We’re Dangerously to Big Tech Controlling Our Thoughts
EMusk declared himself to be a lon Musk “free speech absolutist”Although reports on how his employees were treated during their free speech rights to criticise Musk might suggest that his commitment is not unlimited, it’s possible to see evidence of this in the treatment of his employees. But as Musk’s bid to takeover Twitter progresses in fits and starts, the potential for anyone to access and control billions of opinions around the world for the right sum should focus all our minds on the need to protect an almost forgotten right—the right to freedom of thought.
In 1942 the U.S. Supreme Court wrote “Freedom to think is absolute of its own nature, the most tyrannical government is powerless to control the inward workings of the mind.” The assumption that getting inside our heads is a practical impossibility may have prevented lawyers and legislators from dwelling too much on putting in place regulation that protects our inner lives. It hasn’t stopped people from trying to control and access our minds over the centuries.
At his trial for War Crimes in Nuremberg after the Second World War, Albert Speer, Hitler’s former Minister of Armaments, explaining the power of the Nazi’s propaganda machine said: “Through technical devices such as radio and loudspeaker 80 million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man…. Today the danger of being terrorized by technocracy threatens every country in the world.”
Individual rights to free thought and freedom of opinion are undermined when entire communities are stripped of their independence. This is not only dangerous for those who can be manipulated, but also to their rights. It can also threaten all of our rights, as the world witnessed with Nazi Germany. Tragically, Speer’s warning is acutely resonant in the 21st-century as technology has been harnessed as an even more efficient tool for manipulation and control of the minds of populations with devastating consequences.
Facebook’s role in facilitating genocide in Myanmar, a country where the platform turned into a “beast” according to UN factfinders was a wake up call to the potential for social media profiling and targeting to twist people’s minds inciting deadly violence. Facebook committed to doing better, but as the events that played out across the world’s screens from the U.S. Capitol on 6 January last year and the ongoing ethnic violence in Ethiopia today show, their approach is hopelessly inadequate.
This isn’t just due to the huge challenge of content moderating on a global platform. The business model for social media that relies on surveillance advertising allows the hijacking and abuse of user engagement. Global Witness, a campaign group, found that Facebook allowed them to approve inflamatory ads targeting people from Northern Ireland at a time when tensions were high. It is a grave threat to humankind that propaganda can be automated and curated to reach millions of people worldwide. This can also make it profitable.
Although it was Facebook that may be responsible for the violence incidents, a global platform such as Twitter can also serve to manipulate on a large scale. Donald Trump knows this well. It’s not just what you say, Twitter is also valuable because of how many opinions you can control by curation.
The purpose of technology innovations in online environments, using artificial intelligence, neuroscience, or big data is to control and access the inner workings. Here is where the cash is. It is possible to draw inferences from vast amounts of data to find out if you are prone or not to gamble, anxious, or confident. These are all factors that can help to manage, sell, and exploit your vulnerabilities. Both the political and commercial spheres value our minds.
Technology is being developed not only to predict our political leanings from our faces, but also to identify our individual psychological buttons and to press them in ways that might make it more or less likely that you’ll get off the couch and go out and vote. The rise of “neuropolitics” and the use of political behavioural psychography in electoral processes around the world is problematic because it undermines the foundations of democracy, no matter who is paying for it or which way you vote.
These tactics can be used across ideologies, but when it comes to mass mind control, we have to consider that their consequences are so grave and destructive that they cannot justify the means. While politics is all about persuasion and influence, democracy depends on people who are free of manipulation. We need to ensure that we are not easily taken advantage of and sold to anyone, especially in a world where many people have access to all or most of their information online. The Washington DC Attorney General’s recent move to sue Mark Zuckerberg personally for Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal may mark a shift in the right direction. Freedom of information allows us to express our views freely. We cannot afford to make any one individual the global gatekeeper for our ideas, regardless how passionate they are about freedom.
It’s not just about social media. Technologists want more than the screen we look at or the captivating devices that are glued to the palms of our fingers. Elon Musk’s Neuralink has its sights set on nothing less than direct access to our brains. It claims to be “designing the first neural implant that will let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go.” Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI’s) won’t just control the way we receive information, they will control how our minds meet the world.
Facebook promised it wouldn’t read anything but the words you wrote when it announced its non-invasive BCI project in 2017. It canceled the project in 2021. Maybe it realized direct access was only a bridge too far. In 2019, Neuroscientists reported that they were able to read our brains in real-time. They did this by placing electrodes in the brains and making the mice see things that weren’t there. Deepfakes are a concern. But imagine how dangerous they would be if they weren’t on your screen, but in your head.
Although brain implants that can be used to manipulate marketing and mind-reading might not seem appealing at first, once disguised as tech for health, they suddenly make a lot of sense. Musk claims that Neuralink may be able to control our hormone levels and mood. If your hormones can be modified to improve your brain, you may be able to do so to benefit from the benefits of others if it is more financially or politically advantageous. And imagine if you had to upgrade your brain as often as your phone to deal with those tricky built-in downgrades depleting your battery and clogging up your memory just that bit faster with every new model….
Whether we are looking at the global management of information flows or the tiny threads of Neuralink’s brain-computer-interface pushing through our skulls, we need to wake up to the fundamental threat of systems that allow direct access to our minds en masse.
Although freedom of speech may be restricted in some circumstances, international human rights law guarantees that freedom of thought is guaranteed. That means we can keep our thoughts secret, to not be penalized only for what they are, and to live a free life. We can no longer rely on the Supreme Court’s outdated assumption that no one can control the inward workings of our mind. Technology has already begun to trade on that potential, regardless of how exaggerated the claims.
Freedom of thought is essential to fight climate change, racism, global poverty and for us to love, dream, laugh, and be loved. It’s vital to the social, cultural, political, and emotional well-being of our society. It is possible to lose it and never get it back. Musk’s takeover of Twitter combined with his ambitions for Neuralink make the threat of big tech to our freedom of thought impossible to ignore.
For us to stop systems from getting in our heads we must have serious regulation. And it is urgent. Tackling the business models underpinning social media and banning the use of BCI’s as consumer products before they become a mass-market reality would be first, but urgent steps. History has shown us the dangers that allowing one person to control millions, or even billions of minds can lead to. We need be ready and willing say no before this happens.
It’s not about Elon Musk, it’s about anyone having that kind of access to your mind. It is wrong to build our future on how we can make the most of the global population, and then give the upper hand to the few. This must not be based on what it means to live as humans, which requires us to have the ability to think.
Adapted from Alegre’s new book Freedom to Think: The Long Struggle to Liberate our Minds” by Susie Alegre, published by Atlantic Books
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