Society benefits from data openness and accessibility—once one of the internet’s key promises. While it has come true to a large extent, the story gets darker when that openness applies to your personal data. We understand the need for privacy for personal data like health, financial, and business records, but what about our opinions and conversations? And what has this got to do with Elon Musk, or the Death Star?
In this piece, I’ll look at some recent revelations about how and why the “powers that be” are interested in what we’re all thinking… and what they’re doing about it. Hopefully, it’ll also be an argument for a new internet, a worldwide communications network built on a scalable blockchain where the data you generate can remain as open and accessible as you like but less useful to bad actors.
What is the ‘Censorship Death Star,’ and what did Elon Musk just do?
At the start of July, Twitter owner Elon Musk announced a new “temporary” limit on reading posts: 6,000 per day for verified/paid accounts and 600 per day for free accounts. He later increased those numbers to 8,000/800.
Musk faced instant and predictable accusations that he was imposing limits to force users into paid subscriptions or that his staff cuts at Twitter had resulted in technical failings. However, as he clearly stated in his original announcement, the limits were there “to address extreme levels of data scraping and system manipulation.”
To address extreme levels of data scraping & system manipulation, we’ve applied the following temporary limits:
– Verified accounts are limited to reading 6000 posts/day
– Unverified accounts to 600 posts/day
– New unverified accounts to 300/day
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 1, 2023
So, what’s the problem with data scraping, and what harm does information harvesting do? As always, you have to look a few layers beneath what you see on the surface.
Mike Benz, a former State Department employee and founder of the Foundation for Freedom Online (FFO), posted comments last week detailing what Musk’s true motives might be for limiting Twitter access.
Wow. Musk has no idea the DARPA rattlesnake he just stepped on by this doing this…
— Mike Benz (@MikeBenzCyber) July 1, 2023
“It’s a really fascinating thing that Musk just did, with wide-ranging implications for the science of censorship,” Benz said. “AI censorship is where all of the magic happens.”
While human reviewers at government agencies could perhaps contact Twitter to request 22 tweets be censored, AI scrapers could add orders of magnitude to that number, censoring 22 million tweets or more.
The authorities can’t follow everyone, but their AI bots can
In the past, those who told us we were being too paranoid about mass surveillance often pointed out that there weren’t enough watchers to watch everyone. The former DDR’s (East Germany) state security service, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or “Stasi,” recruited over 170,000 people, around 2.5% of the East German population (possibly as many as 500,000), as informants until 1989. This disproves the claim that governments are unconcerned with the everyday minutiae of ordinary people’s lives. And although the DDR was infamous for being one of the world’s most intrusive and effective police states, even it couldn’t watch everyone.
AI surveillance changes that model. By scraping hundreds of millions of posts from public feeds on various social networks, trackers are able to provide instant feedback on trending narratives, opinions, and the entire public mood. The number of “watchers” becomes near-infinite.
Moreover, they can use that data to construct digital dossiers on individuals and community groups and ultimately “tweak” what people see. This isn’t limited to overt censorship or removal of posts. Certain topics (and opinions on topics) can be prioritized or de-prioritized, or automated account networks can be activated to flood feeds with counter-narratives.
Ever see Twitter feeds with replies from multiple low-follower accounts that simply say “this is fake” or “this never happened” (without reasons, sources, or citations)? There are also more sophisticated tailored-to-topic responses offering views opposing or discrediting the original post that may or may not be genuine human opinions. There’s a strong chance the generic “contradictory” replies are automated and a growing possibility even the more detailed ones were AI-generated as well. Where the message-massagers once needed to pay live humans to monitor topics and steer opinion back to something more officially palatable, they can now deploy chatbots.
You may not be interested in the government, but the government is interested in you
In the days before social media, I worked at a media monitoring firm. I can confirm that governments, corporations, and even individuals have long been extremely interested in tracking the public mood. Mainly we gauged opinion through old media like radio commentary and TV reports, and clients were particularly eager to monitor talkback callers and vox-pops. Our firm only did the monitoring and didn’t generate any content, but we knew our reports were passed on to PR companies and marketing departments to create new strategies.
This is perfectly legitimate and similar to opinion polling. It’s natural to assume those spending time and money on new products and policy initiatives want to know how they’re being received. It becomes a lot less legitimate, though, when public reactions become artificially generated, or AI scrapers build dossiers of opinions that can be tied to specific individuals or groups.
The internet removed the mass-communication monopolies governments and large corporations (some still see these as distinct forces, but I don’t personally) had enjoyed for so long. Social media made it even easier for ordinary people to broadcast their own messages. Over the past decade (or more), we’ve seen the backlash to that. That backlash is becoming more frantic, as well as more efficient.
Back when Elon Musk was still reconsidering his decision to purchase Twitter, he dropped several hints suggesting the ratio of bot-to-authentic posts on the network was far wilder than anyone had imagined. The “Twitter Files” leaks he and reporter Matt Taibbi have released since his takeover have provided extra insight into how extensive efforts to manipulate opinion have become.
Twitter’s massive user base, network effect, and the open/public nature of its feeds make it the most attractive network for monitoring and controlling public opinion. Benz called it “their social media censorship Death Star.”
Does blockchain actually fix this problem?
Yes… or at least it could. For starters, examples of social networks built on blockchains like BSV blockchain have integrated micropayments into their structure. Though there are various models for this, it mostly involves tiny payments for follows, reactions, or even posts. This has the benefit of allowing payouts and income for individual users, but it also creates disincentives for data scrapers. It doesn’t eliminate the potential per se, since the wealthy and powerful have already shown that controlling public opinion is worth the billions of dollars they spend on it. But it does make the process of data scraping and mass bot-posting much more expensive and thus reduces some of their efficiencies.
A micropayment-based, pay-as-you-go, online economy will take some getting used to, in a world where online services have been largely “free” to use. But there’s a growing realization that “free” is not really free. Providers earn their income instead through advertising revenues and selling users’ data. The old cliche “if it’s free, then you are the product” was once only whispered in the technology industry and small privacy-conscious groups, but these days it’s more mainstream.
Where social media posts are blockchain transactions, those who made the posts remain the ultimate owners of the data within them. Blockchain allows for granular controls over access to that data, and mechanisms could exist to encrypt that information to anyone other than a follower or trusted party. Possibly, it’s still preferable to make all your posts open and public in order to reach the maximum audience size, but the point is, it’s you who gets to make that decision and not whoever owns the social network you’re using.
The internet itself should be on the users’ side, not just on social network owners
Twitter is just one network, and Musk is just one man. We can’t rely forever on the hope that a single, incredibly wealthy, white-knight free speech advocate will step in to rescue us from the censorship-industrial complex. We’ve already seen a campaign to shift public opinion away from supporting Musk (who was once almost universally loved by tech industry liberals) to discrediting him as a partisan, subversive, even “right-wing” figure.
Just the other day, Facebook parent company Meta (NASDAQ: META) announced it would launch its own Twitter-like network called “Threads.” This is a clear attempt to piggyback on Facebook’s own network effect to create a realistic Twitter rival. You can expect this network to gain a lot of favorable coverage in the mainstream media and the approval of the government and corporate worlds, whether it wins hearts and minds among the general public or not.
In other words, Twitter’s revelations and read limits make for interesting news, but they don’t solve the problem completely. There’s still every chance their effects can be subverted or sidelined. What our modern data-driven society needs is an entirely new model and structure, where the focus is on individual ownership of and access controls over personal data rather than complete openness. As a bonus, blockchain’s micropayment economy allows users to earn income from their efforts, and we’ll see fewer ads.
This potential shift is fundamental and does require a blockchain that scales to capacity and speed levels equal to (or far surpassing) today’s internet. Will the world eventually accept and use that blockchain? That’s another question, which we’ll have to answer another time.
Patrick Prinz: No one should build on any infrastructure that limits you
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