Is Design Censorship?

We live in a world where seemingly settled issues are being reframed. A recent, fascinating discussion on the Persuasion podcast focused on the role of social media in spreading both misinformation and what Renee DiResta, the expert being interviewed, labeled “rumors.”

As she explained, using the term “misinformation” (a use to which I plead guilty) isn’t a particularly useful way of framing  the problem we face, because so many of the things that raise people’s hackles aren’t statements of fact; they aren’t falsifiable. And even when they are, even when what was posted or asserted was demonstrably untrue, and is labeled untrue, a lot of people simply won’t believe it is false. As she says, “if you’re in Tribe A, you distrust the media of Tribe B and vice versa. And so even the attempt to correct the misinformation, when it is misinformation, is read with a particular kind of partisan valence. “Is this coming from somebody in my tribe, or is this more manipulation from the bad guys?”

If we aren’t dealing simply in factual inaccuracies or even outright lies, how should we describe the problem?

One of the more useful frameworks for what is happening today is rumors: people are spreading information that can maybe never be verified or falsified, within communities of people who really care about an issue. They spread it amongst themselves to inform their friends and neighbors. There is a kind of altruistic motivation. The platforms find their identity for them based on statistical similarity to other users. Once the network is assembled and people are put into these groups or these follower relationships, the way that information is curated is that when one person sees it, they hit that share button—it’s a rumor, they’re interested, and they want to spread it to the rest of their community. Facts are not really part of the process here. It’s like identity engagement: “this is a thing that I care about, that you should care about, too.” This is rewarmed media theory from the 1960s: the structure of the system perpetuates how the information is going to spread. Social media is just a different type of trajectory, where the audience has real power as participants. That’s something that is fundamentally different from all prior media environments. Not only can you share the rumor, but millions of people can see in aggregate the sharing of that rumor.

Her explanation of how social media algorithms work is worth quoting at length

When you pull up your Twitter feed, there’s “Trends” on the right hand side, and they’re personalized for you. And sometimes there’s a very, very small number of participants in the trend, maybe just a few hundred tweets. But it’s a nudge, it says you are going to be interested in this topic. It’s bait: go click this thing that you have engaged with before that you are probably going to be interested in, and then you will see all of the other people’s tweets about it. Then you engage. And in the act of engagement, you are perpetuating that trend.

Early on, I was paying attention to the anti-vaccine movement. I was a new mom, and I was really interested in what people were saying about this on Facebook. I was kind of horrified by it, to be totally candid. I started following some anti-vaccine groups, and then Facebook began to show me Pizzagate, and then QAnon. I had never typed in Pizzagate, and I had never typed in QAnon. But through the power of collaborative filtering, it understood that if you were an active participant in a conspiracy theory community that fundamentally distrusts the government, you are probably similar to these other people who maybe have a different flavor of the conspiracy. And the recommendation engine didn’t understand what it was doing. It was not a conscious effort. It just said: here’s an active community, you have some similarities, you should go join that active community. Let’s give you this nudge. And that is how a lot of these networks were assembled in the early and mid-2010s.

Then DiResta posed what we used to call the “sixty-four thousand dollar question:”  are changes to the design of an algorithm censorship?

Implicit in that question, of course, is another: what about the original design of an algorithm?  Those mechanisms have been designed  to respond to certain inputs in certain ways, to “nudge” the user to visit X rather than Y.  Is that censorship? And if the answer to either of those questions is “yes,” is the First Amendment implicated?

To say that we are in uncharted waters is an understatement.


  1. Wouldn’t the First Amendment be implicated only if the government were involved?

    It’s such a shame that people are so lead by, influenced by…’influencers’. “Sheeple” (I so hate that term). I do think it would be great to see algorithms lead people to GOOD (of course, who would define that?), but I think they were, first and foremost, designed to lead people to where the most money would be generated. And we already know THAT is protected ‘speech’. //eye roll//

  2. Liberals clutch their pearls and meanwhile the unwashed masses are like six year olds with assault weapons. What we are going to do about majority of humanity lacking the cognitive capacity for basic decision making seems to me to be a more fundamental issue.

  3. What does the government allow? It allows freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the government is not allowed to impinge on those rights. But also, we have the phrase “fighting words!” Words that are meant to be steeped in tumult. “Viva la revolucion?” Fighting words? One man’s fighting words could be called another man’s freedom fighting or patriotic identity.

    That’s the trouble with making judgmental decisions on what speech either by government or the general population or big businesses and big religion!

    For any institution that allows the freedom of their constituency, to lie with impunity to those who they supposedly serve and represent, as our government does, how can we expect it to be fair when it comes to truth telling!?!? Immunity to moral turpitude is immoral, no other way to say it!

    When the general population gets tired of the, “don’t do what I do do what I say,” that is the beginning of the end, civility, morals, equality, honesty and the collective conscience be damned.

    Talk talk talk, blah blah blah, don’t do what I do, do what I say! That doesn’t cut it, never has! Lying is not morally sound, it’s dishonest! But yet it is ingrained in our government and therefore part of American DNA. It starts at the top, and when the top is allowed to use deception and deceitful speech in the conduct of their perceived civil service, there is no substantiality to hitch ones wagon to. It’s like a parent who raises a really rotten child, and that rotten child turns into a rotten adult! That child learns by what it sees, it learns by what it hears, it learns by what it experiences at the hands of its deceitful and dishonest parent! So why be surprised at what’s happening now? The lunatics have been running the asylum for a long long time, it’s not what’s happening in the public today, it’s what’s been happening in government, big religion, big business, way before now! They don’t even get a drink or a kiss before they tell their lies, it’s just sport.

    Freedom to deceive should have been made illegal, not part of the essence of government that’s protected by law! Willful lying and deception should never be allowed by those who are serving and also those who are setting the examples!

    Will there be a time when dishonesty and integrity and uprightness will be the norm? Or will lying, stealing, deceit and moral turpitude continue to increase? Show concern for our fellow man, and our neighbors? Or will we look at them with doubt and suspicion? Will we be able to enjoy an atmosphere of kindness and consideration, empathy and love, or will we continue to engage in the harsh reality of anger and abusive speech?

    A society that allows its citizens to slaughter one another en masse, does not possess a moral high ground! Nor does it deserve to possess that strategic hilltop! Let’s just take a look at Watergate, or, Iran Contra! Are we supposed to accept that behavior? Well, most have, and they’ve adopted it wholeheartedly!

    This has been known for a long time, history shows that it is not a successful recipe for peace and tranquility or any sort of government in general.

    The Mosaic law contained much forceful legislation that when it was followed appropriately removed all concern of the poor and the foreign resident. These were called “Gifts Of Mercy.” Leviticus 19:19, 10 Deuteronomy 15:7-10 and 24: 19 – 21.

    Any wonder we continue to throw out the babies with the bath water, what did “General Honore say?” “We are stuck on stupid!”

  4. Both theoretical questions about censorship are interesting as they pertain to Twitter. However, they both need more context because what Musk is doing in the private realm is picking apart what was assembled in the public realm. Twitter was a publicly-held company, but it was built upon the advertiser’s model for revenue generation.

    If the social media model was about ‘public discourse,” neither the government nor the advertisers should have had a say in what users shared.

    However, the advertisers and the government had a say, which is the problem we are watching unfold on Twitter.

    What’s funny is that the “influencers” were prioritized over other algorithm users. Hollywood actors, celebrities, and corporate-owned media outlets were ALL given priority. None of them would ever be considered a check on power for the oligarchy because they have a financial interest in keeping the status quo.

    After Musk bought Twitter, he referred to it as the “Lords and Peasants” system. His remedy to fix that was charging everyone $8 for a blue verification checkmark.

    However, the blue checkmark was never a verification system. It was used by the algorithm to protect the advertisers until those with checkmarks (Trump and his ilk) would use hate speech and spread information the “Establishment” didn’t want spread.

    It wasn’t Left versus Right — it was Democratic Party versus Republican Party (political parties), which is much different.

    Once again, we are an oligarchy ruled from the top down. The oligarchy controls both political parties and the media. Twitter was supposed to be a digital equalizer, but all it did was replicate the newspaper landscape where priority was given to those who owned the media companies.

    It became digital propaganda.

  5. The second sentence in the post by Over It defines society’s problem. The trouble is, that the existing education system produced the people referred to, along with a group, whose size is largely unknown, that understands the problem. Two tribes, shouting at each other.

    I have never been “on” Twitter, so I was amazed by the statement in Sheila’s source that the material you see is tailored by the underlying algorithm, to bring things that the system has decided are amenable to you. And when “likes” becomes “likes of likes, and “likes of likes of likes,” there is no way to predict what the system will think you are amenable to.

    I’m glad I never used the system, and I, personally, will not be sorry of Elon Musk drives it completely off a cliff.

  6. It seems the algorithms are working perfectly on Elon. He retweeted right winged crap, and now has mostly the crazies in his twitter ear. Let them all post whatever they want? Why not. After all, millions of twitterers want tRump restored.

  7. Thank you, Jane, for the reminder about government and censorship
    And I have a question: Can’t those algorithms (original and modified ones both) be seen as propaganda tools also when they promote certain rumors/misinformation over others? Perhaps we can frame a more effective response thinking about the situation this way.

  8. Is the original design of the algorithm propaganda? The underlying assumption about design is that, while the operation of the algorithm isn’t intentional, it’s design (and that of the platform that enables its use) is. And at some level we need to ask for the clear distinction between editorial discretion and censorship.

  9. Is human society capable of self government? When our founders first started putting the abstraction of self government into specific words that question came into play quite a bit. Nobody really knew.

    When I was born society seemed pretty sure the answer by demonstration was a clear yes. Now eight decades later we seem to be back to “maybe” again.

    The times when we’re unsure coincide with the spread of rumors of alternatives to self government; others with outsize influence over us instead of freely elected civil servants. European men or those not born here or those without ancestral connection or minorities of all stripe or cabals of great wealth or no wealth, etc. Those therefore who escape self government and grab extraordinary influence over the rest of us.

    Maybe self government requires confidence and media which is by its very nature entertainment is capable of sowing doubt.

  10. I don’t see the design of the algorithm as censorship unless it actually blocks you from receiving certain information. As individuals, we have the freedom to choose when and where we click. We can seek information from a multitude of sources. Maybe too many sources.
    I think the problem is more about information overload than lack of cognitive ability.
    Neurologists and psychologists can help us understand why we are vulnerable to click baits based on the ways in which our brains work. Education can spread that understanding to others and make us, as individuals and as a society, less vulnerable to them. That process takes time and intent. We humans have created an environment in which change takes place so rapidly that we have increasing difficulty keeping up with it.
    Our response may be to rant and rave or to simply give up or to figure out how to cope with it.

  11. Social media poses all sorts of ‘survey’s’ to determine personal favorites, memories, etc. and uses that data to manipulate us for their advertisers and social media growth. In the case of Elon Musk, he also has a political agenda.

    The term “social engineering” was coined long before the internet, but it perfectly describes what social media does today.

  12. Some of you are missing the point…is Twitter a software platform for public discourse, or is it a social media company to make money?

    Even Twitter’s founders struggled with the ultimate question about moderation (censorship) which favored their oligarch owners and advertisers.

    What’s the age-old truism about questioning those in power?

    In our democratic republic, the roles of government and the free press were critical as checks and balances of society. I would say they failed almost immediately. We came close during FDR, but not since the first Gilded Age.

  13. It makes a great deal of sense to be skeptical of “authority” in the sense of power. It makes no sense to question “authority” in the sense of expertise.

  14. Sharon Miller: Thanks for your contributions here at Sheila’s blog. Brief and thought-provoking.

  15. Sharon, you find out who is in the position of power when you start questioning them, whether in a local community or on Twitter.

    They’ll let you know if you are questioning the ones in power.

    The founders of Twitter sold out their platform to advertisers who controlled who got to say what. The algorithm and the use of bots censored the voices.

    Supposedly, Elon Musk is going to fix that. The one thing we know he has done is to lose 50% of the advertisers.

    By the way, Facebook also works with our government to censor folks and rank voices higher than others so they can “monetize” the site. The advertisers determine what they’ll tolerate. I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but to me, this is censorship.

    Stay tuned…

  16. From Jamie Stiehm, Progressive Populist, Dec. 1, 2022: ” Two blows in one night to democracy: Saudi Arabia is the second largest shareholder of Twitter.”

  17. Despite the warnings implicit in the article, the comment section is an orchestra of Tin Drums (Gunter Grass).

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