Why censorship is more dangerous than fake news & extremists

Censors are a bigger threat to humanity than extremists, as they undermine the system from within. Democracies can’t survive without free speech and human progress depends on controversial ideas. Unfortunately, humanity seems to have forgotten this lesson and authoritarian instincts have been resurfacing.There is a worrying tendency towards silencing people instead of making them accountable for what they say. Every month, millions of social media posts and comments are deleted without any transparency. We owe it to the next generations to fight for the freedom of speech just as our ancestors once did for us.

Traditional media sources have experienced significant reader loss, and there has been a shift towards social media. The share of adults who use social media as source of news has increased dramatically. In some countries like Greece and South Africa more than 70% of the population inform themselves from these channels.  In less enthusiastic countries like Germany or UK this figure closer to 40% but has been increasing. Trust in the quality of news provided by social media remains modest, but that does not stop people from using it. [1]

As social media’s importance as a news provider increased, the pressure on those platforms to police their content has also risen. At first, it was authoritarian governments who aimed to control dissidents. Countries like China were able to create huge censorship machines and can now easily block any content.

Initially, content on US-based social media platforms was shared relatively freely and there was hardly any oversight. Deleting posts or blocking users was rather difficult. This was one of the reasons why China prevented US social media companies from operating inside the country. However, as terrorists, extremists and cyberbullies established their presence on social media, this free environment started to become a problem.

Pressured by authorities and consumers, social media companies were forced to implement self-censorship measures. First, they started with software-based solutions but when that proved to be insufficient, they hired armies of censors. As of 2020 Facebook was employing 15’000 “moderators” to manually check posts. The amount of content taken out of the platforms exploded. For instance, YouTube in 2019 (owned by google) alone removed over 10 million videos in just one quarter and deleted 2.1billion comments. Other platforms like Twitter or even Tiktok are removing millions of content every month. [2]

Pressure from both government and individuals continue to grow. In 2019 google received 30’00 requests to remove content, Twitter close to 40’000. Governments all around the world have started to pass strict regulations to control social media content. For instance, Germany has a new law that requires social media companies to take out illegal content within 24 hours or be punished with fines up to €50m. [3]

Initially the focus was on protecting the public from terrorism or hate speech, but the current discussion is dominated by the “Fake news” phenomenon. Extremists have used fabricated news like conspiracy theories to spread hatred and undermine democratic institutions. More recently, populist politicians discovered social media as an effective propaganda channel and developed a taste for sharing questionable news. Following their global electorate successes media reports started highlighting the impact of fake news on election results.  

Is social media really behind the success of populists?

According to this theory, masses are manipulated on social media, making them vote for anti-democratic politicians. Fake news is promoted by bots or communicated using paid advertising. It was even claimed that the 2016 US election win by Trump was the result of targeted advertisings based on the evil genius of a company called Cambridge Analytics, and fake news spread by Russian bots.

Social media companies were heavily criticized for their supposed role in these election results. They were accused of financially profiting from the distribution of fake news. At least partially as result of these pressures, Twitter banned all political ads, and Facebook also implemented ad-hoc bans. In addition to restricting ads, Twitter also started labelling political content as factually inaccurate, a policy which was often used for Donald Trump’s posts.

Soon it went beyond controlling politicians’ statements, Twitter even went as far as blocking the distribution of an article by the reputable Washington Post. The Post had published an article about the son of Joe Biden and Twitter stopped its users sharing the link by marking it as being potentially unsafe. The company later announced that they had blocked the content since the Post article was based on hacked private content which was against their internal guidelines. [4] Basically, a social media company was claiming to have higher ethical standards than a traditional newspaper.

How do you differentiate fact from fake?

The covid-19 pandemic expanded the reach of social media censorships even further. In April 2020 during the first phase of the pandemic Facebook, Twitter and YouTube issued a joint statement declaring their intention to fight “fraud and misinformation about the virus” and promote “authoritative content” (authoritative!).  Consequently, they started adding warning labels or even removing content that was contradicting national health authorities or the WHO. [5]

The problem in this case was that, at such early stage of the pandemic, scientific knowledge was limited, and had to be updated constantly. Communication was also chaotic, and sometimes even misleading.  Quite a few European health authorities announced in March that masks were unnecessary, a position which had to be corrected later. Similarly, early lab analysis had indicated that infection through surfaces was possible, but real-life tests later showed that this was highly unlikely.  

Differentiating fact from fake can be exceedingly difficult, making an overreach of social media censorship potentially harmful. For instance, vaccine-deniers are a dangerous group, and they should be actively challenged. However, it would be equally dangerous to silence all legitimate criticism of newly developed medicines, especially if they lack sufficient test data. Scientific knowledge is not like religious dogma, it needs to be updated based on new insights. We should not be shielding mainstream scientific theories from criticism.

Measures to prevent fake news can also be used to silence opposition. Social media companies are profit-oriented and will be more likely to block content than allow it. If current trends continue social media will become free of critical content which will in return help authoritarians to remain in power. In the past social media had been at the heart of pro-democracy movements, in the future this will be much less likely.

Even banning certain forms of hate speech or conspiracy theories is less straightforward than it seems. A recent study published by the renowned Nature magazine suggests that banning such content pushes it in more hidden places where they can flourish without any opposition. In other words, censorship might actually help extremists instead of hindering them[6] .

As seen from these examples, good intentions do not guarantee good outcomes. Measures designed to stop fake-news can have unexpectedly negative effects. In fact, they can significantly slow down human progress by obstructing the distribution of new knowledge and insights.

All great truths begin as blasphemies

Many scientific discoveries start as extreme positions and are rejected by the scientific mainstream. In Bernard Shaw’s words “All great truths begin as blasphemies” [7] Any truth that goes against conventional wisdom is resisted with all means available.

The fact that the earth revolves around the sun was rejected by most scientists of the time. Galileo was even sentenced and had to go to prison. When Louis Pasteur presented his discovery that diseases were spread by germs he was rejected by the whole medical community. Similarly, when Marshall and Warren found out that bacteria were causing cancer they were ridiculed as it was believed that bacteria could not survive in the stomach acid. [8]

If we brand ideas that challenge mainstream opinion as “fake” we risk disregarding the greatest discoveries or ideas and defaming some of the greatest minds of humanity. Even by just decreasing the reach of new ideas we would be seriously harming the spread of knowledge.

Does that mean that we should do nothing, accept fake news and live with extremist propaganda? No, our ambition should be to discredit extremists and fake news by demonstrating the superiority of our opinions with facts. Social media platforms can help this process by providing space for fact-checking, and reasonable criticism.

How do we fight fake news and propaganda?

Early research show that fact-checking organizations can play a positive role in discouraging false or misleading claims. Independent fact-checkers can assess the accuracy of data and point out to inaccuracies and identify errors. US organizations such as FactCheck.org rose into prominence by analysing political claims during presidential elections. For instance, during the 2012 election the Obama camp claimed that presidential candidate Mitt Romney was involved in outsourcing American jobs overseas. FactCheck.org proved that this was false as Romney had already left Bain Capital when these outsourcings took place. [9] Such independent analysis can “discourage politicians from spreading false or misleading claims.” [10]

Social media companies can help this process by increasing the visibility of fact-checker findings. For instance, they can add fact-checker spaces under popular posts. This would make it much easier to assess the credibility of shared content. It could also force authors to be more careful with their claims.

Governments can use the same mechanism to correct misleading information about state activities. Social media companies could let public institutions publish statements under the original post. This would allow them to set things straight without giving the impression that they have something to hide.

Traditional newspapers should also provide space for corrections and criticism on their websites. There is no reason why they should be less scrutinized than social media channels. The availability of such scrutiny can motivate journalists to provide more balanced accounts of events.

These examples show that it is possible to increase the quality of content on the internet without using totalitarian methods. The internet needs more supervision, but not in form of censorship. Controversial content should be challenged, not banned. We need to establish a discussion and fact-checking culture. This will allow us to effectively fight misinformation while still remaining open to new ideas.

Dogmatic and oppressive thinking is on the rise

Openness is also absolutely essential for democracy and human progress, making the most fanatic proponents of censorships a great threat to humanity.  These people have fixed opinions, believing to be the ultimate holders of truths. Their overwhelming desire to silence people is a sign of intellectual arrogance paired with a fundamental lack of self-confidence. They can be found on both the right and left political spectrum, sharing the same totalitarian instincts. Their spiritual ancestors were instrumental in perverting noble socialist ideals into brutal communist dictatorships and building short-lived fascist empires.

We need to expose these anti-democratic forces and prevent them from undermining our democracies. They are currently using extremists as an excuse for establishing a censorship machine that they can use against all opponents. It is rather clear that this way leads to intellectual totalitarianism which will at best decrease the pace of human progress and at worst end up in miserable dictatorships.

At this point we also need to ask ourselves how dogmatic and oppressive thinking has spread even among university students. It looks as if religious fanaticism has been replaced by a secular variant. Many people have very simplistic views of the world and lack the motivation to challenge their own opinions.

This is partly human nature but also the result of antiquated education systems. There might be lip service to critical thinking, yet there is way too much focus on ‘universal truths’. People are made to believe that scientific knowledge is fixed, while in reality, it is constantly updated based on new data or as a result of better methods. 

Learning is a journey, not a destination.

Schools should be training people to be comfortable with revising their opinions based on new knowledge. We need to teach people to overcome their initial defensive impulse when facing alternative views or facts. People need to understand that learning is a journey, not a destination. Instilling such a continuous learning mindset will require education system reform. This is a long run project but is also the only promising way to stop the re-emergence of dogmatic generations.

In the meantime, social media needs to be protected from the merciless assaults of censors. We can not allow ‘barbarians’ to destroy such an efficient knowledge sharing tool. Instead, we should increase the quality of content through more fact-checking and open discussions. Social media can become like a modern speaker corner, where opinions are shared but also challenged. This is also the most effective way to confront extremist opinions.

We owe it to the next generations to fight for the freedom of speech just as our ancestors once did for us. In the middle ages they demolished printing presses, today they try to censor social media. We triumphed against that backward mindset then, and we have to do so now.

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/718019/social-media-news-source/

[2] https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/10/22/social-medias-struggle-with-self-censorship

[3] https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/10/22/social-medias-struggle-with-self-censorship

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-54552101

[5] https://www.embopress.org/doi/full/10.15252/embr.202051420

[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2020/10/25/social-censorship-should-social-medias-policy-be-free-speech/?sh=3f167907489a

[7] https://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/6-world-changing-ideas-that-were-originally-rejected.html

[8] https://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/6-world-changing-ideas-that-were-originally-rejected.html

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FactCheck.org

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fact-checking

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