June 24, 2024

Soft Social Credit System: The Unforeseeable Outcome of the Digital Revolution

The disquieting reality lies not in the mere act of a few companies banning a news article that could have possibly altered the outcome of a presidential election, but in the sheer extent of these companies’ unbridled power — one unaccountable to anyone but themselves.

Image Credit: Andrey Denisyuk

The ascent of cancel culture and the prevalence of online mob mentality have bestowed upon tech companies the power to expel people who are accused of being bigots from their social media platforms. By leveraging tactics like mass reporting of targeted content or accounts and fomenting a substantial public outcry against alleged “bigots,” these online mobs effectively strip away those people’s rights to participate in the online sphere—examples range from the notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to the British alt-right political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. Yet, many onlookers dismissed such cases of censorship, downplaying their significance because they affected unsympathetic figures.

However, the initial collective pressure exerted by the online mobs to foster an environment where censorship and deplatforming were justifiable has not been without its unintended ramifications. In fact, this has resulted in the expansion of power granted to Big Tech, surpassing its original purview and leading to indiscriminate removals that impact people from diverse backgrounds and with varying viewpoints. It yields a profound influence on both journalists and politicians alike, shaping the narratives they choose to prioritize or overlook. It ​​assumes the authority to adjudicate who is cast as a hero or villain in contemporary news cycles and to define the parameters that delineate acceptable discourse.

The widening of semantic boundaries surrounding terms such as “disinformation,” “harm,” and “safety” by those who hold positions of power within the echelons of tech corporations has precipitated the proscription of discussions that were once commonplace in American society—like whether Covid-19 started in a market or a lab in Wuhan. This noteworthy shift signifies an unprecedented deviation from the historical norms that have defined American discourse, where the free exchange of ideas and vigorous debate regarding the source and nature of diseases—such as the Spanish flu, HIV, and even smallpox which devastated Native American populations upon the arrival of European settlers—have always been integral facets of everyday life. But with the advent of Covid, a disease that emerged during the digital era, the simple act of raising questions about its potential lab origin in China has led to unwarranted labels of conspiracy theorists or racists and online censorship.

There was a time when average Americans would kickstart their day by browsing various news outlets’ webpages to stay informed about current events. They relied on news channels to watch interviews with politicians and gain insights into their perspectives and policies. Nonetheless, the arrival of social media has drastically transformed the media landscape, turning it into an indispensable platform for democratic engagement. This transformation not only promotes a more informed citizenry but also encourages active participation in democratic processes. Reputable news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, as well as independent journalists and politicians, now utilize social media platforms to disseminate news, share information, and directly engage with the public. Subsequently, people have developed the habit of following these news outlets, journalists, and politicians on social media to access the latest information.

But what is to become of our democracy if social media users are deprived of the information and perspectives necessary to make informed decisions? How will our civic participation and political engagement be affected if Big Tech continues to hold the potential to impede them?

George Washington’s statement, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter,” remains relevant to this day. Even though he could not have foreseen the Internet, he surely understood the danger posed by a centralized force that could dictate which perspectives should be amplified and which should be curtailed. In order for a democracy to fully function, citizens need to have access to all relevant information pertaining to the topic at hand.

Those who contend that “Twitter isn’t real life” ought to reflect upon the real repercussions it imposes on our social and political lives. A notable instance is that of Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who currently serves as the representative for Georgia’s 14th District. Despite being in the middle of her 2022 midterm re-election campaign, her Twitter account was labeled with a “Do Not Amplify” marker. This specific approach falls under visibility filtering, wherein the platform intentionally diminishes the reach and prominence of content from select accounts. In turn, the visibility of the Congresswoman’s posts and her overall account is deprioritized and limited (it is worth noting that the decision to place people’s accounts on the “Do Not Amplify” or other visibility filtering methods is typically shrouded in mystery, and account owners are not informed that their accounts are being subjected to such filters).

Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Twitter account had been marked with a “Do Not Amplify” marker. Photo by Abigail Shrier.

Or consider the case of Stanford professor, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya. During the pandemic, Dr. Bhattacharya and two other medical professors wrote in an open letter voicing their worries about the US lockdown measures, specifically for children, the working class, and the poor. They advocated for “focused protection” for the most medically vulnerable and a return to normal life for the rest of society. But this stance made Dr. Bhattacharya a target of Twitter. According to The Free Press, the social media platform put his account on the Trends Blacklist—meaning his Tweets were prevented from trending regardless of how many likes or retweets received. By and by, their visibilities to users on the platform were sharply reduced.

This is indicative of how an unelected tech company is making decisions as to what the public is permitted to see and not see. They operate without transparency to sway public debates, and the process of their decision-making is awfully enigmatic. While it is impossible to know what would have happened if there hadn’t been visibility filtering, it is not futile to consider that perhaps in its absence, Covid lockdowns may have been implemented differently. And hence, there might have been less depression, less isolation, and less economic stagnation.

Twitter put Dr. Jay Bhattacharya’s account on the Trends Blacklist. Photo from The Free Press.

Another illustration of social media impact is the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop. On October 14, 2020, The New York Post published an article presenting emails from Hunter Biden’s abandoned laptop, alleging the corruption committed by the then-presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Right after the Post shared the article on Twitter, the social media platform claimed that the daily tabloid newspaper had violated its “hacked materials” policy and prevented the posting of URLs to the story. Independent journalist Matt Taibbi, who investigated thousands of Twitter’s internal documents, reported that “Twitter took extraordinary steps to suppress the story, removing links and posting warnings that it may be ‘unsafe.’ They even blocked its transmission via direct message, a tool hitherto reserved for extreme cases such as child pornography.”

Amidst the controversy, Ro Khanna, a progressive congressman representing California’s 17th District, voiced his apprehensions in an email to a Twitter executive: “In the heat of a Presidential campaign, restricting dissemination of newspaper articles (even if NY Post is far right) seems like it will invite more backlash than it will do good.” He continued, “If there is a hack of classified information or other information that could expose a serious war crime and the NYT was to publish it, I think the NYT should have that right. A journalist should not be held accountable for the illegal actions of the source unless they actively aided the hack. So to restrict the distribution of that material, especially regarding a Presidential candidate, seems unaligned with the principles of NYT v Sullivan.”

Twitter was hardly the only social media platform that did this. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted to popular podcaster Joe Rogan that Facebook also limited story visibility on its news feed related to Hunter Biden and his laptop. Whether we agree or disagree with the content on this particular laptop, the questions remain: How many people would still vote for Joe Biden if they had been exposed to the details of the story? How would the election have been affected if the story had received wider circulation?

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast.

Again, the disquieting reality lies not in the mere act of a few companies banning a news article that could have possibly altered the outcome of a presidential election, but in the sheer extent of these companies’ unbridled power—one unaccountable to anyone but themselves. The abuse of power by social media oligarchs is a cause for grave concern that goes beyond political tribes and partisan politics. At the core of it lies the problem rooted in a culture that is suffering from a dearth of transparent information and free public discourse, in addition to the lack of accountability on behalf of these powerful institutions.

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter in October 2022 and his self-proclaimed status as a “free speech absolutist” brought with it the promise of a new era for the platform that could feasibly serve as a true “digital town square” where freedom of expression would reign. It was seen as a welcome alternative to Old Twitter’s censorial prior management. Even so, it would be folly to say that Twitter is now a bastion of free speech under his leadership. Since Musk took the reins of the social media giant, a couple of things happened: In December of 2022, multiple journalists had their accounts suspended without explanation. Subsequent investigation revealed that these journalists had either reported on Musk’s controversial decision to suspend Twitter accounts that shared the locations of his and other high-profile individuals’ private planes, criticized his past conduct, or both.

On top of that, Musk has prohibited or throttled links to competitors such as Mastodon, Instagram, and more recently Substack. Then tweets related to Ukraine have been downranked on the platform, and tweets containing certain keywords such as “transgender,” “trans,” “gay,” and “bisexual” appear to have been suppressed even in direct messages. Another daunting development was the mass removal of posts promoting and discussing the “Trans Day of Vengeance” under rules that were vaguely defined and inconsistently applied.

But the most ominous of all was Twitter’s unprecedented decision to regulate accessibility to two tweets posted by Indian journalist Saurav Das. It was done so in response to a legal demand from the Indian government (but details of exactly why or which government agency demanded the removals are unknown). This action had a ripple effect globally, as the tweets were not only blocked in India but worldwide, thereby allowing a country to impose its speech restrictions on others around the globe.

Perhaps Elon Musk has inaugurated a new regime that could eventually prove to be as pernicious as its predecessor, or perhaps it will be less harmful, but nonetheless beholden to the whims of the powerful. But why have we renounced ourselves to dwell in a society where private entities have arrogated to themselves the power of government despite the fact that we never elected them? Entities that wield dominion over the 21st-century public square yet remain unburdened by any semblance of a digital First Amendment.

The ramifications of these developments extend well beyond the confines of social media, permeating into the sphere of financial platforms with substantial implications. The trend of financial de-platforming (or de-banking) began with seemingly reasonable intentions, much like the censorship of speech. After all, who wouldn’t want to deter far-right neo-fascist groups like the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys from crowdfunding? But once the power is granted, it metastasizes into widespread use.

For one thing, financial services with political agendas can hijack and exploit the ambiguous definition of a “hate group” to advance one side of the political narrative. Therefore, it is not surprising that the ever-increasing list of suspects has extended past the obvious ones, such as neo-Nazis and the KKK, to organizations that simply embrace conservative ideals, such as the Family Research Council, advocates for religious liberty, and groups concerned with election integrity.

The expansive redefinitions of terms such as racism, segregation, and white supremacy have facilitated the reclassification of political opponents/people with opposing political views as hate groups. The risk inherent in this approach is that it can detract from the historicity and gravity of the horrific tragedies of the past, while simultaneously normalizing and legitimizing extremist views. Instances like Joe Biden associating identification requirements for voting with the Jim Crow segregation era, or intellectuals like Ibram X. Kendi characterizing color-blindness as a form of “racism,” or the conflation of border security policies with the Great Replacement Theory and “white supremacy,” contribute to a situation where a wide range of organizations can be unfairly grouped with genuinely abhorrent ones. These over-categorizations were once confined to academic debates; however, the influence of Big Tech has transformed them into tangible and actionable measures. Ultimately, it should frighten everyone because this broad targeting means that our access to financial services, money, and the ability to conduct transactions can easily be denied if our views are deemed unacceptable by the executives who run these services.

Erik Finman is an example of someone whose views were deemed unacceptable by a power-wielding corporation. On July 18, 2021, Finman, a Bitcoin investor and entrepreneur, found out that PayPal had declared war on the startup he had launched four days before. Finman’s startup, Freedom Phone, featured an app store free from censorship and catered to users who were frustrated with Big Tech’s banning decisions. The banning of apps by the Apple App Store, such as Metadata+ which notifies users whenever there are US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, has been a well-known issue. In contrast, Freedom Phone’s app store aspired to be inclusive of all apps and would have allowed anyone to download anything, including conservative social media platform Parler which the App Store temporarily suspended, as well as Twitter, which has also faced the threat of expulsion from the App Store. As it turned out, Finman’s agenda didn’t sit well with PayPal who then barred Freedom Phone permanently from using its platform, following in the footsteps of Shopify and Amazon Pay who had taken similar approaches just days prior.

By all accounts, this is not an isolated incident. Other PayPal accounts that were suspended include Gays Against Groomers which purported to oppose “the sexualization, indoctrination and medicalization” of children, and the Free Speech Union which is a London-based organization established by social commentator Toby Young to promote free expression (although the Free Speech Union was later reinstated after a public backlash against PayPal’s apparent discriminatory stance toward certain viewpoints). In addition, PayPal also suspended the accounts of independent media outlets Consortium News and MintPress, both of which have been a source of critical reporting on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

PayPal is not alone in appointing itself the arbiter of what speech and views are acceptable, shutting people and organizations out of the online financial ecosystem for wrongthink. Visa and Mastercard garnered attention for their decision to ban WikiLeaks, a global non-profit organization that disclosed confidential information provided by anonymous sources, after the organization began publishing the contents of diplomatic cables in 2010. Likewise, Venmo came under scrutiny in 2019 after flagging and restricting a payment from a Muslim woman to her friend, which included the note “al-aqsa,” intended as reimbursement for a meal at Al-Aqsa Restaurant in the Bronx (the restaurant shares its name with the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a site that is highly revered in the Islamic faith).

More recently, Stripe and Shopify made the decision to distance themselves from any perceived association with political violence or criminal activity by halting payment processing for Donald Trump’s campaign website and taking down related stores in the wake of the January 6 riot. Even though these actions could be seen as a sensible move to mitigate potential harm to their brands, a pressing concern arises: Are financial intermediaries exceeding their bounds by taking on the responsibility of making determinations of guilt or innocence without due process? This concern carries substantial weight as debates and speculation continue to swirl regarding whether Trump’s pre-riot rally speech qualifies as incitement, particularly given his subsequent acquittal on charges of inciting the US Capitol riot during a rigorous five-day impeachment trial in the US Senate.

I have no inclination to defend truly hateful and extremist groups, but it is essential to recognize that we are dealing with an entirely different issue: the pervasive censorship of targeted individuals and organizations who convey ideas that are completely legal—albeit ones not well-received in Silicon Valley.

In the early days, it was Twitter’s former CEO Dick Costolo who claimed that the platform belonged to “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” aligning with Silicon Valley’s self-image. Online platforms, both financial services and social media, had a mission to democratize the world. The Iranian Green Revolution in 2009, the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, and the US Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 underscored the importance of digital technologies in facilitating communication, coordination, and mobilization among the protesters. Social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube enabled people to share information, organize protests, and communicate with each other in real-time, breaking down the barriers of traditional media censorship and government control. This resulted in a sense of triumphalism in the industry.

Today, however, the behavior of Silicon Valley giants is more akin to a soft social-credit system, a loosely connected constellation of influential institutions that punish dissenters of mainstream dogma and seemingly reward those who clap the loudest. In many ways, it bears a striking resemblance to China’s well-established social-credit system. Although it doesn’t openly send us to the gulag for expressing unpopular opinions, it does make our access to a range of benefits conditional upon whether or not we hold the “correct” opinions.

To stop the further degradation of our democracy under the influence of tech giants, some people in the tech industry advocate for decentralized social media, blockchain, and cryptocurrency. But the real answer lies in public policy initiatives. These enterprises often utilize the concepts of “disinformation” and “hate speech/group” as a pretext for removing content/individuals without accountability. Thus, our legislators must institute protections in our laws that safeguard the public’s right to online free speech and financial access from the monopolistic tendencies of these conglomerates. Just as Professor Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago suggested that major social media companies should be categorized as common carriers to discourage them from limiting speech, we may need to employ a similar tactic to deter online financial institutions from hindering citizens’ access to financial services because they dislike our politics. In order to defend our democracy, political beliefs may even need to be designated as a protected class under federal and state law.

Some people argue that these are private companies and, therefore, have the right to determine who can and cannot use their platforms or what content can and cannot be posted. Yet, that disingenuous argument is often invoked in a selective manner, primarily when internet conglomerates suppress speech that they disagree with. It fails to account for the larger context that, despite being privately owned, their very existence prompted the establishment of a dedicated legislative provision known as Section 230. This legal framework was devised with the explicit objective of fostering an unfettered and inclusive online sphere, affording website hosts such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook protection from legal repercussions related to user-generated content.

Section 230 was crafted under the guiding principle that these platforms should serve as virtual forums wherein everybody is able to freely articulate their thoughts, even if such expressions encompass hate speech or disinformation, without burdening the platforms with liability for the conduct of their users. But these companies frequently fall short of upholding the tenets of an open and free internet. This dilemma is aptly encapsulated by venture capitalist David Sacks, who astutely observed that “free speech has been digitized” and “the town square has been privatized and centralized.” When the Constitution was written, the Internet did not exist, and the town square was a physical location where people could gather and speak freely. That is why the First Amendment safeguarded not only freedom of speech and the press but also the right to peaceably assemble. Nowadays, however, societal interactions increasingly occur online. People congregate on social media platforms, which have massive network effects. If we are excluded from these digital town squares, to what extent do we still have freedom of speech or the right to assemble, as guaranteed by the First Amendment?

At the same time, there are also those who argue that individuals should simply create their own alternatives to these tech conglomerates, such as building their own PayPal or Facebook. Nevertheless, this idea is highly impractical as the enormous network effects and scale economies of these platforms make it nearly unfeasible to compete, eminently when the entire industry is working to block access.

Finally, the majority of people who like to advocate for imposing a digital exile on others often argue that it is necessary to curb distorted facts and fabricated stories. Yet, they tend to forget a pearl of salient wisdom drawn from the illustrious 500-year legacy of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press: truth stands as the most potent antidote to falsehoods—not censorship. This principle holds true even in the vast realm of the internet, where a wealth of information (both true and false) is readily available.

Of course, the presence of disinformation on the internet, especially with respect to pseudo-scientific evidence about Flat Earth or the superiority of a specific race, is a source of great frustration. To some, the most convenient solution would be to erase this disinformation entirely. But such effort is likely to be counterproductive, as it rarely changes the minds of those who already subscribe to these ideas. Instead, it tends to drive such disinformation underground, where it can continue to persist among like-minded communities. If something on the internet appears questionable, the best course of action for everyone is to either dispute it or disregard it.

We are at a critical juncture in the evolution of our digital society, and the decisions we make now will shape the future for generations to come. Should we continue on this trajectory, the potential for a more perilous demagogue to emerge looms large. It is my earnest plea that major tech firms cease fanning the flames of populism by curtailing people’s access to the digital public square and the contemporary web-based economy. For as history has shown us, muzzled voices and empty stomachs are the very kindling that fuels the fire of extremism that we all profess to want to eradicate. If we wish to protect our democracy, which has barely weathered the tumultuous challenges of recent years, then we must take care not to sow the seeds of further desperation among a populace that feels like they have been silenced and disenfranchised.

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