There’s already been a lot of collateral damage from the war in Ukraine, some of it online.
Fury over the actions of Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin is leading to a global backlash against all things Russian. The results are often ridiculous, like boycotting Stolichnaya vodka, which is really made in Latvia. Or the orchestra in Wales that canceled a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
But the truly scary stuff is happening in electronic media, where satellite TV and Internet services are shutting down access to Russian news sources. They’re seeking to shield us from online falsehoods, for our own good. But while misinformation is a real problem, so is the prospect of government bureaucrats and businesspeople arbitrarily deciding what we’re better off not knowing.
That’s what’s happening at satellite TV service DirectTV and video streamer Roku. Both have stopped running RT America, the Russian propaganda channel. Under pressure from the European Union, video sites TikTok and YouTube have banned access to the Russian propaganda channels RT and Sputnik News. The TikTok lockdown applies only to the EU, but YouTube has shut down these channels for all users worldwide.
Facebook has blocked access to Russian propaganda in EU countries, though it’s still available in the US. But the social media behemoth has also changed its policies against hate speech. Facebook users in Ukraine are now allowed to post messages calling for the deaths of Russian soldiers, although similarly bloodthirsty language is banned everywhere else.
Perhaps the most surprising turn came from DuckDuckGo, the search engine that markets itself as a less-biased version of Google. For years, DuckDuckGo has attacked Google for altering its search results so that highly controversial websites are harder to find — a practice known as “down-ranking.” But last week, DuckDuckGo’s chief executive, Gabriel Weinberg, said the company would now “down-rank sites associated with Russian disinformation.”
Ever since we learned that Russian Internet trolls ran a secret campaign to promote Donald Trump in 2016, politicians and tech titans have been seeking new tools to protect the ignorant masses from false online information. But as long as there’s a free market in information, do we really need to be protected from the bad stuff?
Our ancestors were made of sterner stuff. Remember Tokyo Rose? Axis Sally? Lord Haw-Haw? Probably not, unless you’re quite old, or a history buff. But those were the nicknames of radio announcers who beamed propaganda broadcasts from Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany during World War II.
Lord Haw-Haw was William Joyce, a Brooklyn-born Nazi who transmitted humorously subversive messages in a phony upper-crust British accent. Mildred Gillars — Axis Sally — was a native of Maine who broadcast on behalf of the Third Reich. “Tokyo Rose” was the generic name for about a dozen fluent English-speaking women who served up jazz recordings and death threats to US troops in the Pacific.
The allied powers prosecuted these broadcasters after the war. The British even hanged Lord Haw-Haw for treason. And yet the Allied powers did not censor the broadcasts.
The shows never seriously damaged Allied morale. People tuned in for the music and jokes, but weren’t swayed by the enemy propaganda. Also, the Allies realized that embracing a Nazi-like hostility to free speech would undermine their own cause.
But maybe the biggest reason the Allies rejected censorship was that they couldn’t do it. There was no reliable way to jam shortwave radio broadcasts. The Nazis made it a crime to listen to the BBC, but millions of Germans listened despite that threat. And such a law could never have been enacted in the UK or US.
Today, we don’t need such laws. Not when we get so much of our news from companies that have already embraced the belief that they know what’s good for us. Controlled by private citizens, these companies can censor whatever they like without falling afoul of the First Amendment.
Remember when we were dumb enough to believe that the Internet would make censorship impossible? We’ve since learned that in some respects, it’s easier now. It was hard to snuff out the shortwave radio broadcasts that people relied upon during World War II and the Cold War. Today, we rely on services like YouTube or Facebook. They can decide with a few keystrokes which news stories will attract the world’s attention, and which will be ignored.
In their use of this power, these companies are answerable to no one. Yet this is a lesser evil than setting up a government agency to make such decisions. Who would you rather see in charge of Facebook? Mark Zuckerberg or the Department of Homeland Security?
For that matter, whole countries can be disconnected from the Internet. Two major carriers have cut ties with Russia already. Ukraine has called for ICANN, the international group that manages all Internet addresses, to disconnect all Russian sites. Sensibly, ICANN has refused.
But it may not matter. Even before the war, Russia was well on its way to developing its own national Internet, much as China has done. It’s another milepost on the way to a world of walled gardens, in which online communications is filtered and managed to advance each nation’s perceived interests. The original vision of a global data network open to all, and designed to maximize the freedom of information, is on life support. And there’s no telling who’ll finish it off first — tyrants like Putin or the well-intentioned technocrats of social media.