HomeArticleCensorship By Algorithm Does Far More Damage Than Conventional Censorship

Censorship By Algorithm Does Far More Damage Than Conventional Censorship

Listen to a reading of this article:

Journalist Jonathan Cook has a new blog post out on his experience with being throttled into invisibility by Silicon Valley algorithmic suppression that will ring all too familiar for any online content creators who’ve been sufficiently critical of official western narratives over the last few years.

“My blog posts once attracted tens of thousands of shares,” Cook writes. “Then, as the algorithms tightened, it became thousands. Now, as they throttle me further, shares can often be counted in the hundreds. ‘Going viral’ is a distant memory.”

“I won’t be banned,” he adds. “I will fade incrementally, like a small star in the night sky – one among millions – gradually eclipsed as its neighbouring suns grow ever bigger and brighter. I will disappear from view so slowly you won’t even notice.”

Cook says this began after the 2016 US election, which was when a major narrative push began for Silicon Valley corporations to eliminate “fake news” from their platforms and soon saw tech executives brought before the US Senate and told that they must “quell information rebellions” and come up with a mission statement expressing their commitment to “prevent the fomenting of discord” online.

Arguably the most significant political moment in the United States since 9/11 and its immediate aftermath was when Democrats and their allied institutions concluded that Donald Trump’s election was a failure not of establishment politics but of establishment narrative control. From that point onwards, any online media creator who consistently disputes the narratives promoted by the same news outlets who’ve lied to us about every war has seen their view counts and new follows slashed.

By mid-2017 independent media outlets were already reporting across ideological lines that algorithm changes from important sources of viewership like Google had suddenly begun hiding their content from people who were searching for the subjects they reported on.

“In case anyone wants to know how Facebook suppression works – I have 330,000 followers there but they’ve stopped showing my posts to many people,” Redacted Tonight host Lee Camp tweeted in January 2018. “I used to gain 6,000 followers a week. I now gain 500 and FB unsubscribes people without their knowledge – so my total number never increases.”

I saw my own shares and view counts rapidly diminish in 2017 as well, and saw my new Facebook page follows suddenly slow to a virtual standstill. It wasn’t until I started using mailing lists and giving indie media outlets blanket permission to republish all my content that I was able to grow my audience at all.

And Silicon Valley did eventually admit that it was in fact actively censoring voices who fall outside the mainstream consensus. In order to disprove the false right-wing narrative that Google only censors rightist voices, the CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet admitted in 2020 to algorithmically throttling World Socialist Website. Last year the CEO of Google-owned YouTube acknowledged that the platform uses algorithms to elevate “authoritative sources” while suppressing “borderline content” not considered authoritative, which apparently even includes just marginally establishment-critical left-of-center voices like Kyle Kulinski. Facebook spokeswoman Lauren Svensson said in 2018 that if the platform’s fact-checkers (including the state-funded establishment narrative management firm Atlantic Council) rule that a Facebook user has been posting false news, moderators will “dramatically reduce the distribution of all of their Page-level or domain-level content on Facebook.”

People make a big deal any time a controversial famous person gets removed from a major social media platform, and rightly so; we cannot allow such brazen acts of censorship to become normalized. The goal is to normalize internet censorship on every front, and the powerful will push for that normalization to be expanded at every opportunity. Whether you dislike the controversial figure being deplatformed on a given day is entirely irrelevant; it’s not about them, it’s about expanding and normalizing internet censorship protocols on monopolistic government-tied speech platforms.

But far, far more consequential than overt censorship of individuals is censorship by algorithm. No individual being silenced does as much real-world damage to free expression and free thought as the way ideas and information which aren’t authorized by the powerful are being actively hidden from public view, while material which serves the interests of the powerful is the first thing they see in their search results. It ensures that public consciousness remains chained to the establishment narrative matrix.

It doesn’t matter that you have free speech if nobody ever hears you speak. Even in the most overtly totalitarian regimes on earth you can say whatever you want alone in a soundproof room.

That’s the biggest loophole the so-called free democracies of the western world have found in their quest to regulate online speech. By allowing these monopolistic megacorporations to become the sources everyone goes to for information (and even actively helping them along that path as in for example Google’s research grants from the CIA and NSA), it’s possible to tweak algorithms in such a way that dissident information exists online, but nobody ever sees it.

You’ve probably noticed this if you’ve tried to search YouTube for videos which don’t align with the official narratives of western governments and media lately. That search function used to work like magic; like it was reading your mind. Now it’s almost impossible to find the information you’re looking for unless you’re trying to find out what the US State Department wants you to think. It’s the same with Google searches and Facebook, and because those giant platforms dictate what information gets seen by the general public, that wild information bias toward establishment narratives bleeds into other common areas of interaction like Twitter as well.

The idea is to let most people freely share dissident ideas and information about empire, war, capitalism, authoritarianism and propaganda, but to make it increasingly difficult for them to get their content seen and heard by people, and to make their going viral altogether impossible. To avoid the loud controversies and uncomfortable public scrutiny brought on by acts of overt censorship as much as possible while silently sweeping unauthorized speech behind the curtain. To make noncompliant voices “disappear from view so slowly you won’t even notice,” as Cook put it.

The status quo is not working. Our ecosystem is dying, we appear to be rapidly approaching a high risk of direct military confrontation between nuclear-armed nations, and our world is rife with injustice, inequality, oppression and exploitation. None of this is going to change until the public begins awakening to the problems with the current status quo so we can begin organizing a mass-scale push toward healthier systems. And that’s never going to happen as long as information is locked down in the way that it is.

Whoever controls the narrative controls the world. And as more and more people get their information about what’s happening in the world from online sources, Silicon Valley algorithm manipulation has already become one of the most consequential forms of narrative control.

____________________

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Latest comments

  • It happened to me too. I just happen to run a blog and admin another one that questions authorities narratives on a daily basis too.

    https://impunitycity.com/2021/04/01/open-letter-to-a-twitter-algorhitm/

    Ice-T said it best in a song he wrote 30 years ago. To paraphrase, we got freedom of speech, but you still have to watch what you say. Always.

  • I did the same, with the bookmarks, for many years. I switched to an RSS feed aggregator (inoreader) and it’s really been nice.
    Good idea with the facebook account… I run into that a lot, someone switches their marketplace to Facebook and it freezes out those of us without accounts.

  • Caitlin Johnstone sheds light on the censorship of the big tech companies, such as Google, Facebook I. e. Critical voices such as Jonathan Cook slowly sunk into obscurity. I recognized the same phenomenon two years ago with my two blogs “between the lines”. https://betweenthelines-ludwigwatzal.com/ Even the search for the titles is futile.

  • If anyone attempts any sort of contradiction of the “official” COVID narrative on Facebook, just naming the disease immediately triggers their auto-censor bots. A tag gets put onto the post that links any reader to where they will obtain the correct, Big Pharma version. And having named the disease, Facebook censors then, apparently, scrutinize the post more carefully for any contradictory content. And if there is, indeed contradictory content, such as, for example, that the “peer reviewed” British Medical Journal has itself found its content being thwarted by Facebook censors for finding that the Pfizer “clinical trials” process for its forced COVID panacea concoction were a shoddy, corrupt scam, -and that the BMJ was actually challenging Facebook directly- then anybody posting such commentary is immediately, summarily excommunicated from Facebook, or at least will face the penalty of having its audience dumbed down, reduced, disappeared..

  • It’s junk food and junk media these days:
    ‘The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things: bread and circuses! ‘ Juvenal

  • I was recently banned from Facebook for a trivial comment that they told me violated their “community values”. It is true that I called someone a name, but it was a name that I have called idiots before and was never banned for it. Most importantly, along with being in FB jail for a month, they notified me that my posts were going to be lowered in importance. Since the majority of my posts are articles from the WSWS (and Caitlin) I am sure that they are doing this to silence news that does not come through the stenographers of the mainstream media.

  • Love you to death Caitlin, but we will never see eye to eye on this being a crime perpetrated by the state… the people gave this power over. Not overnight, but we did… the moment we said “OK to your Terms & Conditions, as long as it’s easy and I don’t need to think about what I’m signing away for this great honor of speaking freely on social networks.” We did that… never demanding any protection. Never reading what rights we were consigning over to a faceless conglomerate. Never seeking an actual guarantee legal fairness… just assuming it was ‘owed’. As a result, Net 2.0 is cooked. Owned by the oligarchs. Has been for a decade at least… what you’re seeing now is the building of apartments on Boardwalk & Park place. Take a step, you will pay, and no, there are no new properties up for sale.

    Fortunately blockchain presents a new opportunity, if we seize it before the window closes (happening orders of magnitude faster than the old web). We can own the protocol for Web 3.0 if we act now… but Meta & the rest of Big Tech are closing fast. It’s time to let the old net fall by the wayside and focus efforts on a winnable battle. What do you need to do? Start learning to code as a start… a small army of engineers will be the proletariat in the coming re-evolution.

  • AI will run more and more of our lives behind the scenes. This is simply the next step after gathering data.

  • Pity that Jonathan Cook is one of the better journalists/reporters, the same thing has happened to Craig Murray.

    He who controls the platforms controls narrative unfortunately.

    Read somewhere that the most honest and truthful journalistic website is Wikileaks, having never falsified or lied in their articles.

    • It’s true that Wikileaks has never been proven to post anything that was not true. We need a revolution to abolish capitalism and turn social media like FB into public utilities.

      • Carolyn, you hit the source of the problem with facebook. It is privately owned and you are not required to use it. Would you picket McDonalds because they would not sell you shrimp. No you would take your business elsewhere. We must do the same for the moment until it is converted to a public utility with equal access for all. Until then you either use fb with its warts and all or leave it be.

      • I think there is a lot of false content on wikileaks, witness the work of the mysterious Philip Cross (iirc the name correctly).

        • Phil Cross is more than likely a group of people that changes information on Wikipedia, and the changes almost always detrimental are allowed to stand.

  • There’s another form of censorship commonly used by Facebook. I has created a ‘News’ button, directly on accounts, that shows what they want you to see. For the most part, I hide them, or instruct them to block all’news’ from sites other than AP and a few others. After all, I do need to see some form of MSM. Otherwise, I won’t know what words to use to combat their misinformation. Facebook also gives videos that its algorithm thinks you will like and forces group recommendations on me that look nothing like anything that would interest me. I refuse all of it. I do know on which sites and with which individuals I can share what I consider to be the truth – and to not get it blocked.
    But Facebook is trying very hard to waste my time, so that I don’t have time for what I want to do. The point is that, if it ties you up with nonsense, you won’t be able to tell the truth, nor to share it. One thing it hasn’t been able to do, when I post an offering by Lee Camp or by Caity Johnstone, among others, is to prevent others I’ve targeted from seeing it.
    I’ve no doubt that it is working toward that end, while I wait for panquake dot com to be fully opened and available.

    • A much more effective solution is to simply opt out of social media.

  • Painful and probably valid analogy to algorithm ghost banning:
    .
    One prominent technique used in controlling insect populations has been to release massive numbers of sterile males into the wild so that the targeted species “believes” it is propagating itself when, in fact, it is dying out.
    .
    I recently watched RJ Eskow interview David Sirota and wrote a comment in response:
    .
    It’s a cheep thrill, but I really enjoy hearing someone in media say exactly the same things I say, even using the same phrases and logical constructs. I guess that’s how people feel about parroting corporate monopoly media narratives, too. I think we ought to examine what prevents left-ish Americans from genuine engagement with reality and their own obligations as citizens. What do they believe and value personally that stops them from organizing, from criticizing democrats who betray them once in office, from using effective but perhaps rude tactics to achieve political objectives?
    .
    There is and has been a massive industry to muffle the American public’s political voice and it now has monopoly power combined with 100% market penetration via Silicon Valley. As for narrative control, 90% of all US media are owned outright by 5 corporations and 15 oligarchs who happen to agree on and publish almost everything US State and CIA want them to. No questions. Full support as if state media.
    .
    If one day I decide to start “thinking critically” about the United States, what’s going on and what to do, I’m going to probably start searching Google and YouTube and Wikipedia for information. I’m not going to find anything challenging monopoly corporate media narratives or CIA or State. Not unless I already know some uniquely critical parts of the information to use as search terms to find more. I have to already know what’s wrong to find out what’s wrong because none of the Silicon Valley gate keepers provide easy access to thoughtful critique AT ALL. They in fact block alternate perspectives on just about everything. What they do is sell for a fee whatever their customers want sold, but as fact, as honest opinion, as information, as more real than the rest. They also purvey contempt, particularly Wikipedia, which condemns any news outlets or individuals who criticize State and CIA narratives running through corporate monopoly media.
    .
    How does a person who desires to belong and be normal, to be moral and upstanding in their community, go about thinking critically in this context? How do they arrive at truth when it is locked away and mischaracterized at industrial scale by an entire media system and government?
    .
    The bad guys have taken control over everything we’ve come to depend on as civilization in the US. It will have to collapse of its own or with some help, but either way, collapse will be necessary. If the public can bring this about peacefully, that would be ideal. I’m not optimistic, but am hopeful.

  • It’s not just narrative control. It’s a triad of information as well as life support and sanctioned violence. Most people want to have shelter and food without the threat of a police baton to the head. The big issues of ecocide and extinction take a backseat to short term survival. People don’t vote, not because of narrative suppression, but because they realize nothing short of violent revolution will change their material conditions.

  • Sitting here in shock that nearly the entire west contemplating going to war with a country that has 4000 nukes. Like a horrible nightmare I can’t wake from or watching some Outer Limits episode from years ago. So disheartening.

  • Here’s the ideal of the masters of discourse:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJymx3UjWLo
    The problem is that this echo will get extremely boring after a very short time, even for them :o)

  • “The idea is to let most people freely share dissident ideas and information about empire, war, capitalism, authoritarianism and propaganda, but to make it increasingly difficult for them to get their content seen and heard by people, and to make their going viral altogether impossible.”

    Bingo Catlin. It is popular to make the argument that a man in America can grab a soapbox stand on it and say whatever they want. We know you can’t do that in China.

    Because things are more honest there?

    Our FBI has been suppressing people for years. America only does capitalism don’t you know.

    Fascism is the glue that keeps capitalism from falling apart. America does Fascism Lite. Same great oppression but far more invisible and gentile.

    And that last part. It is true. Being confined to the dark web with all your credit cards cancelled is a lot better than being gassed. America does Fascism Lite. A cardboard box down by the railroad tracks where you can rant like a crazy man all you want is a lot better than a bunk in Auschwitz.

    I am in the dark web and have been for years. I looked behind the curtain and saw who was pulling the levers long ago. https://chasingthesquirrel.com/ And now algorithms can do the work of a million sworn homeland security agents. The American Stazi is virtual and it is now able to scale up to counter almost any threat to current arrangements.

    But you fight Fascism because it is the right thing to do. Laugh at the odds.

  • Depending on Google to reveal information that does not support the corporate narrative is a fool’s errand. What the people need is a search engine that is free of algorithmic censorship and supplied by a consortium of alternative news sources. It’s search algorithms should be in the public domain. It should also supply stats on searches on demand. From there a logical next step would be to provide a website for posting news and information that challenges the official narrative without fear of disappearing. Unfortunately for me I have no idea how to organize such a thing.

    • These technologies require investments of skill, time, and funds.
      It could possibly be crowdfunded and then privately owned.
      If it ever goes public, it will face pressure from investors to bring more income, then government regulation.
      Even if it is private, they can sue the owner and slap fines to do what they wish you to do, such as hand over user information, shut down users, and general censorship.
      Therefore, it would have to be based on some island to escape Western Gov. regulations, and not be owned by any of their citizens. Then it will be considered enemy disinformation and shut down.
      They can still shut it down via the IP address, or by someone like Microsoft not allowing your search engine to run on MS system computers.
      So you see these companies had virtually no choice but to cooperate with US Congress.
      Therefore, holding your elected politicians responsible is the only legal option. Not that it has been working so far. They even will not let term limits to be imposed on them.

  • This explains why I no longer see my newsfeed on Facebook for months now. It says “You’re all caught up now” and “Something went wrong” blaming it on a technical error. I’ve let Facebook support know on several occasions with no response. Also checked chat rooms and nothing puts it back to the way is was. I still get notifications in the side bar but if I want to see daily posts I have to click on each friend separately which is a pain. All because I occasionally post things that don’t fit the narrative. Thanks for what you do Caitlin!

    • This is happening to me all the time now. I hardly can see the majority of my friends’ posts in my newsfeed, but the amount of disgusting advertising has increased. They “target” me with pseudo-science, stuff for teenagers (I am 73), auto stuff (I do not drive), homeowner stuff (I am not a homeowner and never was) and more and more of the same. In addition, in the FB on my phone, the display and options have completely changed with no warning and there is no way to change them back. I have complained and complained, to no avail.

      • Did you ever see the black mirror episode where your likes decided where you could live, what hotel you could stay at etc. It was to make everyone toe the line and suck up to the system. In the end the only one who was free were those who ignored the entire system and lived outside the system.

  • “It doesn’t matter that you have free speech if nobody ever hears you speak. Even in the most overtly totalitarian regimes on earth you can say whatever you want alone in a soundproof room.”
     
    And after every home is soon required to have a telescreen in every room, you will no longer be able to “say whtever you want”, even “in a soundproof room”. Now, for the Elite, that is progress! If you want to “make a living” as a journalist, you’re going to have to say or write what the Elite want you to say or write. Investigative “journalism” — the most important journalism/reporting of all — will neceissarily have to be done by people who are either making a living doing something other than “journalism” (it’ll have to be a “hobby”), or done by retired people. How even these people will “publish” their work will be problematic when publishers also become controlled by the Elite.
     
    Regardless, at this moment in time here’s the most obvious, most important question of all. Just exactly WHAT, and I do mean WHAT, should people do AFTER they’re all woke up? Should they pick up a gun? Should they guillotine some VIPs? Should they march hand in hand down Penn. Ave. forever and demand, demand, demand that the Elite behave better, or else? (“or else” just exactly WHAT?!)
     
    Here’s what you are eventually going to HAVE TO DO because
     
    there. is. no. other. way. to remove 536 Rs and Ds from the federal government’s elected seats of power. (If you know of another way, please spell it out, right here, right now and, BTW, wishing upon a star, dream, dream, dreaming; hoping and praying and deep, deep, deep self-study and drug-trips are not going to do that job.)
     
    If you do not want More Of The Same that you’ve gotten after every election in the past, do not vote for another R or D, ever, no matter what an R or D promises! Jimmy Dore explains EXACTLY why.
     

    • This is not too extreme. It’s not extreme enough. We will not change the system by how we vote. Ever. That game is rigged, which is why the corporate media pour so much time and money and ink into talking about it, getting us all worked up about whether the Demublicans or the Republicrats win. Either way, the Masters of the Universe win and we lose. We need to start talking about what we could do that might actually change things. I think there are ways–but they depend on having at least a large minority onboard, which is exactly why the elite censor the means of communication.

      • “We will not change the system by how we vote. Ever.”
         
        That is demonstrably not true. Luckily, the Bolivian people were not as well brain-washed as The American People. They turned out en masse, voted for change and got it.
         
        Bolivians Return Evo Morales’s Party to Power One Year After a U.S.-Applauded Coup
        Right-wing forces cheered by the U.S. tried to destroy one of Latin America’s most vibrant democracies. Voters just restored it.

         
        https://theintercept.com/2020/10/19/bolivia-returns-evo-morales-party-to-power-one-year-after-a-u-s-applauded-coup/
         
        The true victory for the US oligarchs is that they have spent billions in the lead-up to elections to make people think that voting means nothing, and, sure enough, people think that voting means nothing. If voting meant nothing, the oligarchs would not be spending billions to make sure people vote for an R or a D when they step in a voting booth.

      • Marxists have been telling people what to do for 150 years. Overthrow capitalism!!!

    • I got rid of my television ten years ago. It is nothing but a brainwashing machine combined with a billboard for stupid advertising.

      • I have never owned a TV set in my life. I’m going to be 82 in 3 weeks. Always knew it would br dangerous to me.

  • I’m so used to Caitlin’s usual writing format — go on and on about an extremely grave and concerning topic, then do a sudden about-face right at the end, giving us a glimmer of optimism that we little humans really can change the world, so hang in there — when I read this piece, I found myself looking forward to the sunshine at the end of the gloom. When it did not come, I was left with an uneasy feeling. This is not a criticism of Caitlin, just a statement on the gravity of this topic. WE MUST FIND A WAY TO CHANGE THIS SYSTEM. WE MUST PERSEVERE.

  • Police state media. I just read Cook’s “farewell” to his readers, and though he’ll keep writing his blog he knows readership will dwindle as the almighty algorithms do their dirty work. Why anyone aware of all this keeps bothering with fucking Facebook and Twitter is beyond me. Why not just take out a full subscription to the NY Times and WaPo so you can rage against their propaganda every day? I check out Jimmy Dore on Youtube often, but it’s been next to impossible to find his most recent videos. The Tube’s search engine (owned by Google) only directs you to ones that are months and years old, often to his standup routines from 10 years ago. Anything but his scathing commentaries on Covid policy or the latest corrupt machinations by both political parties. He’ll likely be cancelled out of YouTube completely before long, along with every other anti-establishment voice.

    • jimmydorecomedy.com…..

  • Caitlin, I the last lecture on the Economic Prosperity from the Great Courses Co., the professor said that capitalist prosperity depends on order and security (of property and investments).
    It cannot tolerate dissent and disorder, and they are scared of online dissent because this is how the Arab Spring (purportedly) happened. Amazon may control much of shopping, but if people stop mindlessly buying from it, and especially stop going into debt to shop, the monopoly will suffer first and greatly.
    Therefore, they are suppressing any dissent online so their precious bubble does not collapse.
    Their false narrative is also a bubble that they build around themselves, it can pop very easily by anybody who just probes if it can be possibly right.
    I closed my FB page because their Algorithms were so annoyingly dumb, they would flag even a comment that simply did not have meaning. All I was getting is actually fake “friends” with false identities.
    One time they flagged me sharing an article which title was something like “Let’s melt all guns and send them to space”.
    Peace is dangerous because it will cut into their profits, because this is how the petro-dollar based system works. The price of the dollar is propped up by their guns.

  • There’s another thing the algorithms do. In a similar way that it takes having money to make new money, the algorithms don’t allow unknown people to break through. You can’t get your word heard unless you’re deemed worthy by the algorithms.

  • I have a curated list of RSS feeds – I unhitched from social media a few years ago. This has been put together over time from visiting sites like yours and following some of their links or maybe a list of favorite blogs/sites that they provide. Sometimes sites fall off, if they get to click bait-y or propaganda-y… this has served me pretty well. Have you thought of providing a list of sites that influences you or you think are reputable?

    Cheers

    • The World Socialist Web Site is the most reputable and reliable web page there is. It is the first place I go every single day. The Grayzone is also good and Caitlin, of course. Craig Murray is good and a staunch defender of Julian Assange. Then there is Afshin Ratansi on RT.

    • This is similar to what I have done; I use bookmarks under a specific label. Slowly built it over a few years. As it has gotten larger, can’t check all the links daily. Some are daily, others a couple times a week.

      As for Facebook, I have a private account in which I have never posted a thing, totally private. It was the only way to get current info on local farmers markets after they stopped putting them on their websites.

      Sadly, the local school district uses FB for a lot, so anyone who has kids has to have it.

  • Much too true and too many of us have experienced this insidious form of censorship. Who would have imagined prior to 1992 that it would have been the Democratic Party that led the coup against the free interchange of ideas?

    • I would have.

    • Well they were gonna use one controlled op or another to shut down free speech. But, the Democrats were used to push an extreme left narrative when it came to what constitutes ‘harmful comments’ and ‘hate speech’. The elites main one trick pony is pushing an idea they dislike to an extreme, then shutting it down with an engineered justification.

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