news


New year, same old calls for digital censorship

The ‘fact checking’ industry thinks YouTube should use them more, while some doctors think Spotify should censor other doctors.

Open letters seem to be back in fashion this year, with self-proclaimed ‘global leader in journalism’, the Poynter Institute, publishing one on behalf of ‘the world’s fact checkers’ addressed to Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube. “YouTube is allowing its platform to be weaponized by unscrupulous actors to manipulate and exploit others, and to organize and fundraise themselves,” it opens.

Inevitably the letter leans heavily on the broad and ill-defined concept of misinformation, which effectively refers to anything the person using the term disapproves of. Warming to the theme, it goes on to use other nebulous terms favoured by censors everywhere, such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘conspiracy groups’. None of these are defined, but the mere suspicion of being one is apparently grounds for draconian punishment.

To be fair to Poynter and its fellow self-appointed arbiters of the truth, they’re not proposing outright deletion of unapproved content, only that it be shadowbanned and that helpful labels superimposed to correct the record. You’ll never guess who is happy to provide the information for those labels in return for a small fee.

“We hope you will consider implementing these ideas for the public good and to make YouTube a platform that truly does its best to prevent disinformation and misinformation being weaponized against its users and society at large,” concludes the letter. “We are ready and able to help YouTube. We wish to meet with you to discuss these matters and find ways forward on a collaboration, and look forward to your response to this offer.”

We don’t know if YouTube has responded but, if it has, it will probably have done so via the more traditional private letter. Perhaps it will have thanked Poynter & co for their concern but respectfully asked how sure they can be that they, too, are never guilty of disseminating misinformation. That question is frequently asked but has yet to yield a public letter in response, to the best of our knowledge

Meanwhile a bunch of clinicians, also apparently from the US, published their own open letter, this time addressed to Swedish music streaming giant Spotify. It takes aim at the Joe Rogan podcast, published exclusively by Spotify, which, you guessed it, ‘has a concerning history of broadcasting misinformation’. The authors are worried this stuff causes harm by calling into question the credibility of their profession’s ‘guidance’.

Why are they so worried about this one show in particular? It may have something to do with the fact that Rogan commands a far bigger audience than any approved channel and that he is not subject to traditional control mechanisms. One specific recent episode, featuring a renowned virologist, seems to have triggered the letter and resulted in Poynter’s Eye of Sauron sword of truth being poynted at the guest.

“This is not only a scientific or medical concern; it is a sociological issue of devastating proportions and Spotify is responsible for allowing this activity to thrive on its platform,” concludes the letter. “We, the undersigned doctors, nurses, scientists, and educators thus call on Spotify to immediately establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform.” Presumably that policy would be informed by Poynter and its chums.

Ever since it became clear that social media probably has greater influence over the outcome of elections than the legacy media, politicians the world over have striven to find ways of controlling it in their favour. But, just as the internet genie has been out of the bottle for some time, trying to moderate social media such that only approved content is published is a game of whack-a-mole, which only totalitarian regimes such as China have any hope of winning.

Nonetheless the likes of Facebook have sought to demonstrate their willingness to participate by hiring armies of fact checkers to plaster offending content with futile labels and warnings. Just as Poynter is careful to avoid direct calls for censorship, despite that being its apparent objective, governments, regulators and platforms are trying to walk the censorship tightrope.

This is a Sisyphean task, not least because it’s very difficult to establish absolute truth on nearly anything beyond maths. Just because a person or organisation describes itself as a fact checker or an expert, that doesn’t mean they’re infallible or free from their own bias and commercial agenda. If information is power then we should be very wary of giving anyone absolute authority over its dissemination. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Polls

Do you agree public funding should be used to support mobile operators to more broadly deploy Open RAN?

Loading ... Loading ...