VDH UltraReflections on 2020—the Worst Year in the Last Half-Century: Part Two

Victor Davis Hanson
Eeyore’s Cabinet

The Silicon Valley Octopus Flexed its Tentacles

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the author describes a soulless world created by an authoritarian cadre that controlled even the thoughts of its subjects through massive electronic surveillance. An all-powerful state bureaucracy warped language, ideas, and history to convince and coerce the residents of Oceania that a benevolent “Big Brother” was ensuring them a society of caring, equality, and fairness—despite being opposed by a myriad of purported enemies, foreign and domestic.

Orwell most often had in mind not contemporary democracies of the late 1940s. He worried far more about the postwar Stalinist Soviet Union and its everyday embrace of surveillance, propaganda, thought crimes, gulags, show trials, forced hospitalizations, and erasures of so-called enemies of the people from all historical records—all to promote a supposedly revolutionary communist agenda.

Seventy-two years later Orwell is again considered prescient because he foresaw how electronic communications in any society could intrude into the lives of ordinary people while being manipulated by the state. And these efforts would not be just to spy on citizens’ thoughts and actions, but to so warp and insidiously rehabilitate them that eventually there would be no dissidents at all. All would ultimately come to “love” Big Brother.

There were two prime subtexts to Orwell’s dystopia.

One, with technological progress comes moral regress—an age-old warning dating back to the 7th-century B.C. Greek poet Hesiod’s railing about “bribe takers” and corruption during the ascendance of the civilizing city-state. The wizards who created big-screen televisions and electronic monitoring in 1984 were, to Orwell, no more ethical because of their spectacular technological and scientific expertise.

Two, communism, or indeed totalitarianism in general (as we see in Orwell’s novella Animal Farm) is an especially dangerous partner of electronic surveillance and communications, perhaps even more so than right-wing dictators or oligarchs.

Leftist totalitarianism employs a sophisticated propaganda of caring, Big Brother-equality, and steady human progress that far more effectively disguises its self-interested lust for power and control.

Contemporary government often uses its power of instantaneous communications to construct not just narratives, but reinvent vocabulary to construct alternative realities, usually in the effort not to pass judgement on any particular ideology or group—except perhaps traditionalists and conservatives.

During recent years, the U.S. government, for example, rebranded terrorist operations as “overseas contingency operations.” A 2009 terrorist attack at Fort Hood, Texas soon became mere “workplace violence.” “Man-made disasters” was the term often used for terrorist strikes.

The common theme of such doublespeak was an effort not to suggest any tie between radical Islam and a propensity to kill or maim Westerners—as if such an explicit connection might incite latent racists and xenophobes to emerge and harm Muslim-Americans. If, politically driven vocabulary was merely promulgated by government bureaus, the public would not notice much.

But when the administrative state is enhanced by mass electronic communications to a degree never seen before and controlled by a small group of corporate interests, apparently immune from anti-trust legislation, then these constructed realities can intrude into all aspects of life in “Big Brother is watching you” fashion, as new narratives can become orthodoxies almost instantaneously.

Modifiers were often tacked on to nouns in fear that words like “racism,” “bias,” or “aggression” might no longer be familiar referents in 21st-century multiracial America. And so adjectives like “systemic,” “implicit,” and “micro” were prefixed to remind the public that just because there was no evidence of pathologies did not mean that they did not exist in woke la-la land.

The primary dangers of the Internet, social media, downloads, uploads, smart phones, laptops, satellite television, and the entire array of electronic communications, entertainment and informational science are not just that such methods will be shaped and controlled by bad actors and hackers that manipulate such services and devices.

Most people recognize rank propaganda when they experience it. Instead, rarely have so many global adjudicators of thought and expression been concentrated into such a small locale as California’s incestuous Silicon Valley and resulting in such insidious influence, wealth, and power.

Consider that seven of the world’s ten largest tech companies according to a September 2018 survey are headquartered in Silicon Valley, roughly from San Mateo to Los Gatos, California. The combined market capitalization of just these seven corporations—Apple (#2), Alphabet (#4), Facebook (#6), Intel (#7), Cisco (#8), Oracle (#9), and Netflix (#10)—has reached about $3 trillion.

Yet the influence and sway of these tightly clustered corporations exceed even their financial clout that often shields them from traditional government supervision. Google now enjoys about a 90 percent share of all Internet searches worldwide—over 60,000 searches per second. Given that the average global consumer conducts about 3-4 searches per day, most of the world’s online information is accessed according to a single company’s protocols that decide what information first pops up on the user’s computer screen—and what does not pop up at all.

Facebook controls about 65 percent of all worldwide social media site visits. When fellow Silicon Valley social media companies are aggregated—Pinterest (#2 with 11.75 percent of worldwide social media visits), #3 Twitter (11.43 percent), #5 Instagram (a Facebook subsidiary, 6.47 percent), #6 YouTube (a Google subsidiary, 3.28 percent)—the result is that about 99 percent of all global social media daily visits are facilitated by just five companies, all located within a 50-mile radius.

Unlike the energy, utility, communications, and travel industries, Silicon Valley’s internet and social media companies remain mostly unregulated. Yet they enjoy a monopolistic control over most of the various ways citizens access information on the Internet or communicate over social media and email. Does that reality have any effect on the freedoms of the citizen?

Increasingly it does.

Silicon Valley sees its mission as twofold: to profit by facilitating the public in communicating over the Internet and to do so in such a way that people are massaged into adopting correct political attitudes that are increasingly in turn institutionalized by the state.

Next, such companies are virtual monopolies that harvest intimate personal details of their users and then sell or profit from their own users’ behavior as if it was their own domain. They take for granted that consumers have few other online choices.

Yet because electronic knowledge retrieval and communications are integral to contemporary life and rely on private companies’ use of the public air space, they logically deserve the same sort of oversight that has governed public utilities. Such concern is critical, given the political and partisan ways in which Silicon Valley’s products in the past have been manipulated—analogous to an electric utility massaging its service to consumers to further its own political agendas.

The so-called search engine manipulation effect (SEME)—the use of search ranking algorithms that determine the order of sites that a user will encounter when he seeks information on the Internet—has been routinely manipulated by Google in an overtly political manner.

To take one example, during the 2016 election, there were widespread complaints that Google had altered its searches to reflect a bias toward candidate Hillary Clinton. Such charges were based on data analyses and perhaps due to the suspicion that followed Hillary Clinton’s hiring as her chief technology officer a high-ranking Google official. In addition, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet (2015–17), the mother company of Google, helped to fund (somewhat stealthily), a political analytics firm, “The Groundwork,” to help elect Hillary Clinton.

Of course, any private company has a perfect right to use its resources to promote any idea or candidate it wishes, if such advocacy conforms to federal election and tax laws. But is Silicon Valley a wholly private industry, or in fact a quasi-public utility?

Or is it a monopoly of a few companies that by design squeezed out all competition on the rationale it was not subject to anti-trust laws? Google, for example, seems as much a utility—or not a utility—as are power companies, television broadcasting, radio stations, or telecommunications that provide vital public services.

Such electronic manipulation might be considered analogous to going to a public library and asking help in searching for books on a particular topic, only to encounter a library staff that consistently and by design serially directed the patron to studies by those of only one particular party. One Harvard University affiliated study found that Google’s search methodologies of ranking websites were adjusted according to political biases.

Google could not explain the criteria by which it suppressed some 300 Trump political ads by Google and its subsidiary YouTube, or whether such protocols extended in the same manner to other campaigns. When one buys something online, adds for similar products often pop up uninvited on one’s computer screen within minutes. That same sort of intrusiveness is applied to politics to help the consumer/voter make the correct decision.

Facebook, under pressure from conservative activist groups, conducted an outside audit of the various ways in which it censors content and advertisements on its Facebook pages. It agreed with third-party findings that it had shown bias in its blocking user content.

More specifically, the audit found that computer-driven algorithms that adjudicate searches had built in biases. In addition, Facebook arbitrarily had banned certain expression as “hate speech” based on its ideological content. Its standards for adjudicating political ads were not constant or transparent, but instead predicated on the corporation’s political preferences.

The Facebook workforce was found to be highly partisan and baked its own political preferences into its administration of Facebook. Translated: over six in ten using social media worldwide were subject to deliberate Facebook political manipulation.

All citizens are affected by such censorship, if only in minor and aggravating ways. In 2016 YouTube censored a short historical video I did on the various reasons why the United States entered the Korean War. The presentation was apolitical. But it was solicited by Dennis Praeger’s “Praeger University,” an online repository of brief videos on hundreds of historical, economic, cultural, and political issues, often presented from a center-right perspective. The Korean War video had no particular political content. Instead, it was flagged as “inappropriate” by partisan online viewers.

That is, no electronic algorithm caught the video due to sexual, violent, or inappropriate content. Instead a viewer or viewers simply wished either to restrict access to the video out of political dislike of me, or randomly selected a number of Praeger videos to seek to flag as incorrect or unacceptable. The result was that YouTube allowed particular viewers to exercise political censorship over content that they did not particularly agree with or simply wished to do malice to.

Again, YouTube is a subsidiary of Google. As a private company, it has a perfect right to censor any ideas or thoughts it does not particularly like. But does YouTube pose as a quasi-public utility in the public domain? It apparently does, since it purports to massage the content of its social platforms by hiring legions of content adjudicators, whose job is to scrutinize millions of videos, and who themselves are often accused of abject bias. In any case, there is an entire corpus of scholarship devoted to warning of the dangers of the monopolies of “big tech” and the threats it poses to democracy, both by controlling a public service and ruthlessly driving out all competition—in essence depriving American citizens of equal access to their First Amendment rights of free expression.

In addition, Internet users have their information, usually unknowingly, mined by tech conglomerates ostensibly to sell to advertisers and merchandisers but also to monitor the political views of social media and internet users. In our 24/7 surveillance society, computer users have no idea who is being surveilled by whom, when, how, and to what extent and for what purpose—other than by using social media, email, and internet searches, Americans can render to data mining almost everything that is needed about how to contact, monitor, categorize, and manipulate citizens.

One reason why current political polls are sometimes felt to be biased is respondents’ fear of offering their true political views even to anonymous pollster callers or texters—in fears such answers can be banked and later used or sold to the respondent’s detriment.

Yet the online dangers to individual freedoms are not merely political or private companies using the public domain to further their own particular agendas.

Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook as well as online blogs, in one sense should be the freest of all expression. After all, there are few hierarchies that filter content and almost anyone can weigh on issues of collective interest. But increasingly “call-out culture,” “cancel culture,” or “outrage culture” function like Old West vigilantism. Given the hundreds of millions who hourly participate in the online community, an electronic mob can be alerted, organized and directed to zero in on a single tweet, email, or Facebook posting deemed unorthodox or politically incorrect. Almost immediately, without evidence, thousands can focus on the targeted victim with violence, hate speech, boycotts, and career-ending ostracism, often “doxing” the target by releasing his private contact information to millions.

Yet unlike the Old West, there is no electronic sheriff with a double-barrel shotgun to ensure the lynch mob does not storm the jail and string up his suspect. By that I mean there are no consequences when the often unnamed organize efforts to defame or libel political opponents, especially given the fact that Google, Facebook, and others have already acknowledged that they audit their own content often by standards that are most certainly not non-political. If anything, the proverbial internet sheriff is now often on the side of the politically correct mob.

Silicon Valley relies for much of its information on the media, in particular major newspapers, news agencies, television, and internet magazines, what we now know as the mainstream media. In that way it serves as a force multiplier of its sources, from the manner in which it orders search findings to the rules by which social media users must follow to communicate with others.

Unfortunately, just as in case of the deep state and Silicon Valley, the so-called media is no longer disinterested. It too has an agenda that at times is antithetical to empirical presentation of the news––and to the unalienable rights that define the citizen.

As for the technology’s retort that its gift of instant access to global information has made the citizens of democracies more knowledgeable and thus more equipped to exercise their voting rights responsibly, the very opposite seems to be true. School test scores are declining along with the general knowledge of the citizenry about their very own institutions. By the 21st century it was clear that youth were using the Internet far more than watching television each week (more than 16 versus 14 hours each week)—mostly focusing on online gaming, gambling, social media communications, or pornography.

While smart phones and the Internet may not be the only culprits responsible for this new investment of leisure hours, there is ample evidence that most use these devices to electronically chat, play video games, view pornography, take and transmit pictures—and rarely to investigate and access historical, literary, or scientific knowledge. In that sense, the new online technology has offered new addictive entertainment that has crowded out reading from the average citizen’s day.

Again, the result is a 1984-like surrealism. The citizen is convinced that what he sees and hears on the electronic screen or reads on the Internet cannot in any way be supported with evidence or reason.

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9 thoughts on “<span class="ultra-flag"><i class="fas fa-lock"></i>VDH Ultra</span>Reflections on 2020—the Worst Year in the Last Half-Century: Part Two”

  1. Our educational system now regards its student as operators of devices that can answer any question. There is no longer any need for an individual to have the mental resources to deduce even simple things. Why bother? The unintended (?) consequence of this focus is that our children are now controlled by those who write the “apps” that link them to “knowledge”. They are incapable of evaluating the truth or even the underlying logic of some statement without resorting to another layer of “apps”, or “wikis”. Every morning I am notified about “five facts you need to know”, the unstated presumption being that those five facts will get me thru today. Hopefully, five more facts will be provided tomorrow. What if you had to think for yourself? Here is a test for anyone who completed 8th grade prior to 1980, pencil and paper only: 1. Derive the quadratic equation, which is an equation giving the roots of an equation of the form a x^2 + b x + c = 0. 2. Derive the Pythagorean theorem, that is the relationship of the hypotentuse to the other sides in a right triangle. 3. What are the “roots” that were sought in question 1, and what is the “hypotenuse” and what is a “right triangle” in question 2? 4. Contrast the views of Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln the question of race and participation in politics, and what parties did they lead. 5. Name 3 countries who were our allies in WWI, and 3 who were our opponents in WWII? Could today’s students even understand the questions?

  2. School test scores are declining along with the general knowledge of the citizenry about their very own institutions. By the 21st century it was clear that youth were using the Internet far more than watching television each week (more than 16 versus 14 hours each week)—mostly focusing on online gaming, gambling, social media communications, or pornography.

    It seems to me that those new tools require a level of intellectual curiosity, something that’s hard to teach but, to those that have it… those people will almost walk through fire to acquire knowledge or dwell on an interesting problem for a seeming eternity. But, those that don’t have it… well, while it can be learned it is very hard to teach that.

  3. Mr. Hanson, As I see it, Orwell’s Ingsoc was based on “caring” about as much as, and only in the nakedly cynical sense of, the Berlin Wall’s purpose was, as stated by East German officials upon its erection, to be a barrier against the the corrupting influences of the West, to keep westerners from overrunning and spoiling the pure communist society in the East. Nobody bought East Berlin’s story back then, and most of the people in “1984’s” fictional society didn’t seem to buy Big Brother’s story, either — at least, from the evidence of Orwell’s text. I think you do your readers a disservice to analogize “left totalitarianism” of today with the kind of thing that Orwell described in “1984.” No doubt there are lot of parallels between the situation in Orwell’s Oceania and the modern West, especially the US — the modern media’s ability to shape current perceptions and rewrite history in the ruling party’s own image, for instance, would be the envy of Orwell’s Ingsoc party, just as the surveillance powers of modern US and Chinese governments, not to mention the Silicon Valley tech-oligarchs, would be the envy of East Germany’s Stasi. But the analogy is only very approximate, as anyone who takes the time to read “1984” and watch the daily “real-world” newscasts will quickly see. But shouting “Orwell, Big Brother!” is a lot like shouting “Hitler, Nazis!” today. It is a reliable red-flag or dog whistle and most who respond to it don’t understand its history or real meaning.

  4. Thank you for writing this. Technology has been weaponized to control people. New software and new social media websites were once exciting because they unified people. People were excited to understand how the new technology worked. Everyone wanted to be a part of it. Today, people can’t trust it. People have drawn away from technology. The feeling of freedom and knowing that one is not being tracked, is a sentiment of the past. Peoples information being used for profit, is not the product that was originally sold. Being spied on, conversations being recorded, or a persons geographical location being tracked,
    is a world where people have lost their freedom,
    and truly have lost their way. A world where people have stopped fighting for freedom.
    People have become accustom to saying “I’m being tracked,”… “No one‘s information is safe anymore,”… “ Who cares you can’t do anything about it.” And then people continue their daily lives. No longer wanting to worry or choosing not to.

    That’s the mistake.

    1. Most pertinent quote from 1984 on this topic is when Winston comments that old man’s upper room has no telescope. “I never seemed to feel the need of it”, the old man replies in part, this reminding all of us in 2021 who “feel the need” that impulsive attachment to new shiny things can play its part in our collective undoing.

  5. The Woke takeover of the Democratic Party reminds me of how the Nazis quickly ascended to power in Germany. Both are totalitarian revolutionary parties, and both are skilled propagandists who know how to warp a constitutional republic.

    In 1932, the Nazis actually lost some seats in the parliament. But they gained two key cabinet posts that helped them solidify power. One, Wilhelm Frick became Minister of the Interior, and, two, Hermann Goering became Minister of Prussia. This gave the Nazis control over most of the internal security apparatus which they later turned into the Gestapo.

    In 1933, the Nazis quickly suspended civil liberties after the Reichstag Fire. The German people were now powerless to stop the Nazi police state.

  6. The Nazis also used the medium of radio, direct mail, and the novel “endless campaign” to push the “big lie” about Aryan racial superiority and the supposed menace of the Jews. They were able “to tailor their message to fit any audience,” according to historian Dr. Thomas Childers. Organized gangs of street thugs, the Brownshirts, terrorized dissenters and coerced and intimidated political opponents.

    The Wokists too have used a compliant media and social media to control dissent and promote the Woke doctrine. They have organized thugs, Antifa and BLM, to attack opponents and shut down dissent.

    The Nazis violent persecution of the Jews, which ultimately led to the Holocaust, is possibly the worst crime in human history. They waged a campaign of terror to “dejewify” (Dr. Thomas Childers) German society in a feverish attempt of racial purification.

    The Wokists too seek to “dewhiteify” American society, and believe that because of our slavery and Jim Crow past eliminating “whiteness” is the only way to cleanse us of our sins.

  7. One of the arguments is; ‘the social media companies are private companies therefore they can do what they want’.
    So here is my argument to counter this notion.
    The government has an obligation to protect our fundamental rights.
    Therefore the government has an obligation to cultivate an environment for free speech.
    Therefore it does not matter who is inhibiting free speech whether it is the government or anybody else.
    Would the government allow a foreign entity to buy up every communication channel in the US?
    The government has in the past used its power to curb the power of corporations as it should do now.

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