The New Censorship

One of the many causes of increased tribalism and chaos worldwide is the unprecedented nature of the information environment we inhabit. A quote from Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus is instructive–

In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information.

We are only dimly beginning to understand the nature of the threat posed by the mountains of “information” with which we are inundated. Various organizations are mounting efforts to fight that threat–to increase news literacy and control disinformation– with results that are thus far imperceptible.

The Brookings Institution has engaged in one of those efforts; it has a series on Cybersecurity and Election Interference, and in a recent report, offered four steps to “stop the spread of disinformation.” The linked report begins by making an important point about the actual targets of such disinformation.

The public discussion of disinformation often focuses on targeted candidates, without recognizing that disinformation actually targets voters. In the case of elections, actors both foreign and domestic are trying to influence whether or not you as an individual vote, and for whom to cast your ballot. The effort goes farther than elections: it is about the information on whether to vaccinate children or boycott the NFL. What started with foreign adversaries now includes domestic groups, all fighting for control over what you believe to be true.

The report also recognizes that the preservation of democratic and economic institutions in the digital era will ultimately depend on efforts to control disinformation by  government and the various platforms on which it is disseminated. Since the nature of the necessary action is not yet clear–so far as I can tell, we don’t have a clue how to accomplish this– Brookings says that the general public needs to make itself less susceptible, and its report offers four ways to accomplish that.

You’ll forgive me if I am skeptical of the ability/desire of most Americans to follow their advice, but for what it is worth, here are the steps they advocate:

Know your algorithm
Get to know your own social media feed and algorithm, because disinformation targets us based on our online behavior and our biases. Platforms cater information to you based on what you stop to read, engage with, and send to friends. This information is then accessible to advertisers and can be manipulated by those who know how to do so, in order to target you based on your past behavior. The result is we are only seeing information that an algorithm thinks we want to consume, which could be biased and distorted.

Retrain your newsfeed
Once you have gotten to know your algorithm, you can change it to start seeing other points of view. Repeatedly seek out reputable sources of information that typically cater to viewpoints different than your own, and begin to see that information occur in your newsfeed organically.

Scrutinize your news sources
Start consuming information from social media critically. Social media is more than a news digest—it is social, and it is media. We often scroll through passively, absorbing a combination of personal updates from friends and family—and if you are among the two-thirds of Americans who report consuming news on social media—you are passively scrolling through news stories as well. A more critical eye to the information in your feed and being able to look for key indicators of whether or not news is timely and accurate, such as the source and the publication date, is incredibly important.

Consider not sharing
Finally, think before you share. If you think that a “news” article seems too sensational or extreme to be true, it probably is. By not sharing, you are stopping the flow of disinformation and falsehoods from getting across to your friends and network. While the general public cannot be relied upon to solve this problem alone, it is imperative that we start doing our part to stop this phenomenon. It is time to stop waiting for someone to save us from disinformation, and to start saving ourselves.

All good advice. Why do I think the people who most need to follow it, won’t?


  1. This situation reminds me of the “frivolous lawsuits” situation in Indiana prison several years ago; a legal committee was formed to sort them out because…every law suit was required to be heard. The committee “heard” them and dismissed the ones like the one against an ice cream manufacturer who donated to a prison his fudge swirl which had less than the company’s required amount of fudge swirl. A prisoner filed a law suit due to the lack of fudge swirl. Another prisoner with back pain was told by the doctor he would best be helped by soaking his back; he filed a law suit to have a hot tub installed in his cell. Judges didn’t have to deal with these and other “frivolous lawsuits” but they were heard by the committee and legally discarded.

    The suggestions to avoid the inundation of useless or destructive information distributed via the media and social outlets on the Internet are a different matter; Republicans do agree on this part of the 1st Amendment regarding “freedom of speech”. Not only via the media and social outlets on the Internet but spewing from the mouth of their poster child Trump for “freedom of speech”, in all its lying ugly forms. We must each become a committee of one; filtering out the frivolous, useless, distorted, untrue inundation of pure crap, using the above suggestions as guidelines.

    “Freedom of speech” includes our right to ignore, dispute or delete that which we know to be against our democracy, Rule of Law and the basics of the Constitution. Oh, for a delete button to rid the air waves of Trump.

    “All good advice. Why do I think the people who most need to follow it, won’t?” Could all of those red “MAGA” ball caps be lined with foil, filtering out all intelligent media reporting? At the next Trump rally; watch the expressionless faces of those placed behind him to represent his huge number of supporters.

  2. “Why do I think the people who most need to follow it, won’t?”

    We’ve analyzed those reasons to death. If it reinforces their belief system, it’s all they need. We want the truth but only those truths which tell us we’re right.

    Google calls it customizing the user experience, so it’s not censorship — it’s technology. I don’t want my newsfeed cluttered with Fox News or gun ads.

    As long as we are market-driven, it’s “let the buyer beware.” And the buyers in the USA aren’t very bright.

  3. We should not let our local news media off the hook in this discussion. There is little if any real coverage of political and government news. To waste an hour and a half of time on local weather, crime, sports and cheer-leading the latest new brew pub all the while paying scant attention to the real sources of problems facing Indiana residents is a dereliction of journalistic duty. And don’t get me started on what passes for a newspaper in this city.

  4. In my facebook feed I have noticed that one or two people tend to share large amounts of old news. I have come to believe that they only read the headline below a photo, get angry and decide to share the photo and headline without ever reading the article to realize that the story is at least one to two years old.

    These same people consistently share “bad” news from sites that I have never heard of. I first look at the source of a story before deciding to view it or ignore it. Rather than potentially picking a fight with them about sharing fake news I have chosen to just scroll past the bogus stories that they share.

    Several months ago I thought facebook said they was going to do a better job of filtering out fake news. I noticed a change for awhile, but it seems that they have gone back to allowing anyone to post anything.

  5. The Brookings Institute should realize that those of us who are truly interested in filtering out the BS have already done it. They are, in essence, preaching to the choir. I noted a few days ago that I checked out a tweet from a young conservative friend, only to be inundated with e-mails from right-winged sites. I would block them, but I find it interesting to see just how far overboard they will go in order to tarnish the reputations of Democrats and gin up fear in their constituency. They are, in the main, reprehensible.

  6. Nancy; one problem I figured out on Facebook is that our comments do not follow posts that we “share” so it appears we are supporting the issue or the person. Fine if we are supporting it but a problem if we are against it or issuing warnings. I have received negative feedback from family and friends believing I was supporting Republican, fake religion and racist posts. Not sure what the solution to that problem is; the vast amount of time and space including all comments on all shared posts is an impossibility. I try to include specific names to receive some “shares” which has helped a little.

  7. The Internet is not the only problem. Our so called big three “News” Networks FOX, CNN, and MSDNC, are totally biased. Watching these three News Networks is like reading a Sherlock Holmes Novel. You know Sherlock will catch the criminal. The novels at least were clever in how Sherlock catches them.

    The Hosts on the Big Three Network’s have their end of story conclusion and will bring on a series of experts (just actors really with memorized lines) to back up the story. You will not find an honest assessment of Medicare for All, since the Big Three probably make billions every year airing commercials for the Health Care Industry.

    Concerning the last debate:
    “By the way, the healthcare industry will be advertising tonight on this program,” Sanders said after accusing CNN moderator Jake Tapper of deploying “a Republican talking point” against Medicare for All. “They will be advertising tonight with that talking point.”

    As Variety reported last week, CNN—which is owned by AT&T—required “a commitment of $300,000 in advertising on the network before a potential sponsor can purchase commercials within the two debate telecasts.”

    So it is not just some trolls on the Internet, we need to be beware of.

  8. This problem began when we decided that we were bored and needed pervasive and convenient screens in order to be sufficiently entertained. We didn’t want the content to cost anything because most of it frankly isn’t worth much so we agreed to have it payed for by commercial interests who then of course passed the cost back to us hidden in their prices. But, it turns out unsurpringly, the highest cost was in the brainwashing possibilities that our new habit not only allowed but promoted.

    Once those floodgates were opened in came a tsunami of advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing each indistinguishable from the others. We had slipped our heads into a noose of other interests than our own manipulating our every decision.

    The question is are we smart enough to sort the fly shit from the pepper and the answer has come back that on the average we are not.

    Now what?

  9. There is a simple “root cause” here – our terrible education system. We should be teaching “information literacy” as part of critical thinking/civic education. May I refer again (12th time??) to “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” book from the 1960’s…

    The 1st Amendment is both God and the Devil…

  10. I advocate our government require a license for every individual to drive on the Internet.

    That license would require proving skill at checking facts, navigating between fake news sites, keeping yourself out of the ditch in regard to exposing your personal information, and so on.

    The license could be suspended for violations, and fines could be assessed. Violations might include: sharing fake news, Internet rage, scamming, fake identification, no identification, etc.

    “Driving schools” would spring up. Jobs would be created. Fake news would dry up. Internet traffic cops would patrol the Internet. A whole new niche for lawyers would come to life, as would happen for insurance companies and bail bondsmen. Commercial interests, as are sixteen-wheelers, would be relegated to the slow lanes.

    After all, driving on the Internet is a privilege, not a right.

  11. There’s an easy fix to this: America’s Truth Detector. Monday- Friday, noon to three. I double dog dare you….because you’re the people that need to hear it the most, but won’t… inquiring minds want to know.

  12. It was reported that Russian bots started inundating social media with negative information about various candidates right after the Democratic debates. I really don’t understand why, if they can determine that this disinformation came from Russian bots, that they can’t stop it. Of course, “Moscow Mitch” will try to do everything possible to prevent fairness in the 2020 elections by refusing to call for a vote a bipartisan bill to fund greater election security. One provision is back-up paper ballots in those areas that only use computers. Why aren’t more people outraged over this?

    Also, just yesterday, Agent Orange called Mueller a liar. Earlier this week, he forced Dan Coats to resign because he wouldn’t lie about Russian interference, and it is widely believed that Christopher Wray is on his way out for the same reason. He will replace them with flunkies who will lie to the American people about election security. Trump can’t acknowledge the interference because that would be a tacit admission that his “victory” was fake. It’s the same reason he refuses to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. As with everything else in his life, it’s all about his ego. Narcissism above patriotism. If this isn’t treasonous, what qualifies?

  13. Add one more tool to discourage fake news — FACT CHECK., Snopes, politifacts, and others help keep us all within factual guardrails.

    I subscribe to both conservative and liberal news sources simply because I want to know what both sides are saying, and both include anecdotal outrages by the other side. However, in the age of Trump’s outrageous behaviors, it IS a challenge to keep up with what’s fact and fiction. Nevertheless, if something seems too outrageous to be true, a fact check nearly always sorts it out and puts it in context. Thanks to the internet, one doesn’t have to go physically to the library to check things out.

  14. Pete, thanks for proving my point. You must listen with your OWN ears. He’s misquoted and taken out of context ALL the time. You might just learn something that you didn’t know . Give it a try, for a week- I double dog dare you!

  15. You can double dog dare me all you want….I used to listen to “Rush” in the past. If words from his mouth are considered truth, then we are all in double dog trouble.

  16. Rush was the first Koch asset to use entertainment media as propaganda as portrayed in “1984”. The minds that he made more ignorant about our liberal democracy are legion.

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