The End of Human Agency
Cancel culture represents modern day vigilante justice. Factions of society decide that a certain person’s words are detrimental enough to warrant elimination from the public eye. The most infamous example is former President Trump who has been deplatformed from mainstream social media since he left office. Tech platforms decided his rhetoric prompted the events of January 6. Trump was also under fire for spreading apparent misinformation about the pandemic.
Countries around the world have been battling similar issues. The internet has stripped States’ ability to control domestic information flow. The Islamic State displayed the strength of social media platforms in conducting global propaganda campaigns. ISIS successfully recruited tens of thousands of volunteers from at least 85 different countries, waging a war throughout the Middle East that wreaked havoc for the international community. Russia now deploys “information warfare troops” through their Internet Research Agency to sow domestic strife in democratic nations. Their objective is to hyperpolarize foreign communities, creating racial, social, and ideological barriers that deteriorate civil society. Concurrently, countries have nefarious domestic actors feeding into the political divide, which is no less problematic.
Thus the current situation constitutes the critical need to understand this new global battlefield. Previous geographical isolation is absent as the online arena provides mediums for rapid information dissemination. Any agent with a wifi connection can influence communities in different corners of the globe. States are taking aggressive actions to combat this reality. Since the pandemic, eighteen countries have passed “fake news” legislation, with Greece being the most recent on November 12, amending Article 191 of their criminal code. The law’s vague wording, similar to other states that have passed comparable laws, allows it to be applied to virtually any information that is critical of government policy. Governments will undoubtedly utilize these laws to silence dissent, infringe upon human rights, and control as much of the information ecosystem as possible. In America, no laws have been enacted but public opinion is trending towards censorship. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center poll, 59% of Americans think tech companies should take steps to restrict false info online, even if it limits freedom of information. 48% believe the onus falls on the federal government.
These numbers are startling to say the least. The concept of censoring online information seems great in a vacuum. Preventing the spread of false information could have a profound impact on societal functioning. However, the problem which was previously alluded to is that “fake news” oversight requires an objective determination of fact or falsehood. In today’s information environment, such a task has become increasingly difficult. The online public sphere is clouded by ill intentioned and uninformed agents. But the answer is not censorship from tech companies or the government. Handing over society’s cognitive key to institutions solely focused on controlling the economy of attention will only create more widespread psychological dysfunction.
That same Pew Research poll found that 76% of Democrats compared to 37% of Republicans believe tech companies should censor online information. Here inlies another massive problem. Censorship is not uniformly desired and could be utilized for strategic political gain. Any institution with the ability to determine what constitutes “fake news” would control a monopoly on information. Societal knowledge would be at the whims of those in power. And how would a private company be any better? At the end of the day, unknown identities with censorship power would be deciding what information can circulate.
Real life examples of such censorship can be seen around the world. China’s government severely limits information flow via the Great Firewall and keyword blocking. Any posts with the potential to spur collective action are quickly taken down. Their public was largely blind to Peng Shuai’s disappearance for some time. Many also believe that the grave human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang are Western propaganda aimed at taking down China. Greece has recently started to jail the first people under their new Article 191 fake news legislation. Its vague language can be applied to virtually any critical comment about the government. Human rights advocates are raising concerns over its potential ability to stifle dissenting opinions.
Is this what the American public wants? The ease at which Greece could fall into an authoritarian state resembling China is the ease at which the United States could fall into Greece’s position. A democratic state slides towards authoritarianism when opposing viewpoints are shielded from society. Cancel culture encompasses the first step in that direction. America has become willing to deplatform ideas that do not conform to the socially approved cognitive roadmap. Ideologies are not canceled through mass social shunning. This action simply prompts further radicalization and polarization. Minds are won through discourse and fact-based reason. We need to promote debate and the exchange of ideas rather than deplatforming and cancel culture. We currently foster a community thinking in lockstep, completely at the behest of those in power. If we continue to force differing viewpoints out of societal consciousness, we will streamline social thought to a point where human agency is lost.