What We Don’t Know Is Killing Us
“First they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that.” (Anonymous)
Julian Assange has been arrested.
I don’t want to try to defend Julian Assange. Others will do that, I’m sure, in the press and eventually in court. I know almost nothing about the man, nothing about his life or his true motivations. I never even saw the movie. I hope, in his case, only that his trial will not be hidden from us, though I’m fairly sure it will be. A show trial, with most of the evidence hidden or redacted, will only serve to exonerate him even if he’s found guilty of something. And the public will not learn the truth.
But I do want to take a moment to defend whistle-blowers, leakers, and truth-tellers of all kinds, and the journalists and publishers who help them get the word out to us. I want to celebrate their courage. I want to argue that we need them, and that we owe them a great debt. I want to praise the Daniel Ellsbergs. Chelsea Mannings, Edward Snowdens, and so many others like them. Without them we would not have learned about the Mai Lai massacre, the abuses by America in Iraq, the extent of the surveillance system that observes us all. We wouldn’t know about the Democratic Party’s undemocratic manipulation of its primaries in 2016.
Without these brave tellers of the truth, there would be no checks and balances to the systems of control we live under. Leaks are a necessary correction to the misuse of government secrecy. Our troubled Democracy would already be lost without them.
I can only wonder how many more government crimes are hidden, classified and compartmentalized in secret files. I can only guess how much we don’t know. I can only imagine what truths we will never know, now that Assange is in jail.
The purpose of government secrecy is largely to hide its crimes, despite all claims to the contrary. Classification is not needed except in very narrow areas of ongoing military and intelligence operations. Look at the Mueller Report as a perfect example of where the secrecy system goes against the interests of the people, who according to our constitution are the government.
Secrecy is the enemy of democracy. A secret government cannot be a government of the people, or by the people. In secrecy, we have no way of knowing whether our government is acting for us, as the constitution claims it should, or against us, as it so often seems.
We have it all backwards. Our government is largely opaque to its citizens. It’s all classified, closed-door, back-room, behind-the-scenes secrecy. Everything important is hidden, and we only see the clown show on the surface. But, on the other hand, the lives of the citizens are an open book to the government and, increasingly, to corporations.
I don’t want to defend Assange. But from the side, his arrest looks like a loss for the people of the world.
In related news, today Facebook announced their intention to further decide what we are and are not allowed to see.
Facebook, like Google and other internet information services and social media, has begun developing new algorithms to choose what information its users see. I’ve been using the term “backwatering” (see definition in comments) to describe this type of online censorship.
This is a very complex and difficult issue. I don’t yet have a fully developed position on what sorts of expressions, if any, should be restricted or outright banned from public discourse. But, when in doubt, I always lean toward the side of free expression. The harms caused by “protecting the public” are most likely worse than the harms caused by bad ideas. This sort of algorithmic backwatering is especially problematic because we are not even aware of it.
Plain old censorship is at least honest: an author is told, “Nope, we won’t allow that kind of speech in here.” The author is silenced, but they know what they’ve done wrong. And they can fight that kind of censorship in court. The public can take part in the decision-making about what sort of expression should be allowed. When a writer is backwatered in this new environment, the author may not even know that it’s happened. And neither does anyone else. This is very much the way Orwell’s “memory hole” worked in 1984.
The potential involvement of the government, as well as corporate influence, adds to the danger. Can Exxon, for example, now pay Facebook to backwater any posts referring to its infamous 1982 memo acknowledging the dangers of global warming? What if Trump asks (or orders) Facebook to hide posts critical of him? What if groups like Wikileaks get labeled as dangerous, and the information they reveal is never known?
These problems aren’t new, at all. Publishers and newspapers, and then broadcasters in radio and TV, faced similar issues throughout the 20th century. In our society people have always had the right to speak. But they don’t have the right to be heard.
In the 21st century, Facebook and Google have a new power to shape our information flows. I use both of these services frequently, and find value in both. But more and more I’m realizing you can’t count on these major outlets to provide you with information. Google News, for one, is clearly shaping and restricting what is shown on their feeds. Climate change stories, for example, seldom get any space on the front page or even in the section pages like Science. Instead, you have to search for yourself. And it’s in that aspect, the ability to search, that these new outlets are better than, say, newspapers. A backwatered story can still be found, if you search for it. A censored story can be lost completely.
The tensions around free speech are nothing new. But the technologies are new, and they change everything. We have to be constantly aware that our concern over bad or dangerous speech doesn’t lead to a situation where we can no longer make those choices for ourselves.
We live in the essence of Orwell’s nightmare. We know nothing about our controllers, and they know everything about us. And we’ve grown so used to it we scarcely notice, anymore.
Yes, we’ve got it exactly backwards. The people should have privacy, while the government strives to be as transparent as possible. Our current system of secrecy is a recipe for— if not the definition of— dictatorship. Whistleblowers, leakers, truth-tellers of every kind, like Julian Assange, are dangers to that system of power and control.
From the side, it looks like what we don’t know is killing us. Those truth-tellers might end up being our only hope.