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How Artificial Intelligence Bots, Algorithms, and Social Media Platforms Conspire to Censor Writers
You never “own” your audience
Beware of anyone who claims to be a champion of free speech. Chances are, the only free speech the self-anointed champions care about is their own.
The majority of writers will have their work intentionally suppressed throughout their entire careers and they don’t even realize it’s happening. Every time an acquisitions editor passes on one of your manuscripts, that should be perceived as a deliberate effort to suppress your voice. Every rejection means your work is intentionally denied access to a major distribution channel.
This is where many writers pipe in and say, “Well, maybe acquisition editors don’t choose manuscripts because they’re not good enough.”
But that response fails to address my observation. Even if your manuscript “isn’t good enough,” the acquisitions editor is still intentionally oppressing your voice. The job of an acquisitions editor is to prevent certain messages from receiving the benefit of major distribution. We assume they’re acting honestly and responsibly because they have all the power.
The true reason your book is denied is speculation. The only thing you know for a fact is that it was rejected.
Acquisitions editors justify themselves by saying they pick “worthy” manuscripts, but that’s a mission statement. It’s not a data assessment.
Fortunately, there are many opportunities for writers to get around the traditional gatekeepers and build an audience that’s based on the merit of their work. Or so we’re told.
The reality is that all distribution platforms have the capacity to oppress your voice. Unless you’re selling your work out of the trunk of your car and handing the manuscripts directly to your readers, somebody always retains the power to cut you off from your audience.
I’m concerned about Twitter
Shortly after a certain “champion of free speech” took over Twitter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a video about how her Twitter account had stopped working. This came amid a spat she was having with the aforementioned “free speech” champion.
It’s important to note that this is all conjecture, but we do know that the folks running Twitter have the capacity to disable accounts. There was another report that Amber Heard’s Twitter account vanished. Heard used to date a certain “champion of free speech.”
To be clear, I’m completely in favor of disabling the accounts of individuals who use massive distribution platforms to incite violence.
I’m not in favor of disabling the accounts of individuals who merely wish to express a harmless opinion.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has 13.5 million followers. I have to assume she spent a great deal of time and energy accumulating all those followers. Unfortunately, what she’s realizing now is that she doesn’t own those followers.
Twitter owns those followers.
If Twitter wants, it can stop those followers from reading anything by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on that platform.
Algorithm is a word I toss around when I want to sound smart. I don’t really know what it means.
What I do know is that I follow thousands of people on a variety of platforms. Every day I can scroll through the things the people I follow have posted. What I’ve noticed is that after I’ve scrolled through about 20 items, they begin to repeat.
This leads me to assume that somewhere, some form of artificial intelligence is making a decision about what I’m able to see. The choice is being made for me. Voices are being oppressed and it’s easy to overlook that subtle form of censorship unless I’m specifically searching for it.
Few platforms offer an option where you can scroll through everything that’s been posted in order. Why would they? That would be surrendering control.
Users can scream for an option like that all they want. The platform isn’t going to give it to them. “If you don’t like it, move!” they say, knowing that no other platform offers the same distribution advantages.
Even distribution platforms that require users to gain a following pick and choose the things they show to the world.
These platforms might claim the selection is based on the merits of your posts, but I don’t believe that. All we know for sure is that some things are seen and some things are buried.
We see things about the Kardashians.
I suspect that if you discovered a lost manuscript written by Fyodor Dostoevsky you could post it on many social media platforms and nobody would ever know.
Your followers would still get their regular updates as to what the Kardashians were up to.
You don’t even own your email followers
Even if you have a massive email following, you still have to use some form of distribution technology to send out those messages. If an AI bot, or an algorithm, or a moderator doesn’t like you they can ensure your messages end up in the spam folder.
Even if you use a different distribution platform to send out the messages, chances are some of your readers use a service that might not like you (for whatever reason).
You’re being censored. It’s happening all the time.
I’ve had multiple readers find me on other platforms and ask why they aren’t getting my emails even when they’ve signed up for a list. I also know that I pique people. Casual censorship from tech platforms is under-reported.
I think writers are afraid to talk about it.
I block people all the time
Perhaps at this point you’re calling me a hypocrite. I’ve never been shy about admitting that I block a lot of accounts.
I block people for sending me insults and death threats. I block people for threatening my wife and children. I don’t block people because they say our society should spend more money on education or that we need healthcare reform.
I’m not opposed to the idea of censoring free speech. We should censor threats. We should censor messages that incite violence.
I am opposed to people who use dishonest arguments about free speech in order to oppress and exploit their fellow human beings. Yes, you need to get those voices out of the distribution channels.
Unfortunately, the violent ones seem to get elevated to the top of the platform, and the champions of decency get flushed down the toilet.
It’s not the “Old West,” it’s worse
There used to be a time when you could write a letter and rely on the US Postal Service to deliver it to the intended party. They worked really hard to establish their reputation of trustworthiness because it’s an essential element of their viability.
For a long time, that service was the only way to send out a message. If you sent out 50 letters, 50 people would receive those letters.
I think the problem is that the American people have forgotten that trust is not an inherent element to systems of mass distribution.
Today, sending messages through various distribution platforms is like pressing the button on the crosswalk that doesn’t do anything.
The US Postal Service has spoiled us and made us forget our good sense. There’s a lot of talk about dismantling the US Postal Service. Have you ever thought that maybe people want to dismantle the Postal Service so that they can have complete control of what messages get distributed? Nobody even mentions that argument.
Imagine if writers couldn’t even send out review copies of their books. Imagine if some AI bot was programmed to recognize your name and send every package of yours straight to the incinerator.
Some writers are big enough to be free of distribution prison
I suppose it’s the dream of every writer to become so well known that it is virtually impossible to oppress your voice. Stephen King comes to mind. His name recognition is larger than any distribution platform.
Writers have a dim awareness that something isn’t right. However, when faced with rejection, most of them dedicate themselves to improving their storytelling ability under the delusion that publishing is a merit based system instead of a propaganda model.
It’s scary to recognize that you can work hard, build an audience, and lose it all because an AI bot, or an Algorithm or the CEO of a company decides he doesn’t approve of your message. Rarely do you get to hear why it is that your work is buried. Your readers are left wondering, “Whatever happened to that guy?”
In 1919, Charlie Chaplin along with several others launched United Artists. The idea was to put artists in charge of creative decision making. I think we need something like that today. Wouldn’t it be great if artists rather than robots determined what voices were heard? In fact, I think successful artists have a responsibility to insert themselves into this arena.
It’s happened before. Why can’t it happen again? In fact, I’d argue that the need now is greater than ever. I’m kind of curious as to what other human beings are actually thinking.
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