extended GNI to YouTube. 

Twitter was the first social media platform to announce it would be omitting content that constitutes disruptive behavior on its platform. In the search feature, certain results are now filtered out unless the user selects to see all search results. 

Apple News followed suit when it launched its Midterm Elections section. It features news content curated by Apple News Editors from trusted sources. These sources are exclusively major news organizations, including The Washington Post, Fox News, Vox, Politico, and Axios.

Facebook announced via a tweet in July that it was reducing the visibility of posts that users, or the company’s internal editors, had flagged as false. In addition, the announcement stated that the platform had been demoting pages and domains that repeatedly shared false news. However, when asked by a senior media reporter at CNN why InfoWars was not banned, the company responded that determining which news was false and which was just opinion was subjective.

This lack of clarity regarding how Facebook determines which content to downgrade in its algorithm became even more troubling when the company, along with Spotify, Google, Apple, and Twitter announced they would be removing InfoWars content from their platforms altogether. It may succeed in eliminating some clearly false information; however, given the lack of clarity regarding how content is being evaluated by the algorithms, as well as the susceptibility of these platforms to political pressure, they run the risk of eventually eliminating a lot of content that simply does not conform to the dominant discourse regarding specific topics. The danger is that this kind of censorship will limit the public’s ability to consider the issues thoroughly and make the best decisions for themselves and their communities.

The underlying assumption of these initiatives is that human beings are just not equipped to decide for themselves what is false and what is true. Instead, they relegate this process of reasoning and judgment to machine-based algorithms, which are based on consensus and expertise.

There is a wonderful Buddhist scripture, which tells the story of the Kalamas—a clan in what is now Northern India—who went to see the Buddha. They tell him that there have been many teachers coming to see them, expounding various doctrines, and they ask him how they should decide which teachings are true and which are false. The Buddha’s response is quite remarkable.  He says, “Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’” Instead he urges the Kalamas to rely on their own reasoning based on their own lived experience.

People have the innate ability, and the responsibility as members of communities, to decide what is harmful to themselves and others in those communities. They need to be empowered with the skills to actualize this ability and fulfill their responsibility.    


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