Artist and author Dennis Cooper got his blog back this week. Google had suddenly removed the 14-year-old blog a few months ago without warning and had refused to answer Cooper’s repeated attempts to find out why.
After the takedown got attention “from international media outlets, a statement of support from PEN America and a petition to recover the blog,” Google finally responded to Cooper’s lawyers and agreed to give him his blog database. Why had the company removed it?
According to Cooper, someone had reported a post on DC’s Blog, which was hosted on the Google-owned Blogspot, from 10 years ago as they felt it constituted child abuse images, and Google immediately deactivated his account.
As I wrote recently, last year YouTube (owned by Google) determined that streams of live concerts from the Ojai Music Festival were violating copyright and posted ads on the streams and threatened a takedown, even though the festival was broadcasting live performances and not the recordings that Google said whose copyrights were being violated.
And last year New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz was banned by Facebook for a time for posting images that Facebook took issue with.
There are dozens of stories about artists suddenly finding themselves cut off when Facebook or Google decide their work violates terms of service.
Okay, so a few artists are inconvenienced because their work is controversial. But don’t Facebook and Google need to have some lines of unacceptability? Child porn? ISIS? Twitter recently took down 125,000 accounts it said were promoting terrorism.
Who’s Deciding What We See?
The problem is that the internet giants have consolidated into just a few massive platforms that have essentially become the web. Facebook has become the place from which hundreds of millions of people get their news, and its invisible algorithms determine who sees what. The algorithms are not passive or neutral. A change in the company’s algorithm earlier this year resulted in huge declines in traffic to traditional news sites. More seriously, if you inadvertently run afoul of the company’s mechanisms, you lose the privilege of access altogether. Get erased from Google and you’re suddenly invisible to the world, cut off from the web altogether.
And yet these platforms are controlled by private companies with their own opaque and absolute rules and no process of appeal. In 2015 the US Department of Justice opposed the merger of Time Warner and Comcast, arguing that it would reduce competition in the cable industry. Online, there is no equivalent “merger” to be blocked. Google and Facebook have already consolidated the space based on their success.
The question is: are we comfortable letting shareholder-driven companies – any private company – have absolute control over infrastructure that is increasingly essential for the functioning of civil society? Deciding who is visible and who is not? What is acceptable to say and what is not? Who has access and who doesn’t?
A Currency Of Information
One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to be concerned about how information spreads. Many political observers believe that facts don’t seem to matter in our current political climate. Au contraire. Facts matter more than they ever have, and everyone’s got their own. It’s actually not that they don’t matter – it’s that consensus on facts seems to have evanesced, leaving people to embrace truths in bubble universes that increasingly self-reinforce, validate and corroborate themselves.
These bubbles aren’t the result of gullible stupid people suddenly finding one another and getting together. They’re the result of algorithms that inflate versions of the world based on a currency not of facts or truth or importance but of raw attention. That which gets more attention is not only more valuable than that which doesn’t, it becomes, by virtue of the size of that attention a de facto truth, a fact.
Was it ever thus. Yellow journalism anyone? The media gatekeepers of yore were far from perfect and their views of the world were narrow and establishment-centric. But in the pre-Facebook world yellow journalism would eventually run into the buzz-saw of fact. In the social media era there is no longer one buzz-saw, every bubble has its own. And no newspapers, magazines, TV network or number of Politifacts, Snopes or FactCheck.orgs has the ability to arbitrate with authority. Indeed, these fact-checkers tend to merely reinforce our information bubbles.
Are these bubbles not a consequence of letting a few giant players establish a currency standard that determines the relative values of information and debate? These companies may or may not have political agendas, but they do have biases. And they have self-interests, many of which are not transparent, and some of which might not be in the public interest.
So an artist loses his blog suddenly and without warning. And when Google finally does give Dennis Cooper back the contents which he created, which he thought he owned, it faces no accountability or consequence. And that’s a problem which points to a much bigger problem. Bad enough that Google can erase an artist like Dennis Cooper. More insidious that Facebook et al have – without accountability – created a de facto currency of information and hierarchy that encourages and rewards mobs. Now the mobs are getting restless.