Veera Tyhtilä: Electronic freedom of speech and burning books

Electronic freedom of speech and burning books

In China, the first automatic newscaster has been deployed. Guided by artificial intelligence, the avatar learns by “watching” live videos, and repeats news input fed to it, looking amazingly lifelike. Its advantages in comparison to traditional, human newscasters reportedly include its ability to work incessantly 24/7 and react to news items immediately. According to some scientists, the growing use of AI will not put humans out of their jobs, however. Research and consulting company Gartner thinks the industry will grow into a strong employer. So far so good. What is interesting, however, is how our relationship to news sources is going to change. The newscaster has traditionally been a trusted and stable authority, almost a family member, appearing in our living room every evening. Can a robot become a familiar figure like that? And what kind of information will it disseminate?

In international meetings on the topic of human rights, you always hear the same sentence: “Look at what China is doing, because it influences the whole world.” The country has 1.4 billion inhabitants – a fifth of all the people on earth – and the question may be weightier than we tend to think here in the West. So let’s take a look.

China has invested hugely in artificial intelligence, and sees it as a major industry in the future. Investments in automation have produced many wondrous innovations, which make audiences sigh at technological events. At the same time, state control and surveillance have risen to a new, some say totalitarian level. There are tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of CCTV cameras all over the country, and they recognize your face wherever you go. Social media and smartphone communication is closely monitored. The government is about to introduce a system of social rating, which will punish citizens for “bad behaviour” e.g. by preventing them from buying travel tickets.

Control over areas populated by the Uighur minority in China is especially tight. Uighurs are not only closely monitored but also locked up in concentration camps called re-education centres. Leaked documents about those institutions contain, among others, the following sentence: “Freedom is possible only when this virus in their thinking has been destroyed.”

Censorship is also very efficient. Last summer, the search engine company Google gave up its pursuit to enter China’s big markets, because local censorship laws were too strict and heavy for its operational principles. Facebook and YouTube are forbidden. The government keeps the publishing industry under strict surveillance, and all content deemed sensitive – especially political and religious subject matter – is banned. Writers and publishers are imprisoned or just disappear, if they do not adhere to the official policy.

A few weeks ago, something widely publicized took place. The staff of a Chinese public library in Zhenyuan burned books in the street outside their premises. They then sent a report to the Chinese Library Association’s website, saying they had removed “illegal publications, religious publications, and deviant papers, books, picture books and photographs”.

A directive of the Chinese Ministry of Education stipulates that, by the end of March 2020, schools must deliver a report specifying all the authors, publishers, and ISBN numbers of books in their possession belonging to different categories of banned books, and attach a report on purging them. A world power of the digital era is still afraid of traditional books.

How far is China from us, then? Not very. Artificial intelligence imitating thought processes is feeding attitudes and atmosphere to us, too. A political consulting company called Cambridge Analytica was a background influencing force behind both the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum in Britain. The company gathered unsolicited raw information on as many as 87 million Facebook profiles, and utilized it in political marketing. The company went out of business in 2018 after the scandal was made public. But new elections are taking place all the time, and people’s voting behaviour can still be influenced by spreading lies, fears, and apathy, said Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who publicized the scandal. “We know that Cambridge Analytica boasted of working in more than 150 elections around the world. And we know that on their trail there are many new enterprises, one of which is now working for the Trump 2020 campaign.”

We are also threatened by algorithms which strengthen simplistic arguments. They are like a mechanical form of cognitive dissonance, the conflict of attitudes and known facts one tries to balance within one’s mind. It is a lot easier to lean towards a way of thinking which is often reinforced and not too much of a challenge to the mind. The algorithm presolves our cognitive dissonance for us, and we are left thinking we make choices on the basis of unbiased information.

Digital campaigns have very tangible consequences. Hungarian nationalist party Fidesz which rose to power in the 2010 parliamentary election has made constitutional and legal changes strengthening its control over independent institutions in the country. The government led by Fidesz has started to enforce practices which hamper the activities of opposition groups, journalists, universities, and non-governmental organizations whose views are deemed unfavourable. The administration has also recently declared it wants more control on the country’s theatres, including the right to discharge individual directors at will.

In Poland, the conservative Church and the ultra-right Law and Justice Party have a strong alliance. After winning elections in 2015, the party changed the law so that the administration is able to choose top directors of public media, bypassing independent boards. The Minister of Finance

dismissed several directors and administrative boards of public radio and television stations, and installed new leaders without consulting appropriate independent bodies. Before August, more than 234 journalists in public broadcasting had been replaced, discharged or forced to resign. The media, ever more tightly in the grip of the governing party, campaigns aggressively against sexual minorities, to name but one example. Last spring in a Catholic congregation in Gdansk, a batch of “corruptive” works was burned, including fantasy literature like Harry Potter.

Last spring, a parliamentarian representing Estonian Conservative People’s Party, Ekre, demanded that the Estonian Public Broadcasting company silence journalists criticizing his party. The president of Estonian PEN, Kätlin Kaldmaa, says there has been a major shift in the manner public speaking is conducted in the country. Hate speech has become an accepted means of communication, and is implemented by the government, too.

Also in Finland, the political climate in Parliament has turned hostile, and many representatives find this very oppressive. Here, too, one hears politicians demand that journalists who ask unpleasant questions should be silenced. Here, too, rage and threat campaigns on social media have targeted those who dare speak up. Voices have been heard in local political discourse saying no public financial support should be directed towards modern art, because all public backing should go to classical art which endorses national identity. This art, to be sure, has also been modern in its time.

Yes, knowledge is power. We must look the sympathetic robot deep into the eyes. The digital wonderland has opened up many new possibilities. But behind curtains there are actors promoting their own interests. So far, the so called artificial intelligence is not neutral or impartial. In the worst case it can crucially distort and change our world view, and by doing this, little by little, it subjects our society to a controlling force which is going to be very hard to shake off. Our connection to knowledge will be severed, and silently, in a familiar manner, totalitarianism will creep into our lives.

Veera Tyhtilä is a Finnish playwright and screen writer, working full time since 2006. She is President of PEN Finland, organization for the writers’ freedom of expression

Photo: Laura Malmivaara
Translation: Juhani Lindholm

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