The Ministry of Truth

In a truly staggering article, Evgeny Morozov makes the case that the internet needs a Ministry of Truth:

In its early days, the Web was often imagined as a global clearinghouse—a new type of library, with the sum total of human knowledge always at our fingertips. That much has happened—but with a twist: In addition to borrowing existing items from its vast collections, we, the patrons, could also deposit our own books, pamphlets and other scribbles—with no or little quality control.

Such democratization of information-gathering—when accompanied by smart institutional and technological arrangements—has been tremendously useful, giving us Wikipedia and Twitter. But it has also spawned thousands of sites that undermine scientific consensus, overturn well-established facts, and promote conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the move toward social search may further insulate regular visitors to such sites; discovering even more links found by their equally paranoid friends will hardly enlighten them. Is it time for some kind of a quality control system?

Morozov’s solution?

The options aren’t many. One is to train our browsers to flag information that may be suspicious or disputed. Thus, every time a claim like “vaccination leads to autism” appears in our browser, that sentence would be marked in red—perhaps, also accompanied by a pop-up window advising us to check a more authoritative source. The trick here is to come up with a database of disputed claims that itself would correspond to the latest consensus in modern science—a challenging goal that projects like “Dispute Finder” are tackling head on.

The second—and not necessarily mutually exclusive—option is to nudge search engines to take more responsibility for their index and exercise a heavier curatorial control in presenting search results for issues like “global warming” or “vaccination.” Google already has a list of search queries that send most traffic to sites that trade in pseudoscience and conspiracy theories; why not treat them differently than normal queries? Thus, whenever users are presented with search results that are likely to send them to sites run by pseudoscientists or conspiracy theorists, Google may simply display a huge red banner asking users to exercise caution and check a previously generated list of authoritative resources before making up their minds.

Readers will be aware that I oppose the central planning of markets, for three reasons: the dangers of regulatory capture, the problem of unintended consequences, and most significantly the distortion of the market mechanism:

Capitalism means both successes and failures. It is a fundamentally experimental system, with a continuous feedback mechanism — the market, and ultimately profit and loss. Ideas that work are rewarded with financial success, and ideas that don’t are punished with failure. With capitalism, systems, ideas and firms that fail to produce what the market wants fail. They go bankrupt. Their assets, and their debt is liquidated.

When that mechanism is suspended by a government or central bank that thinks it knows best — and that a system that is too interconnected to fail is worth saving at any cost — the result is almost always stagnation. This is for a number of reasons — most obviously that bailouts sustain crippling debt levels, and are paid for through contractionary austerity. But it is larger than just that.

In nature, ideas and schemes that work are rewarded — and ideas and schemes that don’t work are punished. Our ancestors who correctly judged the climate, soil and rainfall and planted crops that flourished were rewarded with a bumper harvest. Those who planted the wrong crops did not get a bailout — they got a lean harvest, and were forced to either learn from their mistakes, or perish.

Precisely the same problems exist when the government steps in to centrally plan the market for ideas. The market mechanism — of good ideas that yield favourable consequences, and bad ideas that yield unfavourable ones — becomes distorted.

Regular reader FO SHO suggested that this problem does not merely affect monetary or financial markets:

Gresham’s Law — Bad money drives out good if their exchange rate is set by law.

Following the logic of Gresham’s Law, I would like to propose a couple new additional economic laws along the line of Gresham’s Law. (Forgive me if these laws already exist!)

Bliss’s Law (My last name!) — When bad economists drive out good economists due to the favour of a corrupt government and/or central bankers.

Aziz’s Law (Why not?) — When bad bankers drive out good bankers due to excessive greed and stupidity  due to bad bankers being bailed out by government.

Alas, the second point is not merely applicable to the field of economics: it is applicable to every field of ideas.

In order to get the benefits of a strong and dynamic debate, people need to be free to believe whatever they want. If their ideas are successful, they reap the rewards. If their ideas are unsuccessful, they must accept the problems.

Government  does not need to centrally plan the market of ideas by designating (in all of its wisdom) what is truth and what is not. If a lie is found to be injurious by a court of law, there is the common law precedent of  defamation. If words are used to incite hatred or promote violence or terrorism there are legal precedents and criminal laws to deal with such behaviour.

These limitations on speech are limited to preventing harm and injury.  But Morozov’s suggestions go far beyond the scope of this — while he dresses his claims up in the clothes of preventing harm, the real concern here is that he seems to believe that government ought to have a monopoly on the truth.

Giving government a monopoly on determining which ideas are valid and which are not is a dangerous precedent. It can be used to suppress dissent and dissidents. It can be used to entrench bad systems. It would entail the creation of a massive, far-reaching and costly bureaucracy, not only to monitor discussion, but to determine “truth”, and to intervene against speech that they determine to be “untruthful”.

This wouldn’t just be a disaster for the market of ideas — it would be a fiscal disaster, too.

23 thoughts on “The Ministry of Truth

  1. You are far too worried about goverrnment and not worried enough about private (NGOs) that oppose free thought. In 19th century Prussia the Minister of Education supported the development of higherr education in engineering and busiiness, the university professors opposed including these subjects in higherr education. Get the point: the government minister was much more open to new ideas than the professors. Beware of paradigm bound professors who try to muzzle new ideas..

    • You are far too worried about goverrnment and not worried enough about private (NGOs) that oppose free thought.

      Perhaps. Morozov isn’t even necessarily stipulating he wants government to do it. He seems happy with NGO action, just so long as he gets his wish: the curtailment of the free market in ideas. So you are absolutely right that we need to watch NGOs too.

      But with NGOs that enact agendas that oppose free thought, I can usually go elsewhere. If I don’t like Google or Facebook I can use something else. They don’t have a monopoly. But government does. That’s why I’m harsher on government.

  2. Actually I believe some quality control would be very useful but not just for the internet, for all of the circulating information. Even the respectable media tend to reprint/rebroadcast false information from the web. Who knows how much junk did they blast away before the we could check them out on the internet?

    However, I would envision implementation of this idea more like Wikipedia clone. Let’s say Factopedia. Minimum central planning, lax policy, only as much administration as needed and let the truer truth prevail 😉 . For example (not to go into more controvesial stuff) some celeb poses for PETA and people know she’s wearing fur all the time 😉 . You can add a claim in Factopedia, under her name, that she both supports PETA and wears animal parts. Now anyone that gets on PETA’s entry in Factopedia and studies details of their actions can check these things out. Obviously there must be a way for debunking and disputing these “facts”, one that can’t be easily maneuvered around. I guess some voting would be needed, maybe based on gmails to make it harder to flood votes down. Also no claims and no evidence should ever totally disappear. Even if sth gets completely crushed it may eventually get taken lower in the page and at some point be only visible in discussion page, but never gets erased.
    None of the issues that are seen us not solved now would be marked as solved on Factopedia by this standards. Actually even quite a lot of established things would still be considered not completely sure (so I guess it would not please Morozov). But the obvious lies, misteakes and bs could be effectively combated. You post evidence on Factopedia and even all the lazy copy-paste services can “waste” 10 seconds on checking their material up on one site!

      • You could have some algorithms to weight down votes. Say if someone wrote comments, and voted on many different issues at a long timespan, every time from the same IP (or only a few of them) his votes have more value – he’s more likely to be a human. But obviously this doesn’t plug every hole. There sure will be people registering gmails (or whatever other authorization required) by the dozen to vote down “their truths”. I guess you could get SMS phone registration to make it even harder… but these are technicalities.

        There will be some abuse that will give an edge to devoted fanatics. They will count for more than they “should”. However this doesn’t really matter that much. It would not be about “winning”. Say, if 70% votes were in favor Factopedia would still label it unclear. At 90% it would be consesus for, but still the other opinion would be listed. At 95% it would be considered a fact, with conflicting opinion visible only as reference.

        This factopedia would not “solve” climate change or any issue of real controversy. It would only weed out really obvious lies and misteakes (which can now spread with copy-paste journalism) and get a platform to get a spotlight for the evidence.

    • Piotr —

      Wikipedia, I suppose, intends to be the thing of which you speak. So does snopes, and Politifact, and a whole host of things. And we’re no nearer to “quality control”, really. I actually like the amount of “junk” that there is on the internet, so much dissension, so many differing opinions. You have to train your mind to be sceptical to everything. It becomes intellectually dishonest to turn off your brain and “trust” in one source, or one set of ideas. We’re swimming in a sea of relativism.

      • I don’t presume to “invent” this. I’ll check out the two other sites you’ve mentioned. As for the Wikipedia it puts only the supposedly objective, final version to the spotlight. For it to be “Factopedia” it would need to have reference to all the controversial parts of the text with information which of these is more likely to be true (as based on opinions, editing etc). Also it would need to have pages under each of these disputes, with all the evidence lined up and mechanisms to weight it on the site (so more convincing ones are higher, etc). These disputes can’t just be hidden in the bowels of the beast, as they are important part of it – also it doesn’t need to present an article. If it’s not “completely convinced” it should leave a white spot. There is some conceptual difference here. Though maybe there already is “Factopedia” somewhere and it just doesn’t work so well 😉 .

  3. Morosov at least twice makes references to criticisms of scientific consensus as if such scientific consensus should be treated as establish fact or truth. Such thinking is dangerous. Even theories that have long been treated as truth have later been shown not to be so, think gravity and other Newtonian concepts. The focus should be on proving such criticisms to be false rather than thinking they are a threat to truth.

  4. I just had my comment on a national newspaper blocked, trying to connect with fellow mainstream bloggers.

    We have no chance to form active groups.

    I gave my email address birojek at hotmail dot com and it was a rejected blog.

    Now with the US authorities saying things like Gold Standard supporters are terrorists I think it is lights out for our “online” community.

    • I’m not worried, really. Authoritarianism is an expression of weakness. And, in any case, I am not a threat to anyone. And nor are you. You probably just got unlucky with their spam filter. Don’t let it get you down.

  5. Science the way that science proceeds is highly problematic. Human beings involved in science and in other entreprises tend to create hierarchies and corruption is built in. Scientists when they do science depend on their livelihoods, they cannot afford to rock the boat by going against popular views…this is from the point of view of the sociology of science.

    The philosophy of science also reveals problems with science. Unfounded built in assumptions in the scientific method, meta theories as foundations of other theories. Science can progress in some areas of human knowledge but it is only one way among others. Modern scientists are keen to exclude all other ways of knowing.

    The production of knowledge (what it is and whether it is accurate, good or evil), is always done by people in power. Powerless people cannot make knowledge claims, the people in power will ridicule them or shut them down, especially if they go against convetions or Power. In addition to this flooding the market of knowledge with trash will also tend to hide the nuggets of truth hidden in the trash….this is one way that power can rcontain a theat to their power. Television could be used to destroy power for instance, however any program that might reveal that the Emporer Wears No Clothes, even if they are ever made and broadcast to millions of potential people, it will be hidden amongst the trash programs so there is never a groundswell of opinion.

  6. Anyone who uses the terms “dark side” and “freedom” in the same sentence is a tyrant. Moreover, he’s a hypocrite for using his right to free speech to decry that freedom to others. And yet I defend his right to fee speech and to make a complete idiot of himself.

    • Anyone who uses the terms “dark side” and “freedom” in the same sentence is a tyrant.

      Bingo. There are always problems in free societies, but it is a step toward tyranny to portray them as problems caused by freedom, and for which the only solution is the curtailment of freedom.

  7. The real principle here is that government can only work with the consent of the governed. Curtailing the free flow and shape of ideas tramples the concepts of consent and voluntarism!

    Further, in my humble opinion Morozov is completely wrong. Certainly, he is wrong about climate change. Our Sun is a variable star. That’s why there are cycles of ice ages. Human CO2 emissions would appear to be holding off a new ice age.

    • In Australia, our form of Democracy requires everybody over 18 to vote. That means the homeless man has to vote of loses 30% of his weekly income in fines. A strong incentive. Perhaps this is why we have strong welfare principles.

      On the other hand our current socialist “Labour Party” made an absolute mess of an insulation for housing scheme, costly school building programme (builders loaded up the contract), the current Prime Minister (Born in Wales) deposed the Previous Party leader by backstabbing and using shady backroom deals to depose and relegate to the back bench. This is not respected in our culture, and because we are forced to vote, the polling suggests, this is why the will lose.

      It is our only tool when we are frustrated with our lives, to take out the “Pollies”!

      They are our Servants.

    • I agree with your variable star and climate theory. But CO2 floats in black baloons right? This is what they show on Australian pro CO2 emmission curtailment propaganda. CO2 sinks. I would have more respect if they showed black balloons just sitting on the ground.

      Perhaps our black road network has more to do it. There is certainly a heat effect in cities.

  8. Thanks AZIZ for the shout out! I really like and agree with your changes to my rift a couple of days ago! Keep it up! Your on to something!

  9. Pingback: Should Obama And Congress Be Arrested Under The NDAA? |

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