Steve Browne

“When any government or church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, ‘This you may not read, this you must not know,’ the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives.” – Robert A Heinlein

For those of us who follow internet trends, something interesting happened last week. James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas produced video recordings and internal emails of Google executives vowing to sway the next election against Trump by manipulating their search engine algorithm.

This came after Google vigorously denied any attempts to control public opinion.

Then something even more interesting happened, the video platform Vimeo appears to have deleted Project Veritas’ account.

Then something really interesting happened, it didn’t matter. The video is available on yet another platform Bitchute.

We’ve been seeing this a lot lately. Lots of Facebook users complain about temporary bans for posting wrongthink on the social media platform, and YouTube (owned by Google) channels for gun nuts being canceled.

This prompted me to rummage through my old flash drives to find an academic paper I wrote years ago when I was a grad student in journalism and mass communication theory, about whether classical mass comm theories applied to the internet.

I thought it aged pretty well actually.

Mass communication theories fall into two broad categories: strong effect and weak effects. At the beginning of media studies back in the early 20th century we had what’s called the “magic bullet” or “hypodermic needle” theory. Media prints/broadcasts it and we believe it, period.

Problem is, researchers found very little evidence to support strong effects. People stubbornly insist on thinking for themselves.

But wait a minute! Media is everywhere, that can’t be true, can it?

In an attempt to salvage some kind of strong effects, researchers came up with theories such as Gatekeeping and Agenda Setting. Which have been summarized as, “Media isn’t very successful at telling you what to think, but is quite successful in telling you what to think about.”

The charge against Google is all about Gatekeeping and it’s the same as when we got everything from newspapers, magazines, and radio. Every news item passes through a series of gate keepers who decide what’s fit to print, or now post.

It used to be editors, now it’s search engine designers. And by the way, that video of Google’s Head of Responsible Innovation Jen Gennai, shows they are pretty up front about finding ways of telling you what to think.

But will it work?

I don’t think so, it’s just too easy to “publish” on the Internet and too hard to control the lines of communication.

There’s an old saying that freedom of the press doesn’t matter much unless you own a press. But that was back in the days when presses were expensive, and that dam began to leak when Xerox replace mimeograph machines.

Years ago in Poland I heard that back in the communist days you could get 15 years hard for possession of an unlicensed mimeograph machine.

A Chinese grad student I helped defect after Tien an Min Square told me there was precisely one copier on the University of Beijing campus, and it was kept in a locked room you had to fill out a lot of paperwork to access.

But notice something? Poland isn’t communist anymore. Total control of official media couldn’t prevent the fall of the Soviet Union, and China is finding it harder and harder to control the flow of information.

There will always be people who want to tell you what to think. That doesn’t mean you have to let them.

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