The danger of Big Tech censorship From a History Perspective

Hear me out, I'll get to the Big Tech stuff in a moment.

Every once in a while I wonder what it was like to live in the world anywhere from a hundred to a thousand years ago. What would happen if I got in a time machine and stepped out? What would cities look and feel like? How did people communicate? What did values did they cherish? Unfortunately, the answers to many of these questions are confined to our history textbooks and maybe a few black and white videos and photos from the past century. These sources are helpful, but not nearly as vivid and immersive as real life. Worse still, how do we know these sources accurately represents the time period they come from? How do we know that the victor did not, in fact, write/distort history in his own view?

Enter the internet. We now have a platform where anyone on the planet can post their thoughts and experiences on a social media site, be it Youtube, Twitter, or Instagram. We have billions of videos and posts encapsulating the events, lifestyles, and values of the people of our times. Wouldn't it be remarkable being a scholar living a hundred or two hundred years from now and literally seeing how your great great grandparents lived and the times they went through? Imagine watching a youtube video from the Roman Republic or a reddit forum during the American Revolution. What a great privilege our descendants will have!

But now a new concern arises. How do we ensure that the social media companies, the gatekeepers of the internet, don't censor the videos and posts that truly encapsulate our era? How do we know that our history won't be erased or distorted? Even if you think Big Tech censorship is not too serious today, surely there is the possibility that it could become widespread in a more dystopian future. What stops an "activist" or an tyrant CEO from erasing mass videos and posts that they believe is the wrong way to look at history? The ordinary people on these platforms would then receive an "edited" version of the past, something that doesn't truly encapsulate the events and sentiments of our time. This is an immense concern. I believe that nearly every post and video on the internet is an artifact of historical significance. I hope that censorship does not get out of hand, or at least that there is still a way to preserve these videos for future generations if they do get removed from a platform.

When the internet dawned, people cheered for the democratization of knowledge. Now I fear the victors may indeed rewrite history in their own view.

Comments (61)

Jan 12, 2021 - 1:25pm

I would argue tech has the furthest/fastest outreach though

If I was the EU, I would be very careful that a bunch of "woke" Californians can affect the future of the EU

Jan 12, 2021 - 3:10pm

Stop being difficult Milton. My point is that the internet was out chance to break from the historical trend of someone controlling the narrative. People cheered that the internet would be the democratization of knowledge. Now I realize that this may not be the case, and that the capacity to manipulate the masses is even greater now because of the far reach and addictiveness of these platforms.

Most Helpful
Jan 12, 2021 - 3:19pm

Lol yeah. And when newspapers first came out, people thought it would save everyone because no one gets to control the messages. Look how that turned out.

When the printing press first came put, people thought the exact same thing. "We can now print things? Wow no one gets to control the message now right?"

What about when writing became a thing? "Wait you're telling me that ideas and messages don't have to to spread through some orator hired by the king? I can read things or I can find some wise guy in my village who does?"

Whatever new way to spread messages and information comes out, initially it frees people. Once it becomes established, it becomes part of the system and somebody gets to control it.

What to do next? Move on to a different form of communication. This has happened over and over again that it's hardly a groundbreaking revelation.



Jan 12, 2021 - 1:49pm

So you think the millions of 'nog videos on the internet are historically significant?

Jan 12, 2021 - 1:50pm

It begs the question, is there anything we are missing when we look back at history? Especially when you look at events that happened centuries ago, that are documented in a handful of books, what if our interpretation is wrong due to missing a bunch of information that was censored.

Jan 12, 2021 - 2:34pm

To add on, history is written by the winners.

If the French Revolution and American Revolution failed, we might as well as be living in a society ruled by kings and queens learning about the dangers of "democracy".

Or imagine what if the USSR won the Cold War? We'd all be on WSO (well I guess it'd stand for"worker's socialist oasis" and people would talk about "how to break into high paying jobs in the party or People's financial sector oversight board") crying about how this Bernie Sanders like radical who calls himself a "Democraric Capitalist" is gaining popularity among young people.

Jan 12, 2021 - 2:42pm

I agree......However, this is what will likely happen in the future even if all the information is out there and the internet is not censored:

A good objective historian will dig deep into the source materials and will realize that the narrative is different from what the leading political forces want. He will then try and publish a paper on his findings. Only obscure and unknown academic journals will publish it.  His fellow historian peers will call him a revisionist, racist, and nutcase. He will be lucky to keep his job at a university where 99% of the orthodoxy is set on their views.

  • Intern in Research - Other
Jan 12, 2021 - 3:13pm

It depends. Consider these examples. Ancient Rome after defeating Carthage successfully implanted an idea that Carthaginians were backwards baby killers. Current research shows they were in fact an advanced highly commercial group with a republic form of government who were very inclusive of different peoples, but for ~2000 years Romes narrative convinced the world otherwise. After the civil war in the US a lack of censorship and even near accommodation by the federal government to not hurt feelings of southerners for all intents and purposes resulted in groups like the daughters of the confederacy celebrating the southern side and pushing a narrative in schools that minimized the role of slavery. Even in this age I was taught just a few years ago about the civil war with the issue of slavery being glossed over and the issue of Confederate symbols in public are still a hotly debated issue. Post world war II Germany made it illegal to deny the holocaust. In the US we have much greater sympathy for nazis and their beliefs as a result while in Germany it is much less of an iissue. During the cold war in the glasnost period a lack of censorship allowed people to reconcile the fact that socialism sucks and it sparked the end of the soviet union. At the end of the day censorship by the state is bad and while history is written by the winners, it can be a good thing since as a society we can move forward and slowly stem the flow of ideas that are truly horrible like slavery and the beliefs behind the holocaust so at the end of the day like all things the answer is nuanced.

Jan 19, 2021 - 2:41pm

It depends. Consider these examples. Ancient Rome after defeating Carthage successfully implanted an idea that Carthaginians were backwards baby killers. Current research shows they were in fact an advanced highly commercial group with a republic form of government who were very inclusive of different peoples, but for ~2000 years Romes narrative convinced the world otherwise.

Actually, we have excellent evidence to support the idea that the Carthaginians engaged in ritual child sacrifice on at least some occasions.  The Romans may have exaggerated the practice for their own reasons, but that also doesn't mean they weren't right in some way.

I agree with the gist of your post, though.  I find it amusing that people upset by "Big Tech" "censoring" certain viewpoints aren't willing to come out and say which viewpoints they're upset at being censored.  There is no reason I can think of that we should be demanding that social media platforms help spread bigotry, or be accessories to people inciting criminal behavior.


  • Intern in Research - Other
Jan 19, 2021 - 3:25pm

You are right, when I studied it, the idea of it being a burial ground for infants since there was a really high mortality rate was my understanding. Just read the little oxford piece that comes up when you search Carthage child sacrifice. I feel a little foolish. Honestly thinking on it more, I think the idea of somebody taking away a megaphone they loaned you and the person telling you to not use their property to spread the message isn't wrong by itself especially when it is a hateful message. I think the trouble lies in the idea that people treat the big social media companies as public forums for all intents and purposes and then suddenly one groups voice gets amplified while another is shutdown and essentially peoples views are inevitably hijacked and whereas in the past everyone knew CNN, Fox, and other big news outlets had their bias and people behaved accordingly whereas with Google and Twitter you wouldn't get that impression and while you think you are getting a stream of raw information (google) and opinion (twitter) that in fact isn't happening which does seem more fucked up now that I think about it even if one side has views and militant tendencies I find somewhat reprehensible.

Jan 14, 2021 - 12:06pm

What seems different today is how pervasive and ubiquitous social media is - it's everywhere, and people are spending more and more time just scrolling and consuming today. All that information seeps into your brain, and once the algorithms have locked you in, you're going deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole of your making, burying you deeper into your own personal echo chamber. We're all in it, make no mistake, this is why the tech titans don't let their kids use this stuff (good luck stopping them), even the tech founders admitted they're addicted. After a few years of this you're knee deep in propaganda. Notice how everything today is political? Just scroll down the comments on any news post on Twitter and you'll see people being called either a Nazi/White supremacist or a Libtard/ChiCom... this is tribalism on steroids. You can't even have a nuanced conversation online anymore, and this garbage is seeping in to real life where people just can't talk to eachother anymore.

Back in the day (before mass social media) we had a few mainstream news channels that people kind of believed, but also kind of knew was a little BS, but it was tolerated, and people could have real discussions. Nowadays the "News" is mostly opinion, no one can say Fox or CNN is reporting just the facts anymore, but in the 90s CNN was respected (go watch some old bits on YouTube from the 90s and compare them to today). Nowadays we have widespread information, but the the stuff that trends and goes viral is full of bias and ideology, it's 'opinion' not news. No wonder we're all polarized. Were we better off before? We were certainly happier. 

Tech censorship is another can of worms, because once you are the gatekeeper you are in fact the King maker, and the King breaker. I'm not sure we want a few companies controlling the nation like this. I know, "it's a private company bro", but when a company has this kind of monopoly power they should get broken up, but how do you measure the power they have? Our laws haven't caught up to the new tech, and I think this is one of the reasons why Big Tech has chosen the Dems as their new best friends, because they are historically the ones you'd expect to break up this kind of monopoly.... time will tell. It's time we start looking at the world using a game theory lens, not an ideological one. 



Jan 14, 2021 - 12:40pm

they are historically the ones you'd expect to break up this kind of monopoly

I was just thinking that. Unfortunately for them, it seems republicans wanna break them up too. Who knows, maybe Big Tech knows it will happen but want to delay it.

Jan 14, 2021 - 4:32pm

It's definitely scary how much these platforms begin to heavily influence our own thinking and conversations when something is posted as "trending", hits the top of a newsfeed/homepage, or is even advertised. I can certainly agree people have opened a lot more conversation on politics when I've generally not expected them to speak so much on it. I remember things that trended years ago that weren't political, but just plain stupid or ignorant stunts like the cinnamon spice challenge and the ice bucket challenge. People were nearly injuring or harming themselves from these "trends" for the sake of what other people were doing.

I do think that lawmakers have had a chance to better curtail big tech, but they just haven't done so because big tech is just cozying up to lawmakers and government officials. Big tech is giving them power and things they want while they forget about their representation for the people.

Jan 14, 2021 - 1:00pm

Has OP ever read big techs user agreements.  Usually, you can't say anything you want to say.
Jan 14, 2021 - 1:06pm

I'm talking about the possibility that a tech executive in the future might start erasing videos/posts to "rewrite" history, similarly to how China tries to stamp out any reference of Tianmen Square. This is a scary idea for me because of the sheer quantity of people who spend their time on social media and have their minds shaped by it.

Jan 14, 2021 - 2:08pm


I'm talking about the possibility that a tech executive in the future might start erasing videos/posts to "rewrite" history, similarly to how China tries to stamp out any reference of Tianmen Square. This is a scary idea for me because of the sheer quantity of people who spend their time on social media and have their minds shaped by it.

I would think any tech company could censor anything it wants, including wiping out the history of it.
  • Analyst 1 in IB - Gen
Jan 14, 2021 - 3:14pm

There's billions of websites, so I think it would be almost impossible to rewrite history. Though, I think it's a little ironic that the Republican Party has gone along with Trump because their #1 priority has been packing the courts with hundreds of conservative judges, and it's the same conservative judges that have been rolling back anti-trust legislation for years. Also, using the First Amendment against tech companies is exactly where originalism fails, since of course the founders didn't know the first thing about tech. 

Jan 14, 2021 - 6:20pm

The scary part about this is that she believes her ideas are 100% correct.  If applied objectively, her tweets would get flagged just as often if not more than Trump.

Sad part is that she does not want a commission on truth....she wants a commission on HER version of the truth.

Jan 16, 2021 - 2:50am

Honestly - fair enough. I find myself pondering the influence of big tech on equal speech all the time now given the recent moves to block our president and more importantly the precedent it sets as much as I don't want a sitting US leader to foment a violent insurrection. 

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