It’s no secret that Google (especially via its property YouTube), Facebook, Twitter, and other big tech companies are cracking down on “misinformation” (as defined by themselves or, perhaps, by government overseers), banning people, posts, and videos that don’t conform to current orthodoxy.
Can Private Companies Be Guilty of Censorship?
This question is really a digression but it’s worth briefly addressing as someone always brings it up when you accuse Facebook, Twitter, etc. of censorship. The whole argument over whether private companies exercising their rights to control their platforms constitutes actual censorship is mostly a moot point when these platforms control so much of modern discourse. The simple rebuttal to this argument is that big tech companies are essentially monopolies that control platforms used by billions of people.
So I don’t think it’s a stretch to use words like censor and censorship in the wider sense rather than the strictly legal definition of censorship as government-enforced policy.
The Pendulum Swings Back and Forth
It’s easy for people who consider themselves rebels, radicals, resistors, libertarians, or free thinkers to feel a sense of hopelessness in the face of widespread crackdowns. The fear is that we may be heading to a point where alternative information becomes completely unavailable and, like the all-powerful state in 1984, the powers that be (however you conceive of them) literally control the flow of information 100%. At this point, there is no more hope for freedom.
While I can fall into this type of pessimism myself at times, I think the reality is far more complicated and, ultimately, hopeful. I see hope in the eternal pendulum of history, where a movement in one direction tends to produce an opposing force. A popular quote, found in numerous memes lately, says:
“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.”
I’ve seen this numerous times but had no idea where it came from so I looked it up and found it’s from a post-apocalyptic book called Those Who Remain, by G. Michael Hopf. This sentiment, which upholds a macho, Spartan view of life, contains at least a grain of truth, even if modern societies aren’t dominated by the traditional “strong men” of tribal eras. It seems intuitively true that too much ease and comfort take away our edge and make us weaker while tougher times force us to be more resilient. You don’t have to interpret this in the macho sense of the original quote, as strength can mean creativity and flexibility as well as brute force.
The basic philosophy of this principle can be restated in a number of ways. How about this variation:
“Oppressive times create people who value freedom. Freedom lovers create a freer society. A free society creates people who take freedom for granted, leading to the erosion of freedom.”
This may not be as catchy as Hopf’s quote, but it’s more applicable to issues such as censorship and freedom of expression. My main hypothesis is that too much censorship causes an imbalance, making the pendulum swing in the other direction, towards freedom.
Does Censorship Spark Skepticism and Resistance?
I came across an interesting study of censorship in 1989 East Germany, the period right before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
One of the conclusions of the authors: “We argue that censorship may cause mass disapproval for censoring regimes. In particular, we expect that censorship backfires when citizens can falsify media content through alternative sources of information.”
A related point is that widespread censorship makes people inherently skeptical of official sources of information. This is inevitable. How can you trust a statement or policy when it’s not even permissible to question it or to state an opposing view? In this manner, official proclamations, whether they come from politicians, journalists, or anointed “experts” in any field, become propaganda by definition, even if they are otherwise harmless or unquestionable.
In this study on East Germany, the qualification is added that censorship backfires especially when citizens have access to alternative sources of information. We might postulate, what if such alternatives are successfully shut down or suppressed?
Complete suppression seems unlikely. Some of the most pessimistic voices in radical and alternative media worry that “they” will shut down the internet one day. They might, but the internet is how they broadcast the messages, norms, laws, and beliefs they want us to conform to. So, unless the goal is to generate chaos, there wouldn’t seem to be much incentive to do this.
An all-powerful authoritarian regime such as Orwell conceived in 1984 is an abstraction. A pure dystopia is just as mythical as a utopia where all problems have been vanquished. There will always be ways to express dissent, even if we have to go back to printing radical zines or defacing walls with subversive graffiti.
As the study of East Germany suggests, increased restriction leads to greater suspicion of and resentment of authority. Another important finding from the study: “censoring practices by East German state media resonated poorly with the audience—irrespective of the respondents’ ideological ties to the regime.” In other words, censorship ultimately causes people to have a lower opinion of the censors, even if they may be predisposed to favor them initially.
East Germany is a useful study as it’s relatively recent and occurred in the age of TV, radio, and phones, if not the internet. Although the world wasn’t quite as connected in 1989 as it is today, people already had a sense of being global citizens and had some ability to communicate beyond the regime.
Internet Censorship in China
Of course, we have more contemporary examples of widespread censorship. The best example today is probably China, the world’s largest country and the one that most closely resembles an authoritarian dystopia. It’s also notable that China was under communist rule long before the onset of the internet age. Furthermore, it has a long history of despotic rulers and no real tradition of democracy or freedom (apart from resistance movements).
There are numerous studies of censorship in modern China. One study that is relevant to the current argument shows that censorship lowers people’s faith in the government.
As this and other studies reveal, people in China have complex, often contradictory views of censorship. Growing up under a restrictive regime, they mostly take it for granted. Yet they also have skeptical attitudes about official information and have found ways to circumvent the censors.
Even a government as monolithic and centralized as China’s cannot completely stamp out dissent. The only way to do this would be to shut out the modern world as North Korea does. As China is also striving to be a major economic power, it can’t afford to keep people completely insulated. Even the citizens of such a rigid regime are not completely brainwashed. The principle of censorship provoking a backlash may not be as pronounced in China as in Western countries (yet) but it’s still a factor.
Censorship: A Silver Lining?
As the noose is tightened, official communication starts to sound more and more like propaganda. Consider the way Twitter and Facebook try to discredit posts based on the findings of anonymous experts and fact-checkers. A statement such as “Experts and independent fact-checkers have found that the Sun rises in the East.” Even if you already agree with the statement, this framing gives it a sinister tone, making it sound less rather than more plausible.
Skepticism can easily spread beyond the groups that are naturally skeptical and rebellious. Even moderate and non-political users of social media have a certain amount of common sense and an instinctive reaction to propaganda. To see proof of this, consider the War on Drugs, one of the most extensive propaganda campaigns in America over the last half century. It’s virtually unanimous that this “war” has been a total failure. In fact, some analysts believe it’s actually made the drug problem worse.
It’s always good to see a silver lining during dark times. History has a tendency to sway back and forth. When the pendulum moves too far in one direction, the opposite tendency is already set in motion. The Yin-Yang symbol also expresses this idea, as the principle of the opposing force is contained in each polarity.
I’m not suggesting we should embrace censorship in order to facilitate rebellion. Censorship is bad, and so is the quasi-censorship of huge private companies cracking down on dissent. We should do everything possible to advocate for freedom of expression. However, it’s also good to remember that the more the forces of oppression “succeed,” the more they sow the seeds of their own destruction.