The Ministry of Truth and BigTech

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Meta/Facebook once proclaimed: “I don’t think that Facebook or Internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth”. But effectively that's exactly what BigTechs are: the custodians of history and arbiters of truth.
The Ministry of Truth and BigTech
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The Terror of War

Recall this picture from 1972? A flock of burned children run crying from a violent attack of napalm bombs in Vietnam. Central in the photo is nine year old Kim Phúc; she was naked because she had removed her burning clothes of the napalm fire. After photographer Nick Ut snapped the photo—later entitled The Terror of War but better known as the “Napalm girl”—for the Associated Press in 1972, the Vietnam War’s gruesome consequences became clear for the rest of the world.

Photo: Nick Ut, The Terror of War, 1972.

The image had a transformational impact on the public perception of the war. The girl’s pain was a contributing factor to the public’s growing opposition to the Vietnam War and to winding it down. The photograph earned Ut a Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and has become one of the world’s most iconic wartime photos.

Forty-four years after the bombing, in 2016, the Napalm girl image initiated an entirely different form of resistance—one that would define a turning point for Meta/Facebook. The Norwegian author Tom Egelund shared an article on Facebook about seven images that had changed the history of warfare. One of the seven photos was the Napalm girl but, since the girl was naked, it blatantly violated Facebook’s community standards and the photo was removed from Egelund’s profile. When he voiced criticism of this decision on his Facebook profile, his account was placed in temporary quarantine: it was closed down for 24 hours, during which he was unable to post content on Facebook. The action of Meta/Facebook raised a storm of disapproval and the prolonged protest had Facebook reconsider. Eventually, the platform, which otherwise systematically removed naked images, reversed its initial decision and allowed the image of the Napalm girl to remain as it is historically significant: “After hearing from our community, we looked again at how our Community Standards were applied in this case. An image of a naked child would normally be presumed to violate our Community Standards, and in some countries might even qualify as child pornography. In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time”, as reported to the Guardian.

The Custodians of History

The image of a burned Kim Phúc in Vietnam, as well as other images shot of refugee crises, starvation, or the current war in Ukraine, are stark visual testimonies. In time, they become part of our shared history and shared memory. Strong images can help focus attention, form public opinion and steer language use and global views. With social platforms and the information driven infrastructure of the digital age, these types of images may spread further and faster than ever before. It can well be that the public memory is short, but the web never forgets. For most users, the web represents an easily accessible and searchable repository of historical events, periods and zeitgeists. It is part of our common historical consciousness and an integral part of the cultural heritage of good and evil.

Social platforms play a part in writing history when the mere mention of a person is forbidden on a given platform. This was the case with the British right wing activist Tommy Robinson, whose Facebook profile with over a million followers in 2019 was not only blocked: fellow users also had their content blocked if they just mentioned his name. In George Orwell's 1984, one can risk being a “non-person,” that is written out of history. In the novel the Party refers to the proverb: 

 "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past".

If we aren’t sober and careful here and now, we may very well end up in a situation where social platforms and search engines dominate present day information, and further down the line can control future stories about what is the present and—as of!—is the past. If one controls access to information spaces, the infrastructure of the digital public sphere, including their content, both the present and the past may to significant extent be mastered—and remastered. It is on present information that we contemplate future decisions and actions, as well as rationalise, reminisce and reflect upon what has transpired.

To be the arbiter of truth means not only to be the master of what is true or false, what is misinformation, fake news or bullshit, but also to decide upon the context of a particular piece of content—whether historical, artistic, activistic, or satirical—as well as the underlying rationale for putting it into circulation. If some snippet of content appears or may be interpreted as irony or satire in a given context, then there should be room for it, but if it is interpreted as promoting hate or violence then it shouldn’t have a place. As a tech platform, while determining whether some piece of content should be allowed, you are willingly or unwillingly also in the business of context interpretation and determination of motive. While the goal of intent is to act and put the content into circulation, the motive decides the reasoning behind an action or post. But intent and motive may be functions of both context and content in circulation, as it is often only the latter that is available when weighing in on whether to allow a particular piece of material to gain traction and attention.

When social platforms are suddenly given such prominent and powerful roles and act as de facto custodians and curators of public memory and cultural heritage, it means that their community standards, terms of usage and editorial rules easily become integral parts of historiography—and that’s never without bias as American professor of media, former director of MIT Center for Civic Media and Internet activist, Ethan Zuckerman, pointedly notes: 

"Curators are great, but they're inherently biased. Curators are always making an editorial decision. Those biases have really big implications".

The platforms themselves are actually the gatekeepers and the ones who get to choose which words, images, stories and profiles deserve attention. Is the SoMe population and broader public allowed to see hunger strikes, suicide letters, self-harm, animal abuse, man breasts or scantily dressed tweens with duckfaces? These are the questions whose answers create the narratives of history and form the cultural inheritance that we as a society gather around, but which now become functions of privatised editorial practices and automated algorithm architectures. Platforms and search engines are now actively taking part in writing history, whether we or they like it or not. And if in doubt about the course of history, it is rarely the national archives or the library that we frequent first—we just Google it.

The Ministry of Truth

So where is all this taking us in the near future? One scenario is that nation states and supranational bodies simply give up and leave societal development and state administration to the private and global tech industry’s entrepreneurship and control. A corporatocracy, where monumental tech businesses control everything from democracy to finances and fix the frame, form and fixture people’s lives, self-determination, autonomy and authority. It would not bode well for democracy and the authority of people if the rule of citizens and their autonomy becomes a function of private business interests and annual business reporting. Nor do BigTech companies seem to be interested in taking on this responsibility. As expressed by Zuckerberg during the 2019 Senate hearing, safeguarding democracy is “above our pay grade”.

Another scenario has at its core what might immediately appear to be a more democratic leaning: values such as freedom of expression, assembly, religion and other democratically instilled privileges are still governed by tools of the trade gathered from the fiscal policy toolbox. Income and resource allocation or efficiency and economic stabilisation measures become means by which to control both the economy and collective spirit of society. It will provide a new legitimacy for establishing a dedicated “Ministry of Truth” in the government administration. Not as Orwell’s ministry, which at its outset is a propaganda ministry, that both falsifies historical events and defines truth. But more accurately, a ministry that continually monitors the flow of money in the new online public sphere and that intervenes with fiscal tools if necessary. This may prove especially pertinent if it turns out that the public sphere and the public debate in it may be hijacked, manipulated and twisted, sowing division and hatred by secret apps, like Tek Fog, as recent reporting seems to indicate.

The Ministry of Truth would then, with its democratic statutory power, decide where citizens and users direct their attention; what data can be harvested, analysed and sold; and how large a share of the combined free idea and financial markets private tech businesses should be allowed to own, before selling out democratic values. A democratically concocted Ministry of Truth, based on surveillance capitalism and designed to fit an information market governed by an attention economy.

This fact alone—that a state can decide or exert direct influence on where citizens can or should direct their attention and what data may be harvested and by whom—is not immediately compatible with the democratically secured rights of personal freedom. Where and how attention is allocated within the realm of the already adopted legislation, is the sole domain of citizens and users alike. Even with a new and fanciful raison d'être for merging the markets of ideas and financial products into one, the state should not have a Ministry of Truth. Nor should BigTech be left alone with the task, since it may lead to the aforementioned corporatocratic scenario. Neither of the two scenarios can be defended democratically, nor are they viable.

PODCAST: The Attention Economy with Vincent F. Hendricks and Camilla Mehlsen

Loads of stimulus, quick hits of dopamine, and no natural light: does this describe a casino or Facebook? The Danish professor of formal philosophy Vincent F. Hendricks and digital media researcher Camilla Mehlsen join to walk us through their new book The Ministry of Truth, which explore how the attention economy incentivizes social media companies to make products that wake kids up in the middle of the night and mercurially regulate speech.Initiative for Digital Pu
Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure / University of Massachusetts Amherst / July 2022

Free exchanges of opinions must not be made subject to the freedom of market mobility, as they will then have lost their freedom. The idea of putting public space in private hands is just as irreconcilable as a liberal democracy is with a Ministry of Truth. There will only be one loser: us. It may well be that too little has transpired in past decades but better late than never…the roaring 2020s is the time to mobilise individually, institutionally and ideologically to create a sustainable internet and a robust democracy—not just version 2.0, but a lasting version with staying power. That's exactly what our recently published book, The Ministry of Truth: BigTech's Influence on Facts, Feelings and Fictions is all about.

Ministry of Truth: BigTech’s Influence on Facts, Fictions and Feelings

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