My husband enjoys a good conspiracy theory. His favourite plot line in The X-Files (TV Series 1993–2002) involved the smoking man; he teases the children by asking them if they have considered if the moon landings were filmed in a studio, or if JFK’s shooting was a set up by some secret agency that is really in charge of America; he read and liked The Da Vinci Code (book by Dan Brown) even though he did accept that it wasn’t a great piece of literature. I am sure that he plays up to my exasperation at his random comments about news items by raising questions about hidden agenda’s and asking the children to consider wild and unsubstantiated assumptions. I am also pretty sure that he doesn’t consider this stuff to be true, and is merely enjoying playing with the idea of the existence of some sort of good or bad international power such as Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D.
Today though, I find myself wondering about conspiracy and censorship. I find myself wandering down a path that feels very much like a route to paranoia, and I am uncomfortable with my inability to know what I should think or believe. How do we know what is true when we can no longer trust the long established sources of information?
The events of the past week have brought into sharp focus the changing face of news gathering and propagation. A number of mainstream media outlets, in their race to be first with the facts, broadcast updates that subsequently turned out to be false. There has been enough comment on how this happened and why, but it got me thinking about the effect that this could have on the general public’s willingness to believe what they are told in future.
Governments rely on the fact that the public will accept as true the information published by the mainstream media; this is why they invest so much in attempting to influence what gets reported. If too many people start to look elsewhere for their news then the government will try to gain control of the alternative outlets. Popular blogs and other on line publications will become more of a threat and this will encourage governments to regulate. Regulation is more likely to be used to assist the wealthy and powerful than the general public.
This sort of speculation is not new. There are already a number of attempts to allow government agencies to look at individual’s on line activity and act if this is deemed a threat, although to whom is rarely specified. What I had not realised is that the surveillance is already in place, or should that be potentially in place? I do not know if this is paranoia or fact.
I have been following this post today: Facebook Censors Users during Media Blackout on Privatisation of the NHS | Scriptonite Daily. I read the original post yesterday and noted that yet another newsworthy story was not being reported by the mainstream media. The comments do not offer clarification; there is speculation that it is unlikely to be Facebook policy but could be an orchestrated effort by detractors to silence the story. I am left wondering if this is just more food for the Tin Foil Hat Brigade or if we should be waking up to something more insidious. For me, this is the problem. Changes that happen gradually may not be noticed until it is too late to stop them. If our freedom of speech and expression is to be curtailed then this is unlikely to be proclaimed by those who seek to silence dissent. Whatever the truth is, how can we know?
I am reluctant to blame Facebook for the way it operates. It is a free to use service and I enjoy it’s functionality. I accept that I will have little control over what I post, but would be upset if my account were deleted with no explanation. It would seem that this has happened to some people. Although I can see no reason why I should ever be affected in this way, I have a little history in this area.
For a few years now I have had an ebay account. I did not use it regularly but, from time to time, I would purchase a few low value items from the site. I have also used it to sell one item. I have a 100% positive feedback record and always paid by Paypal as soon as the bid was confirmed as successful. The item I sold was posted immediately and was received by the purchaser who gave me top marks for service.
At the end of last year my Paypal account was blocked in the middle of a purchase. No explanation was given and I could not get it unblocked. I paid for the item I had just bought by cheque (thankfully the seller was understanding), but still have no idea why the site chose to block me. It has stopped me using ebay and made me wary of how much we are at the mercy of algorithms that can go wrong. I did not default or defraud and had no known complaints against me. I have no inkling as to why this might have happened.
So what if, in the future, individuals posting news and views come under scrutiny from unknown, on line sources, be they people or algorithms? Blocking publication is as likely to be cock up as conspiracy, but will we ever be able to find out the how’s or why’s information is censored? And what if legislation is introduced, but worded in such a vague way that huge fines or worse are possible – will there be as much willingness for anyone anywhere to opine and comment?
We currently have a situation where, as Lauren Nelson over on Cogent Comment says: ‘Today, information – accurate and not – is everywhere. If you want to find a justification for spending the rest of your life trapped in a basement, you’ll find plenty of people validating the idea. If you need to feel vindicated about your choices in child raising, you’ll find whole communities on the subject, with people eager to tell you that you are correct. Anyone with an internet connection and clear voice can join important political and social debates. Refined is no longer an adjective that works in this equation. Information distribution today is more akin to a high school cafeteria food fight than the marketplace of ideas once lauded by John Stewart Mill.’
Personally, I would much prefer to be in this situation, where it is left up to me to filter what is worth listening to and what is unsubstantiated, biased ranting, than to watch the accessible media, in whatever it’s future form may be, develop into a Ministry of Truth.
I want to believe