The Digital Prism: A Thought Experiment

I had the opportunity while driving from the airport to listen to Andreas Ekström’s TED Talk about the inherent bias in a Google search. Using the example of the multi-billion dollar company intervening with its search engine code to hide disgraceful photoshopped images of President Barrack Obama, Ekström convincingly argued that no company, if run by a human, can be unbiased. Google’s intervention into its code, however noble, represented the beliefs that Google subscribes to. But it’s that same intervention, if left unchecked, that will hinder our free speech. And I’m not talking about Big Brother.

Thought experiments are useful tools in exploring the implication of certain assumptions or when starting a dialogue with others. You may call it a mental rehearsal or visualization, but the real purpose behind a thought experiment is to lean into the possible consequences or conclusions of an idea. The following is a thought experiment that I intend to use to make my case:

Suppose you are the leader of a group that advocates insert whatever cause you are most passionate about. You have thousands of online followers and your movement is beginning to resonate around the country. Many on the opposite side of the fence call you a radical, a loony, or a bum. One night on your computer you log on to Twitter and notice that your “verified” check mark is missing on your profile. You check your blog and notice that some of your more “controversial” articles have been taken down. You do a google search of your page, and you notice that it does not show up in any of the search results listed on the first three pages.

At a time in human history where the internet is so imperative to the proliferation of ideas, the question of no one hearing the falling tree in the woods becomes relevant. The US government is limited from interfering with 1st amendment rights, but that does not tie the hands of private corporations. The ironic part is, the digital private sector has more power to suppress speech than the government ever has ever had. Facebook can cut links, it can limit the distribution of your posts, it can delete posts, it can delete accounts. Amazon can prevent the mass distribution of products. Google can ensure that ideas are buried deep within the internet under heaps of irrelevant search results.

In late September of last year, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, was recorded confronting Mark Zuckerberg about curtailing “racist” posts about Syrian refugees (See here). Divorcing this from the tempting hot-topic of refugee immigration, there are still some serious underlying free speech issues at stake. If we are to agree to the assumption that all ideas are paramount to the progress of intellectual consciousness, personal and collective, then we must submit that the protection of all ideas outweighs the damage some of those ideas may wreak in their full fruition. There is no perfect human arbiter of which ideas are acceptable and which are not, but we have given that power to individuals willingly.

In its terms and conditions, Facebook has identified hate speech and bullying as items that will be removed if reported. But who is the end all be all of what hate speech or bullying is?  Hate speech implies protected groups, but who defines which groups are protected? Does this limit criticism of those protected groups? Does this limit criticism of individuals?

Think about the possible conclusions of this thought experiment: With the power of suggestion and censorship, Facebook, if it wanted to, could choose the next president. They could exclusively promote videos for their candidate. Limit exposure to other candidates. Suppress opposing views. Inflate the perceived support for their candidate. It is a power that exists and that man has not had to deal with before. The checks and balances do not exist yet. If determined to do so, digital corporations have created an angled prism from which they can refract whatever output they desire.

As for solutions?

One idea is to establish the internet as a sort of Social Commons, where free speech is protected from private infringement by government entities. The reality is that this is a new kind of problem, and will require new ideas to solve. One thing is certain: we must keep the dialogue going.


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