There is a line I keep seeing repeated on social media. It goes something like this: “They are allowed to decide what is acceptable to post and what is not. It’s free, after all.” Things like that may make snappy and snarky comebacks to people complaining about internet censorship. Only it isn’t true. Not by a long shot.
Facebook, Twitter, and virtually every other social media company make billions of dollars off our personal information. Some of that information is freely given by us, most is not. Carefully crafted algorithms capture and bundle our mundane or most intimate details and sell them to advertising agencies and political public relations firms, who then attempt to manipulate our fears, desires, pleasures and prejudices to sell us a product or influence our way of thinking about an issue.
These social media giants hold a monopoly on what has become the commons for humanity. A place traditionally available to everyone in the community. They have privatized these commons and operate them without any oversight, no requirement for hearing and responding to complaints, and no democratic process.
This may sound like I am plugging for the supposed Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. I am not. I believe that Haugen is advocating for the exact opposite of what is needed. In addition to this, her access to power should be suspect. She has been given exclusive interviews by Big Media and her testimony has been welcomed before government bodies in the US, UK, and EU. She enjoys bipartisan support at a time when we are told such collaboration does not exist. Compare this with how Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning have been treated.
Haugen is celebrated by the powerful because she is no threat to them. On the contrary, she made her career from the very algorithms that filter out dissent on search platforms like Google. She also worked in counterespionage in her time at Facebook, advocating for greater “protections” in the name of American “national security.”
If one reads between the lines it becomes obvious that Haugen’s “solution” to the problem of social media tyranny is to put even more control into the hands of despotic intelligence agencies and the ruling class. If she is successful, the new social media landscape will not only see the censorship of racist, white supremacy and violent nationalism, it will effectively silence the left in its analysis, criticism and resistance to the predations of late capitalism, war and ecological destruction and all of its mechanisms of oppression.
The hard truth is that none of this will be solved under the existing structures and arrangements of power. We live in an era of expansive, technological mass surveillance, by both corporations and the corporate state. The ruling class has always used this in order to quash dissent and control thought and resistance. That much has never changed. But its scope is greater than at any other time in human history. And it will use meaningless slogans like “protecting children” or “preserving democracy” to distract the public from its increasing authoritarian overreach. Therefore, putting more tools of censorship into the hands of the few and the powerful will only ensure less democracy, not more.
But we can use our own agency to resist both corporate censorship as well as data mining. We should oppose draconian legislative actions that curtail freedom of expression and speech, or put more control into the hands of corporations or intelligence agencies and the politicians who are in their service. And we can stop repeating the lie I stated at the beginning of this essay. Social media has never been a free service for any of us. But it has certainly given a lot of advertisers, wealthy investors, intelligence agents and politicians a free ride.
Kenn Orphan December 2021