The idea behind all censorship is that you don’t know what information is good for you, so there needs to be a filter to get you the good stuff without corrupting you with bad stuff. Even when it seems like the censor just wants to hinder access to stuff that is bad for whoever runs the censor, this still is still back by the idea of “This content is bad for us, and we’re good for you, or the best part about you is your attachment to us, so what’s bad for us is bad for you.”
The filters themselves can take many forms: it can be difficult to penetrate, legally vague, and not openly discussed like the Great Firewall of China; it can be strictly enforced by duly codified and public laws, like Thailand’s lèse majesty law; it can be a total, seemingly arbitrary lockdown without even much chance to circumvent, like North Korea’s non-internet; it can be very public, very porous, and a quasi-legal code unto itself, like the MPAA’s CARA ratings, etc..
A funny thing about censors is that the more restrictive they are, the more censors’ statements about themselves will be informative. Think about it. Since CARA ratings are so porous and independent, they need to justify themselves, but the controls on what they say are loose, so they can say pretty much anything to shut their critics up. They’re free to be proper sophists about it. Whenever restrictive censors describe their work, though, you can at least be sure that the description has been through the censors. In that case, at least you can get something out of the description by reading between the lines. Metaphorically speaking, they’re giving you a picture that is really two silhouettes, each the negative of the other, and you just have to figure out which one is telling you more.
Let’s see how far we get applying this logic to a story about the ‘head of the Foreign Books Department at the Ministry of Information’ of Kuwait, who recently appeared in a story about how the Kuwaiti censors work. First principle: Ms. Dalal Al-Mutairi might well be somebody’s dog on the internet. If you google her name with ‘Kuwait’, you’ll get a co-author of a case report in the Kuwait Medical Journal, a couple of plausible Twitter accounts (that my Arabic isn’t good enough to confirm or reject), a promising, but private, Facebook profile whose profile pic depicts a woman’s mouth sewn shut (see kids: even censors make their profiles private!), and a very prolific restaurant reviewer. Is she real? Who knows? She’s hip, though, and seems to use the internet just like you and me. It’s more interesting to think about what ‘she’ tells us about the censors? First, she’s a woman. Picture right there at the top of the page. Even if she exists, is it an accident that the Kuwaiti censors gave the Kuwaiti Times a female employee to talk to? Second, she says almost nothing about the criteria used to censor material (besides citing two laws, one of which is the press freedom law, and the other seems to be kind of a DMCA that has since been repealed by another law to revoke a TV station’s license), nor about what gets through and what doesn’t. Instead, she focuses on what kind of people the censors are and the process they follow. For example, a censor is not ‘a fanatic and uneducated person’, censors are ‘the most literate people … we have read much … we read books for children, religious books, political, philosophical, scientific ones and many others.’ They go through a year and a half of training, are tested, and are tutored up the ladder of experience. There are frequent references to department heads swooping down to help swamped employees, being responsible for the censors’ assessments, and process. Lots of process. And the censors don’t even make the final judgements. They just write reports, and the final decisions are made by a committee with representatives from two different ministries. Smart, well-organized, authoritative people in a proper flowchartable system with authority and responsibility throughout. Almost nothing is said about the content being filtered out, but the filter itself is an eminently reasonable and venerable structure. It’s not even patriarchal.
But you folks are too clever to be entertained by thinking about how a Kuwaiti censor might be controlling how Kuwaitis think. That’s like asking about the size of Willy Wonka’s sugar invoice. So let’s widen the angle of the lens. DifferentFeather is a project applying to for a Knight Foundation grant, which is something like an X Prize/Kiva for media projects. DF is based on the premise that ‘The internet can exacerbate our natural tendency towards homophily’, which is to say that we’re attracted to opinions that are similar to the ones we already hold, which makes them even more extreme, which polarizes the universe and exaggerates people’s natural degree of orneriness. So they want to develop a service that will present you with opinions that mirror the ones you already have by presenting you with what your political, geographic and demographic opposite is reading (e.g. I’ll get the RSS feed of a Polynesian woman wearing diapers – could be either Pampers or Depends, since they don’t specify how to calculate the opposite of an arithmetic mean value). Sounds like something that could finally temper political discourse in the States, if not media discourse in general, if not worldwide. Finally! Who came up with this genius idea? Uh oh. 5 women from ‘LadyMafia’, GOOD Magazine, Carnevale Interactive (a firm for ‘design [not content] focused’ software), the Open Technology Initiative of the New American Foundation, and an editor for POLITICO. Sounds like the team might be a little biased towards the feminine and progressive end of the spectrum, doesn’t it? Have no fear. There is also a (male) techie from HuffPo. Phew! That was close.
So maybe DifferentFeather is a little asinine, but it’s not censorship. What’s the assumption behind all censorship? WE know what information is best for YOU, which implies that YOUR discernment is defective. DifferentFeather is making an algorithm that will give you what you need to finally think properly. Marx had a word for that defect, and Lenin had a tool to fix it. Like Kuwait’s Dept. of Info, they don’t say what they want to filter or how beyond providing the adjectives ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘opposite’ and a couple of metaphors: ‘mirror’ and ‘media diet’. However, they have analytics, multiple versions, tiered licences, customizability, and everything apps should: process. Lots of process.
Some of the meta-waters in this pool are deep. The project is being run by card-carrying progressives. Their goal is more objective thought, but they didn’t think to invite anybody from FoxNews (no relation) or the American Enterprise Institute, which could give the impression that it’s a project by progressives for progressives, and objectivity has nothing to do with it. That raises an interesting question: if censorship is the response to the idea that people’s discernment is defective, and the corrective for this defect is coming from progressives, does that mean that they are more willing to doubt their own assumptions or just that they are more ambivalent about their own beliefs (not necessarily the same thing) and more eager for someone to tell them how to think rightly? I mean, if you believe that homophily is a problem, and you have even a vague idea what the other Guy is reading, don’t you already have all the information you need to solve the problem? You need a commercial algorithm to tell you that you disagree with the article you’re currently reading? In the comments, I expect to see a clean fight, protect yourselves at all times, you’re professionals. Touch gloves.
One more thought for the sake of good humor. The Atlantic, another progressive media outlet, actually reported on this project with some detectable ambivalence. Unless the Atlantic eds. troll the Knight Foundation’s website, you can bet they heard about it from one of their peers, i.e. the project team. Now imagine that phone conversation: (Atlantic editor)”You want me to print a story about your new project that will send my traffic where? Okay, but that’s the last time you ever get to mention Bangkok around me again.”