For most of modern history, the easiest way to block the spread of an idea was to keep it from being mechanically disseminated. Shutter the newspaper, pressure the broadcast chief, install an official censor at the publishing house. Or, if push came to shove, hold a loaded gun to the announcer’s head….
In today’s networked environment, when anyone can broadcast live or post their thoughts to a social network, it would seem that censorship ought to be impossible. This should be the golden age of free speech….
And sure, it is a golden age of free speech—if you can believe your lying eyes. Is that footage you’re watching real? Was it really filmed where and when it says it was? Is it being shared by alt-right trolls or a swarm of Russian bots? Was it maybe even generated with the help of artificial intelligence? (Yes, there are systems that can create increasingly convincing fake videos.)
Or let’s say you were the one who posted that video. If so, is anyone even watching it? Or has it been lost in a sea of posts from hundreds of millions of content producers? Does it play well with Facebook’s algorithm? Is YouTube recommending it?….
Here’s how this golden age of speech actually works: In the 21st century, the capacity to spread ideas and reach an audience is no longer limited by access to expensive, centralized broadcasting infrastructure. It’s limited instead by one’s ability to garner and distribute attention. And right now, the flow of the world’s attention is structured, to a vast and overwhelming degree, by just a few digital platforms: Facebook, Google (which owns YouTube), and, to a lesser extent, Twitter.