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Censorship: Social Media’s Tipping Point

By Erik Kleinsmith
Associate Vice President, Intelligence StudiesNational Security & Homeland Security

Thanks to censorship, 2021 may turn out to be a watershed year in terms of the news and social media. In an environment where trust in the media has recently hit an all-time low and consumers of big tech are becoming ever-more frustrated with the business practices of collecting and selling user information, recent efforts to censor stories, publications, and even individual users may just be the trigger that will change media and the social media landscape.

For just about anyone who relies on information for their news, research or analysis, understanding and adapting to this coming change will be critical for their work going forward.

Communications Are More Persistent than Censorship

As I discussed in my previous article, censorship can take several forms to control the daily information we rely on. Instead of coming from “Big Brother” government, censorship is becoming more and more a common practice by the thousand little brothers in the commercial sector, (i.e., content publishers, tech platforms, and tech providers) who have taken it upon themselves to be the judges of what is truth or allowable debate.

However, just as censorship can be persistent in shutting down alternative voices, the need to communicate freely in our society is even more persistent. This persistence will be the main driver in the changes to the landscape of media and social media.

Historically, every act of censorship that attempts to shut down public discourse or debate has spurred counteractions and attempts to work around it. Even in the totalitarian societies of the Cold War, efforts such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe stand as a testament to alternative messaging despite an Iron Curtain of control by Communist countries.

[Related: Let’s Not Stifle One of America’s Best Foreign Policy Assets]

This anti-censorship phenomenon is akin to the Streisand Effect, a term coined in 2003 when the singer and actor Barbra Streisand attempted to ban pictures of her estate as part of a publicly available photo collection of the California coastline. Instead of being downloaded six times, the photos were subsequently downloaded 420,000 times by those who suddenly wanted to know why she was so protective of her property.

Censorship by a tech provider may initially shut down an argument or perspective on a set of issues, but in the long-term, it drives those affected by the censorship to work twice as hard to defeat it. For those who have been in what is now termed “Facebook or Twitter Jail,” shadow banned by Google or YouTube algorithms, or simply disgusted with the business practices of these platforms, there is a growing number of alternatives that are gaining users at an astonishing rate.

[Related: Shadow Banning and Astroturfing: Understanding the New War on Ideas]

Many of these newer sites have gained customers so rapidly that they have had to quickly invest in additional server space while avoiding the pitfalls of being banned from the Apple Store or shut down by Amazon Web Services.

[Related: Facebook Users Seeking Alternatives to Social Media Giant]

Censorship Is Spurring Change towards a New Media Landscape

As it now looks like there will be no efforts to curtail censorship practices over the next few years, the entire landscape of media and social media is going to change towards a much more diverse and desegregated collection of platforms and tech providers.

For anyone involved in intelligence or security analysis, or anyone who simply relies on media and social media for their research or daily awareness, this emerging landscape is going to present some challenges for them. Tackling these challenges will require changing the definition of what is a reliable source as well as changing the criteria used to rate them.

Increase the Number of Reliable Sources

The most significant effect of this emerging media landscape is that those publishers and platforms that practice censorship represent an increasingly narrow perspective. As a result, they can only be trusted to present one side of an issue. Analysts and researchers must now to turn elsewhere in order to gain a more balanced perspective.

This means that, instead of passively relying on the same standard list of media and social media sources for their daily information flow, analysts and researchers must actively seek out information from an ever-expanding number of sources. While each new source offers a more limited set of information and perspectives, collecting from a wider number of sources results in a more diverse, and therefore more comprehensive, collection of information and perspectives overall.

Broaden the Scope of Who Should Be Evaluated

In turn, those seeking a more balanced and unrestricted set of information for their analysis and research will have to take a more active role in defining who or what is a source. As published last month, more than 70% of Americans now get their news via social media platforms. Besides just evaluating and categorizing the bias and accuracy of a specific author or publisher, analysts and researchers should evaluate every platform or tech provider that plays a role in hosting or conveying information. They should include search engines, internet service providers, social media platforms, fact-checking organizations, and news aggregators or curators as part of their evaluations going forward. Evaluating an information source without evaluating how it is affected by censorship and bias along the entire path of communications will result in an incomplete assessment.

Using Censorship as a New Evaluation Criterion of our Sources

In days past, it was simply enough to rate a media source based upon a set of criteria such as bias, accuracy and veracity, but these evaluations were based on what the sources published, not on the stories they banned.

Analysts and researchers must now include a source’s propensity to censor as a significant criterion of its overall reliability. Which stories or content creators are being blocked, shadow banned, demonetized, or fact-checked to death and why? Identifying what and why censorship is taking place will not only reveal more information about those who censor, but also about the perspectives they are trying to quash in favor of their own.

Censorship doesn’t kill an argument, it just moves the market for that argument elsewhere. Voices and arguments that are shut down or banned won’t shut up, they will simply look for more fertile ground to live and grow.

Being prepared for how our information landscape is going to evolve in the coming months and years is a crucial skill in maintaining a balanced and more holistic perspective. By actively seeking information from all corners of society and critically evaluating both the information presented and censored, we can better arm ourselves in this ongoing war over ideas.  

Erik Kleinsmith is AVP in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security for AMU. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. He is a subject of the book “The Watchers” about Able Danger. He published a book, “Intelligence Operations: Understanding Data, Tools, People, and Processes.”

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