The Ministry of Truth is Coming
Memory holes, thought crime, and internet censorship
Since the advent of the republic, governments have tightly controlled money and financial services. In a world where material wealth dictated status, surveilling, regulating, and censoring financial flows was the preferred way to maintain control and order.
In today’s world, material wealth is no longer the only substance that defines status. Information is power. Ideology is power. Narrative is power. The internet has created a new medium where anyone and everyone can create narratives and through these narratives, status. And that threatens the fragile control that nation states have spent trillions of dollars on guns and steel to ensure they maintain control.
Today, financial services regulation is comprised of an alphabet soup of agencies and regulators that oversee various aspects of the global financial system. There is no alphabet soup of agencies that regulates information… yet. But rest assured, fellow citizen, it is coming.
Two Plus Two is Five
Many of you will recognize the Ministry of Truth as one of several ministries tasked with administration of duties in Oceania, the dystopian setting for Orwell’s 1984. In Orwell’s world, the Ministry of Truth is tasked with propaganda, and serves the opposite of its stated purpose. It is responsible for the necessary falsification of historical events - the re-writing of history - and is the arbiter of what constitutes “truth” in Oceania. Whatever evidence does not suit the latest version of reality is disposed of down a "memory hole" to be incinerated, erased from consciousness forever and ever.
But, did you know that the Ministry of Truth is in fact an agency that exists in many modern nation states under somewhat different names? The Ministry of Information existed in the UK during both the first and second world war, where it focused on monitoring public sentiment and creating and distributing propaganda to support the war effort and the government’s policies. Fun fact - the MOI famously created the slogan “keep calm and carry on.”
Many countries today have ministries responsible for preserving, editing, and archiving history, distributing that history via the school system, and serving as a source of “truth” when it comes to constructing a national identity. In many instances, these ministries are also tasked with stamping out un-truths or falsehoods that are damaging to public morale. It will not surprise you that most such explicitly named agencies are located in authoritarian states. But you would be foolish to believe the Ministry of Truth doesn’t operate in Western Democracies. It just hides under a different veil.
Think about what we’ve experienced over the last nine months. While there has never really been a single version of the truth, the impact of a global pandemic coupled with an explosion of online communities has resulted in thousands of splintered views of truth, which are propagated across space and time at unprecedented speed via social media. How do you know what the truth is in a world where truth is on trial?
Censorship is Coming
In a world with no modern, well-organized intelligence organization, no rapid long-distance communications, no surveillance cameras, no massive sets of information about individuals, abberations in the perception of truth were tolerable to the status quo. There have long been communities who have selected a different reality and a different truth, and have sheltered themselves from technology and other forces that might shatter their meticulously constructed world. Likewise, because their impact on default reality was so minimal, these communities have long been ignored, since their impact on society at large was negligible.
But what happens when large swathes of the population start questioning the voracity of the truth machine?
When it comes to truth, we have two critical forces more powerful than our laws or our forms of government. Technology and economics.
Technology has enabled the dissemination of information at unprecented scale. And it has lowered the unit economics for manufacturing new truths. Conversations that used to happen in private can now happen in public, and reach critical mass very quickly. And so the two vectors of attack that now present themselves to governments looking to regain control of the narrative are precisely these - technology and economics.
Let’s take the anti-trust suit filed against Facebook by 48 states and the FTC, where they claim that Facebook abused its dominance in the digital marketplace and engaged in anticompetitive behavior. While I’m no fan of Facebook, I find this argument spurious at best, and malicious at worst. While some may welcome, and even cheer the news, remember that this is only the starting point of a much larger effort to curtail the use of new technology and to drastically increase the costs of compliance to a point where creating truth that violates consensus becomes prohibitively expensive.
Consider also the EARN IT bill, which seeks to mandate that internet platforms “earn” their Section 230 immunity, which means they cannot be held liable for the content on their platforms (unless it is child pornography or otherwise illegal content, which they can and are held liable for.) In the proposed bill, which is a brazen assault on encryption, this immunity can only be earned through compliance with policies set by a “commission” comprised of people who are not elected, but appointed. Fun thing is - the attorney general can at any time move the goal posts required to “earn it” - it being Section 230 immunity - and effectively eliminate this provision. In reality, earn it is a bait and switch bill that aims to leverage tide of anger over eliminating Section 230 immunity because people don’t like the truth on display on social media to effectively attack encryption.
Section 230 is about censoring what’s said in public.
Earn it is about monitoring and censoring what’s said in private.
Imagine a world where technology providers have to make every single piece of information on their services available to law enforcement - every single bit and byte and pixel - and to proactively monitor and filter all of it and feed it back to intelligence. The economics of a post EARN IT internet make truth incredibly expensive.
I’m from the Government and I’m here to help you
At the end of the day, what it comes down to is what type of world we want to live in. Throughout human history, truth has always been destabilizing to societies. After all, there are many versions of reality depending on the lens through which you’re examining the world, and some of these versions of reality challenge the status quo. I tend to believe that more truths is better - it forces us to question reality and develop strong filters. And perhaps the best version of the truth should be the one that wins hearts and minds, or perhaps our new reality means multiple truths will exist at the same time.
Our governments don’t seem to agree. They seem intent on attempting to use technology to suit their own aims, to root out thoughtcrimes, and to eliminate threatening truths before they reach the public sphere.
As Orwell so beautifully said “during times of deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”
I, for one, will not ask the commission for permission.