After a great afternoon of elation about the great possibilities of the Internet, I was appalled after learning that about 1/4th of our Internet’s citizens exist behind China’s Great Firewall. The headline of the article where I read this states China’s scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works. They’re not wrong. It’s hard not to be appalled by the state control exerted over the Internet by the Chinese government, used to maintain state control by the Communist Party. I wasn’t surprised to see that Amnesty International’s piece started off with the same disturbing fact. It’s hard to reconcile the vision of the Internet as the place of limitless (even excessive) freedom of information and a place where 25% of its citizens are denied basic freedom. Interestingly, this ties into the subject of censorship in some of the assigned reading for this course. At first I wondered why Net Smart begins with a discussion of attention. But attention is crucially important to censorship, as today’s censorship less commonly takes the form of a Communist-era redacting pen than it does distraction and disinformation.
Basically, the readings all seem to indicate that governments will not seek to try to control all the possible dissenting information, as this task has become impossible in the digital age. Instead, they selectively block information, making it harder to access, and seeding false information to distract from the truth. (Enough false information that the term “alternative facts” took hold to describe the phenomenon.) I found this to be particularly believable because of my previous experience watching RT America, which broadcasts a lot of such information but also acknowledges the problem and many other problems that are ignored by typical American news channels, essentially using the same strategy to portray Russia and its allies in a favorable light by virtue of distracting from any such stories. In a way, it is not unlike the old strategy of “bread and circuses” practiced by the Roman empire, wherein they sought to control the public by distracting them with abundance of food and free entertainment. Such a strategy is much harder to fight back against than the kind of dystopia of information control people typically imagine, such as the scenario of 1984 by George Orwell— but it is not an unprecedented challenge either. Now is a historical moment to make sure the Internet is not used as a mass media form of control the way radio, TV, and newspapers were historically to varying extents.
The book proposes some excellent solutions for people to fight back, whether you live in an oppressive regime or just don’t want to contribute to the proliferation of click-bait. We all can try to use purposeful attention instead of falling for eyeball-grabbing engagement, where we just move between things that capture our attention. You can control your attention with mindfulness, and thus help take back control of the Internet.
This post was originally published here.