[Doctorow-L] How Big Tech distorts discourse: My free Oxford Internet Institute webinar

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Wed Jun 24 13:35:14 EDT 2020

On Jul 1, I'm  giving a seminar on how Big Tech distorts our discourse
for the Oxford Internet Institute. It's free to attend, but you need to


This is a really urgent question, since it's pretty clear that our
discourse is a mess, from fake news to conspiracism to the rise of
authoritarian, genocidal movements.

The dominant explanation for this is that Big Tech accidentally created
a mind-control ray.

They wanted to sell us fidget spinners, but in perfecting the tools to
bypass our critical faculties in order to sell us stuff, they
inadvertently created a superweapon that the worst people on Earth are
using to turn us into eugenicist end-time preppers.

I think we should be skeptical of this claim. Everyone (until now) who's
claimed to have invented a form of mind-control was a charlatan or a
deluded fool (or both). Big Tech's claims to having perfected the tools
of persuasion are self-serving and unreliable.

Big Tech wants its advertisers to believe that machine learning and mass
surveillance can sell fidget spinners to anyone, so they repeatedly make
claims to having perfected mind-control. These claims are marketing
puffery, not peer-reviewed science.

I think there's a simpler explanation for our distorted discourse: Big
Tech has used lax anti-monopoly enforcement to create an environment
where a handful of companies dominate what information we see and how we
can discuss it.

This means that anyone who hijacks the system - evil SEO scum, etc - can
inject false claims into our discourse in ways that seem true (if you
ask Google for the age of a celeb or a pol, you'll probably accept the
answer, even if it turns out wrong).

It also means that people with disfavored views - some of which I
support (Black Lives Matter), others I despise (white nationalism) - can
find each other without risking social sanction by publicly proclaiming
their views.

And it means that people who have lost trust in the system - for good
reasons, such as the skepticism of pharma regulation on the part of
survivors of the opioid epidemic - can be easily located by those whose
core message is that experts are corrupt.

If our discourse is poisoned by monopolism and corrupt institutions,
it's both bad and good news: good news because we have no idea what to
do to fight mind-control rays, while in theory it's simple (but hard) to
fix monopolies and bad institutions.

The bad news is that both of those can be VERY hard, but on the other
hand, there's rising political will to make institutions accountable and
break up oligarchic markets from all sides, and not just for tech -
these problems plague every sector.

The coalition possibilities are dazzling.

I wrote up a preliminary essay about this for EFF Deeplinks, and I've
got a 37,000-word pamphlet on the subject coming soon.


I hope to see you on the first of July!


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