Censorship lacks epistemic grounding

Censorship lacks epistemic grounding

TL;DR: today’s censorship enthusiasts can’t know what’s true or not when dealing with complex systems, which should make them more cautious before reaching for their black markers.

Earlier this summer, Slovakia’s current president warned that “Russian narratives find fertile ground” 1 in her country. In France, there are claims of an extensive “Russian disinformation campaign” 2 that undermines “the conditions for democratic debate.” Within the European Commission, there are concerns about the potential rise of “pro-Russian” politicians to power in countries like Austria and Slovakia, a situation that could offer Putin “a powerful tool” against Ukraine 3 . “Such an outcome would be a catastrophe”, we are told. In the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, there are worries that AI will further pollute the information environment.

In light of such concerns, it is understandable that efforts are made from many angles to curtail the spread of both dis- and misinformation, and this across a wide range of issues. Disinformation refers to intentionally spread false information, while misinformation typically denotes false information spread without malicious intent. For example. the UK government is “taking steps to promote trusted news sources to tackle the spread of disinformation” 4 . EU’s new regulation will soon require “large online platforms” to quickly remove disinformation or pay enormous fines 5 . This brought to you by the same individuals responsible for creating the incredibly misguided EU cookie law…

Today’s censors may have good intentions, but their actions against dis- and misinformation risk assuming objectivity they don’t possess, and often cannot possess(!), especially when dealing with complex systems.

A society is such a complex system, as is the economy. Complex systems have emergent properties that arise due to dependencies and interactions among their parts. This makes it impossible to comprehend the whole by examining the parts. Butterfly effects is one example - small event can have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. Such a system can be compared to a thicket of blackberry bushes. Everything is entangled with everything else, and the only thing you can know for certain is that you will experience unintended consequences 6 when you reach for some berries, often painful ones.

When today’s experts or censors go on treating society as a complicated system rather than a complex one, it does not come as a surprise when they are taken aback by unintended consequences - such as the recent surge in inflation 7 . Indeed, in complex systems, solutions cannot be calculated or fully known; instead, you must experiment, and do so on a small scale. Censorship precludes this.

Meta (formerly Facebook) constantly faces pressures to censor, deplatform, and ban various individuals, organizations, and messages from various sources. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, recently stated in an interview 8 that the establishment “(…) asked for a bunch of things to be censored that, in retrospect, ended up being more debatable or true” and this occurred despite there “not being time to fully review a bunch of the scientific assumptions.” He continued by pointing out that “it really undermines trust

Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets.

– Kevin Plank

If what is considered disinformation or misinformation one day shifts to valid information the day after - as occured several times during the pandemic, the actions of our censors will erode trust in media companies, in authorities, and in all other organisation that choose - or are forced - to rely on them. This trust is a facet of social capital of great significance, particularly in times of genuine crises, and therefore should be cultivated with the utmost care.

One would thus hope that today’s censors take a thoughtful pause to reflect on whether they really can be so confident about “the facts” before reaching for their black markers. A touch of humility might even be in order, now that we know not only that censors have been found in the wrong, but that presidents 9 , and elevated professors 10 have been guilty of spreading misinformation, while others have “weaponised fear” 11 .

How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?

– Matthew 7:4-9, NIV

That is an old question that we should all be asking.

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Cover image: Photo collages and photo montages are methods of combining elements to produce a result that is different from the sum of their parts. This technique can be used to create controversy, advertise or editorialize topics. tomas castelazo. Source: Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Example_of_photo_collage_against_censorship.jpg )