Despite an earlier perception that the current Millennium would herald a new Age of Enlightenment, with the emerging Internet as a potentially open, egalitarian platform, the ability to gain access to accurate information on which to base democracy is under attack as never before.
On the one side is the increasing ability of governments to both censor news and to manage it to their own benefit. On the other is the ability of non-state actors to create their own versions of reality that to common readers are indistinguishable from the truth. It was after all Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, who defended a false statement to the Meet the Press talking heads program by saying she had access to “alternative facts.”
At least 11 countries have taken up President Trump’s charges that the media publish “fake news,” arresting journalists, according to the US-based Poynter Institute. Some 51 countries in total have taken various steps, both benign and malign, to cast a cold eye on the press.
Chief among them is Singapore, which according to the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development and the Think Center has used its cumbersomely named “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) against politicians, a political party, journalists, alternative media websites and even a human rights legal organization based outside of Singapore.
It isn’t just state actors. Vibrant free speech across much of the world has been muzzled and controlled with new forms of bowdlerization. Although state-centered censorship has drastically changed, other forms of censorship, societal and corporate, have drastically curtailed free speech and the expression of alternative ideas. The world has entered into a dark-age of expression of opinion.
Societal censorship is an extremely powerful form of restricting free expression. So-called political correctness weaves a fabric around community assumptions, beliefs and values that stifle any views that may be seen to contrive, offend or exclude any groupings, emerging as society’s most powerful censorship tool. Once a modern center-leftist concept of politeness and respect, political correctness has become a defense mechanism to protect the sensitivities of millennials and has consequently slipped into all aspects of life through politics, media, education, science, and humor.
Now agreeing to disagree and giving any alternative views in public forums can lead to ridicule by audiences, as a conservative Australian Senator Jim Molan recently found out on Australian national television. As a short film clip shows, it is often not ideas that are rebuked, but ad hominem slurs and manipulative media are now becoming the standard tool of rebuttal in public debate.
The boundaries of political correctness can be and are being manipulated. Organizations like the Russian-funded Internet Research Agency manipulated, through social media, Ukraine and US politics, resulting in a continuing months-long scandal and divisiveness in the United States, culminating in President Trump’s impeachment, although the Senate refused to convict him
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte used social media manipulation to dominate the election that brought him to power. Social media manipulation is rife throughout most Southeast Asia nations including Cambodia, where, according to Human Rights Watch, two reporters have been jailed for writing accurate criticism of the government.
We will never know the truth behind Greta Thunberg’s rise to prominence on the world stage, due to organizations and trolls on both sides giving different versions of the truth. What we do know is that it is the media that is used to create new myths and personalities.
Today, there is no way of determining what reality is. It may have been a big problem, as many critics have pointed out, that the world’s mainstream media were controlled by white gatekeepers who decided what was and what wasn’t news. But the gatekeepers, white or not, had some dedication to responsibility, finding the truth, or at least reality, and printing it. With the Internet becoming the sole source of information and discourse for many people, the corporate sector is now the main guardian of censorship. Google has become a major global reality interface. People tend to rely on the first few pages of a Google search to take bearings on reality, an assumption totally misleading. Google’s algorithms are programmed for ranking manipulation.
This plays on the fallacy that if information is not on the first couple of pages of a Google search, it is either unimportant or doesn’t exist. Google utilizes ranking manipulation to assist governments in a non-transparent manner by filtering certain types of results which may be considered detrimental to particular sectional interests. US courts have ruled that the First Amendment protects internet companies manipulating search engines.
The internet, according to the received wisdom, was going to remove the gatekeepers – largely, in the mainstream press, middle-class Caucasian males – and give consumers of news the chance at information unfiltered. But what the world learned is that without a professional background, it is difficult to tell news from nonsense. Those white males on copy desks had a much better sense of responsibility than they have been given credit for.
Online censorship is almost totally unregulated around the western world. However, social media companies have given a scope of material they won’t allow upon their respective platforms, usually materials that would be considered offensive, obscene, indoctrinating, and overly violent. However, there are major issues concerning subjectivity of criteria, consistency and even fairness that appear unresolved with many groups within society.
This has led to the censorship of numerous political interest groups with valid points to public discussion, the outright removal of certain legitimate interest groups, and even delisting of legitimate business websites. On YouTube, much archival material relating to Nazi propaganda, including some of Hitler’s speeches have been removed, thus erasing historical record. The difference between someone researching issues of hatred and racism and someone who is promoting hatred and racism is not distinguished.
Social media has also been criticized for selective political advertising, erasing political material, and blocking people from making certain types of social and political comments, without any proper procedural redress for appeal. This is dangerous when social media has become the dominant information platform for many. Free discourse and discussion are now being overseen on a privately controlled platform, regulated by corporate overlords with no legal restriction upon how rules are formulated and applied.
The mainstream media plays a major role in what news and issues come to the forefront of community attention. News formats have evolved to opinion, advertorial and propaganda programs, dispensing opinion as fact. Journalists have become much more subservient to their editorial masters, not having either time nor budgets to conduct pure investigative journalism in the public interest. One can see the major role the media has played in shaping public opinion about climate change, Julian Assange and the war on terror. Dissenting information is left to a declining number of independent public broadcasters and the alternative media.
With many turning towards the smaller independent and alternative media as a source of information, most sites have their own editorial agendas. Many, believing that climate change is human-generated, won’t publish views to the contrary. In Europe, pro-European Union sites won’t publish articles overly critical of the EU and its workings. Many sites claiming independence are dominated or controlled by groups with specific social or political interests.
Censorship is not limited to media organizations. Individuals, companies, and organizations use defamation laws to silence critics. Caution notices are sent out to media organizations and journalists threatening to take legal action if their alleged defamation is not amended or taken off the portal, and/or apologies made. Such notices may also be used for fishing expeditions by lawyers to find out what documents a journalist might really have on an alleged abuse of power of corruption. More often than not, caution notices are used to scare and threaten costly and time-consuming court action, which small independent media portals can least afford. This is censorship by bullying a smaller party.
Another corporate censorship weapon is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which has extended the reach of US law beyond its traditional geographical jurisdiction and given copyright holders a lethal weapon against parties who allegedly breach their claimed copyright. That is, the ability to claim copyright breach directly against any individual. Further, the act enables copyright holders to force ISPs and OSPs to take down any identified alleged infringing material immediately from any internet site. However, the act doesn’t give respondents any recourse against a DMCA takedown notice before any material is taken down by the ISPs and OSPs.
The rules and procedures of this process are prescribed under section 512 of the act. ISPs and OSPs are given immunity from prosecution from both the copyright holders and respondents to takedown notices, if they strictly adhere to the takedown and counter-takedown notice procedures prescribed in Section 512. The DMCA is a lethal weapon to rid the internet of some material at its own whim, where it is almost practically impossible by a respondent to make legal claim for issuing a false takedown notice.
Governments have moved away from censorship of the offensive, obscene, indoctrinating, and overly violent, towards censorship regarding the exposure of government wrongdoing under the guise of national security. They have shown great zest in chasing whistleblowers and journalists who expose illegal government activities. Julian Assange has been charged under the US Espionage Act 1917 as a way to bypass the First Amendment, which protects journalists and publishers. The refusal to allow Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane en-route back to Bolivia over European airspace in 2013 in the belief that fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden was aboard was an act of piracy.
The bizarre witness K case where a secret trial is being held against a lawyer charged with conspiring to reveal classified information to expose a diplomatic scandal, the Australian Federal Police raid on the home of Journalist Annika Smethurst, and later the Australian Broadcasting Corporation offices looking for classified materials is showing a trend of using national security as an excuse to hinder journalists exposing the truth.
Neoliberalism is muzzling free speech. The world is becoming a place where one can no longer agree to disagree, especially online, where the anonymity of dissent can facilitate death threats so dire, accompanied by the foulest language that normally courageous people are likely to give up. We are now in a reformation period where human interaction is becoming shallow. Informed decision making is made very difficult with the bombardment of opinion. It is difficult to know what the truth is today. Our knowledge of reality is distorted. This is dangerous.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel