Government and Tech are Simultaneously Taking Society in the Wrong Direction
Recision of personal autonomy, censorship, and reduced access to information; three significant encroachments on freedom. Encroachments that move society away from democracy.
In the first half of 2019, several states infringed on personal autonomy by passing anti-abortion laws. Others did so by passing mandatory vaccination laws. At the same time, U.S. government officials and agencies either encouraged or economically motivated digital organizations to censor any organization that questioned vaccinations.
In late June, a whistleblower revealed that Google is manipulating search results with the objective of furthering its own social and political agendas, effectively prohibiting access to information by excluding relevant information from search results. A trend that began with targeted advertising and filter bubbles now has America veering in the direction of China’s forthcoming social credit system.
Recision of Personal Autonomy
The many problems with laws prohibiting abortion have been the subject of substantial commentary and analysis. Here are three of the many worthwhile articles on this topic: Anti-Abortion Laws Will Put Women in Jail by Jessica Valenti, Wish There Were Fewer Abortions? Blame Men. by Adam Carl, and I Am Not a Host Body, and They Are Not Pro-Life by Darcy Reeder.
Conversely, except for articles circulated by organizations who have been censored, there has been a scarcity of analysis related to mandatory vaccinations and censorship of vaccination-related commentary.
Although state laws mandating vaccinations infringe on personal autonomy, these laws have not attracted the level of outcry that laws banning abortions have generated.
Mandatory vaccination laws usurp the rights of both genders, and uniquely impact children due to the high number of vaccinations administered in the first years of life.
Both pregnancy and vaccinations create the risk of catastrophic health and lifestyle consequences. Admittedly, the risks are more remote for vaccinations. Regardless, these governmental overrides of personal autonomy mandate that an individual take a substantial risk and, in some instances, make a substantial sacrifice, for the benefit of others.
Only in rare instances within a democratic society should there be a legal imperative for an ordinary citizen to actually risk one’s life or quality of life in order to protect others.
So far, in 2019, organizations including Pinterest, Facebook, YouTube, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Mailchimp have all taken steps to silence commentators that express vaccination-related concerns. Websites that question the safety or efficacy of vaccinations have proven a relatively easy target for censorship.
The genesis of much of the vaccination censorship efforts appears to be letters sent to technology companies by Congressman Adam Schiff in February, 2019, requesting censorship of ‘anti-vax misinformation.’ Shortly thereafter, a variety of social media sites including Pinterest, YouTube and Facebook notified organizations that because their positions were inconsistent with the position of the CDC, their account was closed. Amazon removed videos and books related to adverse effects of vaccines.
Twitter announced in May, 2019 that it has launched a new tool that will direct persons who search for keywords associated with vaccines to websites it considers credible. In the U.S., searchers will be directed to vaccines.gov.
Further impetus for censorship in this area can be attributed to the CDC. CDC Foundation partners are expected to defer to the CDC’s final judgement on all matters of scientific findings, facts or recommendations.
In June, 2019, Mailchimp, an e-mail marketing service that collects and warehouses emails between customers and an organization, closed accounts for anti-vaccination content. Mailchimp is a partner of the CDC Foundation. It appears that to maintain this partnership, Mailchimp may be interpreting the expectations of the CDC as requiring it to only do business with organizations that agree with the CDC.
Currently, there is no vaccination equivalent of #YouKnowMe. While there may not be widespread public concern about silencing this particular message, ever increasing efforts to preclude personal autonomy and freedom of speech should be disturbing to everyone.
Efforts to Deny Access to Information
Generally, in the area of health advice, in addition to the effort to abrogate personal autonomy, steps have been taken to deny both freedom of speech and access to information.
Government agencies like the CDC and the surgeon general approach vaccination-related matters as if announcing a new vaccination and adding it to the CDC’s vaccination schedule should be sufficient for public adoption. This is evident from the March 6, 2019, New York Times op-ed piece written by Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health; Robert Redfield, director of the CDC; and Jerome Adams, surgeon general, which amounted to little more than an effort to shout down those who question the official positions on vaccinations.
These officials have failed to adapt to a world that has changed. Today, organizations must contend with public distrust that has evolved due to certain high profile erroneous assertions of product safety. Big Tobacco and Roundup are two instances where long-standing safety concerns of some commentators, including some of those who are now being silenced, turned out to be far more accurate than the assurances provided by regulatory agencies and corporations offering the product for sale. Regulatory insistence that a product is safe no longer provides sufficient assurances for a growing portion of the population.
Rather than silencing opposing views, if a regulatory agency such as the CDC has weighted particular research differently so as to arise at an alternative conclusion, it should publish its analysis of the research, complete with citations.
Amongst the hundreds of organizations that were reportedly censored for comments opposing vaccinations, some offered peer-reviewed, up-to-date thoughtful analysis of the safety and efficacy of vaccinations and provided links to the peer-reviewed studies or expert statements they relied on in their analysis. Many also offer other useful health information that is similarly less accessible as a result of these new forms of censorship.
Precluding knowledgeable commentators from disseminating information via search engines, social media and e-mail effectively limits access to knowledge that would enable individuals to question authority and make informed decisions.
Many medical studies are found behind paywalls or can only be found by those with some training in electronic research tools. Commentators who are able access to this information provide a valuable service in following the research, analyzing the studies, and communicating the key information in plain English for benefit of individuals who do not have the knowledge, inclination, or access that would enable them to effectively review each study.
Commentators that focus on a particular area often have insight into the effectiveness of the design of a study that may be relevant in evaluating its usefulness. They may also have knowledge of the researchers themselves, including whether a researcher is likely to have been compensated or influenced by an interested organization, even where the researcher is contractually prohibited from disclosing a connection to a particular organization. This insight may result in a study being weighted more or less heavily in the overall analysis a commentator performs.
Where the science related to a matter continues to evolve, broad publication of the results of new studies along with thoughtful analysis of such studies by both regulators and commentators must occur so that readers can draw their own conclusions based on the totality of the available information.
Google has redesigned its algorithms in a way that may cause the search engine to fail to return the most relevant and frequently viewed webpages for some queries.
Both the algorithms and quality raters now make an assessment of the credibility or quality of a website rather than simply the frequency a webpage is viewed. Where the website is determined by Google not to be credible, the website ranks low or simply fails to appear in Google search results unless the website’s address is one of the search terms.Natural health websites including those that engage in thoughtful analysis have noted a substantial decrease in traffic to their sites since this change.
With regard to Google, there are additional bias concerns beyond these efforts to assess credibility. A Google whistleblower recently disclosed to Project Veritas that Google’s algorithms and quality raters are structured to return search suggestions and search results that further Google’s social and political agenda. The whistleblower’s information specifically described Google’s efforts to, in the words of Jen Gennai, Google’s head of responsible innovation, “prevent the next Trump situation” in 2020.
Positioned as an effort to ensure fairness and diminish hatred and racism online, Google has trained its algorithms to return search suggestions and results that it believes users should see as opposed to the most relevant or frequently clicked on webpages. Relevant information can fail to appear as a result of algorithms or a quality rater determining that such information is biased or lacking in credibility. While in some instances, the objective might be laudable, adjusting individuals’ access to information is a fascist concept that is likely to be disastrous.
The internet and search engines have provided individuals with access to substantial amounts of information. This access provides an opportunity for individuals to be more informed and therefore more meaningfully contribute to their own health, community, and government. To do this effectively, individuals must have access to the totality of the information.
The question is, how to reverse this dangerous trend? A mere hashtag, no matter how viral it gets, is unlikely to suffice. The #MeToo movement is not expected to eliminate the patriarchy and create equality for women for decades. Eliminating recent abortion laws is expected to require a favorable supreme court decision. Court rulings will also likely to be necessary to nullify laws mandating vaccinations.
To monitor and deter organizations like Google and social media from manipulative, unethical behavior, the answer may be threefold. First, regulations are likely required. However, regulations and regulatory oversight alone are unlikely to be sufficient. Second, journalistic reporting of significant instances where digital organizations employ practices that limit individuals’ rights and freedoms needs to occur and be published in forums where the information reaches a large proportion of the population. Third, upon the release of an article reporting such practices, consistent massive switching away from using the offerings of such organizations would motivate a change in culture within these organizations.
Sure, it’s a nuisance to change email providers, adapt to new browsers, or abandon certain social media sites. Accepting such inconveniences may nows be one of the easiest ways individuals can fight for their rights and freedoms. Surely making these changes is the very least we can do to help preserve democracy.