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Who Has the Widest Censorship Reach in Human History?

July 2016: Aerial view of Silicon Valley, California. (Photo: Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images).
July 2016 aerial view of Silicon Valley, California (Photo: Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images).

When tech companies take measures to crush the very dialogue they once needed to grow — reaching a point where they have amassed the widest censorship reach in human history — it’s time to sit down and have a serious conversation about Silicon Valley.

Professor Noam Chomsky, linguist and co-founder of cognitive science, has long claimed that America is a nation run by corporations. That assertion was well supported nearly a century ago by the rise of America’s elite class — its first millionaires who, soon after amassing their fortunes, turned to investing in elections to help shape favorable policies.

While corporations and their elites have long-shaped public policy by funding one candidate over another, the questions for our generation are:

  • Are we now also directly overseen by corporations themselves, whose billionaire founders have created innovations that allow for policy to bypass government rule?
  • Are the unelected leaders of billion-dollar tech industries in Silicon Valley now the very people that determine how societies are shaped?
  • And if so, are we reaching a crisis point in human civilization where the widest censorship ability in human history is not at the hands of any fascist government, but those of a handful of tech overlords swayed not by the First Amendment, but by personal politics and profit?

Freedom of speech, a right granted to us by the First Amendment of the Constitution, is something guaranteed to us by our government. It is not guaranteed to us by private corporations.

Yet, we — as a society — have become reliant on social tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for our “free speech” needs. We have become reliant on Google to authenticate and rank the relevancy of that speech. But the fact remains there is no obligation for these companies to uphold the same standards of free speech that we are guaranteed by our government.

Silicon Valley has come to develop its own standard for “free” speech, one that is subjective and heavy-handed. It has become a reality in which views it dislikes are either censored or “shadow banned” (where a user’s post is blocked from appearing in other people’s news feeds).

Take the most recent Silicon Valley scandal concerning a leaked Google memo, The Good Censor. It’s an 85-page admission that Google and other tech platforms now “control the majority of online conversations” and have pivoted away from free speech and “towards censorship” of those whose opinions they disapprove of (largely political conservatives).

This follows a previously leaked Google memo identifying the social media giant as an ideological echo chamber.

After only days in the news cycle, The Good Censor story only yielded about 540 Twitter mentions, which is impossible given the fact that Twitter has 336-million users worldwide, with 68-million users in the United States alone.

The Google memo was leaked to the conservative news outlet Breitbart, which broke the storyYou can decide for yourself whether it was a coincidence that this was shadow-banned.

Meanwhile, post after post promoting misogynistic and extremist rhetoric of Islam’s religious right continue to be promoted. For example, while Twitter shut down right-wing fringe journalist Alex Jones, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Twitter page is not only standing tall, it’s verified.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an extremist operation with chapters across the world, including well-nested front organizations in the United States with agents openly spewing the same hate and propaganda you would find in the caves of Kandahar.

And it’s not just Twitter. Facebook does the same thing. Take another example. Pages that support and promote female genital mutilation (FGM) are left standing while pages belonging to critics of this horrific practice are often silenced.

To be fair, there are a couple of (less sinister) reasons why this is happening (reasons that are also part of the problem):

  1. Social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube rely on artificial intelligence and algorithms to red-flag content. A video directly attacking FGM can raise flags for content on child abuse, whereas a video promoting FGM might be far more discrete in how its message is communicated.
  2. Once content has been red-flagged, it is nearly impossible to reach an actual human being with whom to discuss the issue. On the off chance you do, you’re likely at the mercy of a millennial already well-sculpted into a narrow ideological worldview, passionately fueled by their band-wagon causes with little interest or awareness of nuanced conversations that involve hard facts about life beyond their ideological echo chamber.

Unless billions are invested into multiple counter platforms to break Silicon Valley’s monopoly on regulating and policing speech, the truth is the only real power we have is to break our dependency on technology and return to real-time, real-life connections.

Ultimately, the power is ours.

In some Utopian fantasy, Muslim reformers like myself (and other alternative voices) would have the opportunity to sit down with Silicon Valley tech giants and have an honest conversation with them to help them understand a reality they won’t ever be able to assess through artificial and social intelligence alone.

Until that time comes, I invite you to walk away from social media with me and return to building real relationships with individuals, rather than feeding the beast that technology has become with more of the life-blood it needs to continue to grow and crush opposition voices: our data.

 

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SQ
Shireen Qudosi
Shireen Qudosi is Clarion Project's National Correspondent.

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