Monday, February 1, 2021

Censorship: How the West is becoming more and more like the old Soviet Union


A message I received from Facebook on Jan 29, 2021. Five of my posts were deemed "spam" and erased. Some were somewhat "political" although non-partisan, but two were purely technical. That these posts were erased is an indication that censorship is by now applied to all forms of dissent, not just political ones. It was not unexpected, but it was still somewhat shocking after decades of propaganda that had convinced most of us that the Western world was a place where you could enjoy "freedom of expression." But we are quickly moving toward a Soviet-style management of public information, as Dmitry Orlov noted already in 2013. It had to happen and it did.


Last year, a Spanish climatologist, a friend of mine, had his Facebook page erased. Apparently, it was because it was deemed as too "catastrophistic" (or for whatever reason had caused the opaque fact-checkers of Facebook to take it as a target). He protested and he also tried to convince other climatologists to start a boycott of Facebook. 

The answer was a little disappointing, to say the least. It may be best described as a resounding worldwide "meh." Those climatologists who bothered to reply to him expressed the concept that, yes, censorship is bad, but, you know, you can't allow deniers to diffuse their fake science around. 

It was on that occasion that I discovered that most people like censorship. It is just that it should be applied to those they disagree with. In that case, they actually love it and protest because Facebook doesn't censor enough (you can read that, for instance, here).

The problem with censorship is that it is a little like playing the apprentice sorcerer: once you start the mechanism, you don't know how to stop it. What's happening now is that censorship is becoming widespread, wide-ranging, and pervasive. Everyone can be affected and it takes unexpected forms. I was surprised when Facebook decided to erase two rather technical posts of mine, apparently because they were critical of the concept of a hydrogen-based economy. Apparently, censoring doesn't just apply to political dissent. Any dissent is now considered bad

Of course, Facebook is not the government, but it would be silly to dismiss the whole story by saying "it is a private company." Facebook has now almost 3 billion users, close to half of the world's population. No other entity in the world -- governments included --has such a reach over so many people. Do governments have any power on Facebook? Or does Facebook own the governments?

It was expected, we knew that it was coming. Already in 2009, Dmitry Orlov had noted in his book "Reinventing Collapse" how the Soviet and the American Empires had been moving along parallel tracks, with the American Empire poised for collapse just a few decades after the Soviet one. In a later book, "The Five Stages of Collapse" (2013), Orlov described the mechanisms of censorship in the Soviet Union and discussed many remarkably prescient concepts on how electronic surveillance in the West would dwarf anything that the old and clumsy Soviet system could do to spy their citizens. 

And so, there we are. Covering the whole story of the Soviet censorship would be very interesting exercise that not even Orlov attempted in his books. I can't claim to be an expert in these matters (*), but let me just note that censorship in Russia was a nuanced story, not just a clumsy dictatorship dictating to people what they had to believe. In part, yes, censorship was imposed by the government but, in part, it was also enforced "from below." Russian newspapers often carried comments by the "korrespondents" (Корреспондент), people who were not professional journalists. They seem to have had a certain leeway in criticizing the government, of course only as long as they didn't express doubts about the founding myths that kept the state together. They were similar to our commenters on newspapers and social media who have a list of no-no's that's probably as long as they had. The Soviet Union had an efficient trolling system that could demolish a dissenter, just like our trolls can. (the story of how Boris Pasternak was demonized for his "Doctor Zhivago" novel is a good example of the mechanism)

Overall, it is clear that censorship is developed by societies under stress to try to keep the social fabric together as much as possible. If you think that Russia had been invaded 4 times by powerful Western armies over less than two centuries, you can also understand that the fear of the West was not paranoia, but a reasonable attitude for Russians. And many of them preferred to support a bad government rather than risking that the US would bring democracy to them by the usual methods.

About the West, nowadays, I don't think we need to note how stressed we are. And, as a result, we are clearly heading in the direction of a Soviet-style management of public information. Is it unavoidable? Most likely yes. It is a desperate, last-ditch effort to keep together a political system that's rapidly crumbling away, but which is doomed in the long run (perhaps even in the short run). But it is probably unavoidable: we'll have to live with censorship because it is the simplest way to try to stop the forces that lead to the disintegration of society.

So, what should we expect for the future? The analogy with the Soviet Union holds only up to a certain point. In Soviet times there was no Internet, or it was in its infancy. The new communication technologies are disrupting everything, as we saw in the recent "Gamestop" story (see this interesting discussion by Chuck Pezeshky) and we may well be moving toward some completely different information exchange system that, for the time being, remains difficult for us to understand. Maybe it would be something like the glasnost (transparency), that Mikhail Gorbachev introduced in the Soviet Union in 1986. But glasnost didn't prevent (and perhaps eased) the collapse of the Union. Eventually, if collapse has to come, it comes.


Additional note: A commenter defined this post as a simplistic way to cry, "but free speech!" I understand his point, but that was not what I wanted to say. By comparing the US with the old Soviet Union in terms of censorship, I noted that the experience of the Soviet Union can tell us a lot on what is in store for us in the future. They did suppress dissent rather efficiently. But the result was a rigid society that eventually crashed very quickly. It is always the same story: The Seneca Effect. The more you try to stave off collapse, the faster it is when it arrives. 


(*) Russians and people from other areas formerly being part of the Soviet Union are welcome to correct my interpretation of censorship on the other side of what once was called the "Iron Curtain." I did my best to inform myself, but I never lived there.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)