When Is a Censor Not A Censor? The Wider Implication of Downvote/Cancel Culture on Hive.

Hive is a very interesting social experiment that merges technology, finance and social interaction in a sometimes messy collage of experience. The subjective valuation of other people's ideas in exchange for financial reward might always yield conflict in a public setting - so it is essential that we optimise our understanding and process in order to ensure Hive's public image is maintained in key ways.

Having been witness to a variety of strategies used to silence or limit people's communication over the years, I feel I have a lot to say on the topic of censorship and the associated control involved. Control of the communication of other people can take a variety of forms and in this post I will highlight some of them, why they are censorship and some of the issues involved as they are relevant to Hive.

One person's personal vision and understanding can often be at odds with others, but just as in real life it always pays the most to communicate respectfully with people before stumbling in like a bull in a China shop with downvotes, swearing and attacks.

What is Censorship?

Firstly, let's look at what censorship is and is not.
It is important to know that our language has been seriously warped over the centuries, so that the original meanings and intent behind words has often been twisted and manipulated - sometimes to the point where it means the total opposite. We need to look to Etymology to get a more rounded understanding of the meaning of words, especially ones that are liable to have been 'adjusted' by those seeking to manipulate people's thinking in ways they wouldn't like if they knew what was being done.

Etymology is the study of the origin and evolution of language, including words themselves. The etymology of the word 'propaganda', for example, is particularly interesting since it comes from the same root as 'propagate', which essentially just means to spread and share to create growth. Prior to the world wars, 'propaganda' actually did not have the negative connotation it does today, it was a word that could be used to describe the actions of a school, a religion or just about anyone who shares information with others!

World War 2 was so rife with deliberate lies and deception on the part of both the major 'sides' in the conflict, that the information sharing of the day was thoroughly exposed by both groups to be full of false information by the other side. This became such an issue that the actual word 'propaganda' took on a negative spin, whereby it now mostly only meant 'deliberately false information'. So we can see how our modern perception has been 'adjusted' as the result of conflict and manipulation here.

A 'Censor' is described by the main online Etymological Dictionary as:

1530s, "Roman magistrate of 5c. B.C.E. who took censuses and oversaw public manners and morals," from French censor and directly from Latin censor, from censere "to appraise, value, judge," from PIE root *kens- "speak solemnly, proclaim" (source also of Sanskrit amsati "recites, praises," asa "song of praise").

They also had charge of public finances and public works. Transferred sense of "officious judge of morals and conduct" in English is from 1590s. Latin censor also had a transferred sense of "a severe judge; a rigid moralist; a censurer."

From 1640s as "official empowered to examine books, plays (later films, etc.) to see they are free of anything immoral or heretical." By the early decades of the 19c. the meaning of the English word had concentrated into "state agent charged with suppression of speech or published matter deemed politically subversive." Related: Censorial; censorian.

Source: EtymOnline

So the essence of censoring is taking action to assess information based on it's content and to decide upon it's morality. In the previous hundred years, the word has been added to to include action taken to ensure information deemed 'immoral' or 'wrong' is removed from circulation too.

Strategies for censorship have included:

  • Book burning. (see the Nazi regime in World War 2 - and others).
  • Arresting/execution of authors (see numerous regimes around the world - especially communist ones).
  • Deliberate misinformation campaigns to discredit authors (see Julian Assange and the false cases brought against him which ultimately also led to his arrest).
  • Digital deplatforming (see Alex Jones and numerous others who are unable to post on the world's largest social networks without having their content removed). See also the absurd level of soft and hard censorship found on Facebook, Youtube and other networks for a wide variety of reasons.

Digital Control & Deplatforming

For a variety of reasons, social networking websites can block or remove content and even profiles created by the public using their systems. In some cases they may be breaking laws by not doing so and be liable for prosecution by state operatives. In other cases they simply choose of their own volition to take action to stifle communication.

One of the best known examples in recent years has been American Radio and TV host Alex Jones. His 'Infowars' channel attracts a very large audience and he generally focuses on political topics that demonstrate or imply that massive scale abuses of power are taking place globally in the corporate and government structures.

Understandably, someone covering this kind of topic is going to attract a lot of attention from people wanting to silence him. Whether you love or hate Alex Jones it is provable that a significant enough proportion of what he has said over the years is accurate enough that he has legitimately exposed major crimes in governments in numerous parts of the world.

Since the court cases that surrounded his coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting and others in the US, he has been forcibly removed from Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and probably other platforms too. He alleged that the Sandy Hook shootings were a psychological operation and essentially 'fake' - set up by state operatives to justify gun control in the US and other policies that the public would typically reject, but might accept in their emotionally charged state following the shootings.

A recent court case found against him and further empowered the censorship of him online by big tech organisations.

The fine points of law surrounding such removal of someone from a system that depends on free discourse in order to attract users is interesting and detailed. For years there has been debate globally about the role of social networks and how their functions fit in to existing legislation regarding communications and free speech rights. It is a long and complicated topic, but the gist is that they have tended to operate under protection from prosecution if their users break the law in their posts, because they - the social networks - are not editing the content, they simply republish it.

Once an organisation starts to edit content they are closer to a news agency and are liable legally for the content they allow to remain on their site. Social networks have then tried to posture in every way possible as if they are not editors and only take action to remove content when it breaks laws. However, leaked documents from Google and other tech companies makes abundantly clear that they have fully intended to censor the web for years - beyond their official position on the topic.

Google privately stated that they perceive that people cannot be trusted with Freedom! They literally state this in the document I previously linked here! Now this would not be such a problem if they were just a private company that makes envelopes or delivers fruit.. But they are one of the world's largest communication companies that carries the vast proportion of human communications globally.

The argument that such businesses can censor whoever they want (censor is the word that they themselves have used) is legitimate in some senses, since we can simply use other service providers. However, this is not the whole story. What happens when someone they disagree with leaves their network in order to avoid their censorship, but then needs to communicate with others on their network and cannot. This essentially means that anyone who Google disagrees with gets 'siloed' into a corner of the internet that is hard to be heard from. Google knows this and this makes Google a huge tool in the arsenal of anyone seeking to control the free flow of information.

Similarly, the other large social networking organisations hold the same kind of power. There is a reason why the Communist Chinese government only allows authorised (controlled) social networks in China - it is to make sure that they themselves can control the thinking of the population within certain limitations that they choose. If the government commits terrible crimes against humanity, as it has always done from time to time, you can bet their social networks won't allow discussion of it.

So here we have one of the key topics of our age. How to ensure that the free flow of information is maintained in a way that keeps us all safe. Capitalist ideology and the way of the world today often claims that competition will solve the problem. A free market will, we are told, ensure that freedom is allowed. Here too, though, there are problems.

The more centralised a system becomes, the more possible it is for the controlling entities to thwart freedom. The economic systems of the world are absolutely centralised at this point - as has been highlighted numerous times. The same 3 financial organisations own controlling shares in virtually all major corporations - meaning that the 'free market' is mostly only an illusion at this point.

So it is no surprise then that the major social networks work together behind the scenes to share information about user profiles that they have censored - trying to ensure that all networks work to censor them too. This is exactly what we have seen in numerous high profile cases, where all of the major western networks have deplatformed people on the same day.

This is NOT a free market or a free market of ideas. Arguably it points to monopolistic intent and collusion which may be illegal. Indeed, there are numerous anti trust cases active and pending against silicon valley networks, not least of which the one by @jpbliberty to defend Hive against Facebook and Google's censorship of projects by banning advertising (breaching anti trust laws in the process).

With such centralisation of power, the argument that people can just stop using the services of these companies if they don't like their censorship is somewhat short sighted. While true on the surface, without viable alternatives, this argument only holds so much water. Entire industries are based upon social networks today - including significant aspects of the multi billion dollar marketing industry - so large numbers of people literally cannot stop using these platforms without being forced to change job!

Thankfully, there are numerous smaller networks that have been created to try to combat the centralised control of information that has no doubt itself been arguably responsible for a lot of harm to humanity. When individuals determine themselves to be arbiters of truth and inhibit information flow, there is pretty much always a harmful outcome as a result. The censorship of scientists and Doctors during the COVID19 events by silicon valley has arguably been one such example of this.

Proponents of the censorship will say that they are correct and are saving lives, while those being censored will say the opposite. The well explored theory of free speech demonstrates easily that the only valid answer is to allow free speech, prohibit censorship and empower each individual to make up their own mind based on seeing all of the evidence. This is absolutely NOT what many silicon valley entities respect or allow - they instead dictate to the population what is true and claim hero status as a result while heavily denying the necessary debate and fine points that contradict their self aggrandisement.

Implication of Control of Information On Hive

So we come to Hive. Hive exists almost solely because it's previous incarnation, Steem, became a shadow of it's former self after a takeover by likely communist party backed Justin Sun. He immediately began using the technology to directly censor posts he disagreed with. His actions are a personification of tyrannical dictatorship and unwise, even childish, disrespect for the rights of others.

Hive was seen as the last hope for truly decentralised social networking online by many. It is this vision that has ensured that many people continue to invest their valuable time and resources into trying to grow it and make it a success.

Arguably, it is the consensus based censorship resistance that makes Hive attractive to use. While people can be paid out for posting content on Hive powered sites, they can still earn more by sticking to the rules on Youtube, for example, and earning advertising revenue. So by definition, Hive's value proposition is within it's resistance to censorship and this has never been any different.

Therefore, maintaining a censorship free environment is an absolute requirement of the success of Hive. Hive with censorship would effectively be Twitter with crypto stuck on top. Since Twitter is literally building their own version of this, a censored Hive would quickly disappear into obscurity and be forgotten.

Therefore, understanding and operating carefully regarding free speech is mission critical for everyone wanting Hive to succeed - whether they personally care about the controversial topics of the day or not.

This is where things get a bit messy.

Technically, the Hive blockchain is not censored, you can always go to the raw blocks that make up the blockchain and view any and all posts that have been made to it. However, this is not how anyone actually uses Hive. In reality, we use social networking and blogging websites to view Hive posts and these CAN censor content themselves if they want to. By this I mean 'hard censor' as in totally remove the posts.

Steemit.com has/had a DCMA takedown list which includes specific posts that it will not publish in order to avoid copyright violations and legal problems. This makes sense since their own operation is threatened if they are constantly in court fighting cases as a result of the content being posted by the public. While social networking sites are technically covered as a carrier of information and not liable if they don't edit the content, this does not stop all court cases.

Hive includes similar and each website operator has the ability to block certain posts if they choose to. In general I have not seen this being a problem, so kudos to the Hive website operators. That being said, there is a blacklist operated at the Hivemind level which adds another layer of blocking of content. It is for each individual to check their own content to find out if it is being blocked and to try to take action if that is the case. However, while Hive is technically decentralised, to get your content unblocked would probably involve having to speak to one of a very small number of private individuals and asking them to remove you from the blacklist!

Such centralisation of information control on a platform that is ultimately staking it's own growth on it actually being decentralised is a huge weakness in the business and growth model. The majority of people will not encounter this as being a problem unless those who manage the blacklists start to become politically motivated in their actions or perhaps become financially corrupted by big money interests keen to manage their reputuation online.

Remember, that such nefarious actions for control of information are key strategies in the large criminal organisations of the planet. The communist parties of the world have collectively murdered more people in the last 100 years than have died from all of the pandemics during that time combined. They have absolutely no problem with committing crimes or acting unethically to further their agenda. So it should surprise no-one when Justin Sun took the actions that he did in order to stop the flow of information on Steem. Is it a coincidence that he took this action just at the start of COVID19 and that he himself is from Wuhan, China? I had never heard of Wuhan at that time and yet I found myself having to deal with two major threats from the same City in the same week! There are no accidents.

So, we have established that Hive can be censored at the blacklist level but that this seems to not be a huge problem for people at present. There is, however, the more obvious form of information control on Hive known as 'downvoting'.

The Effect of Downvoting on Hive & Information Freedom

Throughout the entire history of both Steem and Hive, people have used downvoting as a way to remove rewards from posts and thus to limit the reach they have on the network. Steem was originally designed as an experiment and certain logic was included along with the downvotes to try to achieve certain goals of fairness and to reduce junk content.

Originally, downvoting was considered something to do only in emergencies and frowned upon by many people. It was not to be used for differences of opinion and only to be used to prevent spam or fraud. However, this is no longer apparently a rule on Hive and plenty of people, some with large stakes, openly downvote anyone who they disagree with for no real reason other than disagreement.

The argument we hear is that this is not censorship and is simply a disagreement over the distribution of the reward pool. Since all stakeholders have a vested interest in where the reward pool goes, they say it is a legitimate use of downvoting to try to shape the distribution of rewards as they see fit. "If you don't like it, get more stake and do the same yourself!".

The reason for saying this is not censorship is that the posts remain visible in most Hive powered websites, but let's look back to the meaning of the word 'Censor'.

Censoring is not only about the absolute removal of information. In fact, it primarily refers to the judging of information as moral or immoral (or right/wrong) and then taking action based on that. Censoring could also include simply making a public statement against the material and intending that others deliberately avoid the material on your say so. The intent here is key and the intent of censorship is to limit the eyeballs that see the content in question.

When we downvote, we do not only remove reward pool payouts, we also limit the visibility of the posts on the network. This is achieved by removal of posts from trending lists and eventually by forcing authors into constantly having their posts hidden - still readable, but much less visible and likely to get much less attention.

So downvoting, by the full definition of both the word 'censor' and it's spirit IS a form of attempt at censorship. Downvoting reduces the flow of information. Now this is made more complicated by the fact that it is the upvoting of others which increases the visibility of posts, so without those upvotes the information would also be somewhat hidden as compared to posts which have received upvotes. This though, is the entire point of 'proof of brain', the algorithm that Hive is based on.

The idea of Proof of Brain is that the community subjectively values ideas so that the subjectively 'best' ideas are rewarded. So the posts at the top of trending are theoretically those which the community's stake holders most value.

In this context, downvoting might not seem too unreasonable and is simply part of the process of the community's stakeholders having their say on what they subjectively value. There is a problem here though, in that Hive has a key selling point of being uncensored!

The original Steem whitepaper explains that negative behaviour by stakeholders with regards voting is disparaged by the potential cost to them financially if their actions ruin the entire network. The idea being that people will not be entirely anti social because it will hurt their investment if people leave in droves as a result. Despite this being technically true, it does not stop heavily ego driven and anti-social people from trying to do anti social things and finding out the hard way that they are mistaken. A case in point being Justin Sun, who did exactly this and now holds Steem tokens that are worth substantially less than Hive.

So we have a constant point of contention within the design of Hive that relies on a community spirit to ensure things move forward harmoniously. Anyone substantially deviating from this risks their own investment. However, differences of opinion and people's different experiences can sometimes mean that points of controversy can amount to a lack of harmony. When not kept in check these issues can escalate and lead to existential threat to the whole network, thus we need to be aware of them and take care.

A network that relies on a unique selling point of being uncensored, needs to be run wisely. Since the restriction of reach to content can be perceived to be censorship and since the entire proof of brain mechanism is based upon increasing or restricting the reach of content, this issue can quickly become more of an issue than might first be obvious.

The best example we have of this playing out at high stakes level is Justin Sun and it led to an entire fork being created. This can and may happen again an unlimited number of times if others attempt to do similarly to Hive as he did to Steem. The response here from wouldbe censors might be "Well, if someone tries a hostile takeover of Hive, I will be rich because the price will shoot up" and therein lies a huge problem. There is actually financial incentive to try to stir up controversy through downvoting on Hive!

The only viable solution to such downvoting for those who are serious about freedom of speech is to acquire enough stake to outvote the downvoters. They know this and they know that such acquisition drives up the price of Hive, so they are in a win-win situation when viewed from a somewhat selfish perspective. They gain through the downvotes by pulling rewards away from others and towards everyone else (themselves included) and they also potentially gain by pressuring others to buy more stake, pushing the price of Hive up in the process.

From this perspective it makes no sense at all to NOT downvote. It is a financial nobrainer that if you want to maximise your rewards, you MUST downvote as much as possible! This, though, denies the psychological fallout of such actions. A free speech network that is perceived to be downvote heavy and that can easily squeeze out smaller accounts who rely on their blogging income to free up their time sufficiently to enable them to produce quality content - will flush itself down the toilet.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, this is a complex topic that goes beyond technology and into the heart of human interaction. People will likely always disagree and Hive's voting system is just a more recent way of trying to witness this playing out in public using maths and logic.

Harmony in society is dependent on people feeling good and this includes them being felt and heard - treated as equals in important ways. People need to be able to communicate in order to feel their needs can be met on the societal level and if they are unable to do this, they will feel stressed. This may ultimately even harm their health and lead them to take ever more desperate measures to survive.

For these reasons, freedom of information on social networks is actually a very serious topic and not something to carelessly joke about from your wealthy seat at the banquet table. If you claim to care about others and to serve the community, then you need to get real and acknowledge the results of your actions as they ripple out beyond your immediate sphere of perception.

The truth does indeed set us free and it is for all people to diligently study the truth of our situation, including the meaning of words and the true effects that result from our actions.

When it comes to the growth and health of the Hive ecosystem, every action has effects which may go beyond those we perceive. Whether we ourselves perceive it or not, large scale and targeted downvoting based on ideology casts a very negative light on Hive in the wider world. A world where Hive and Steem are typically thought of as scams by default by people who haven't taken the time to do any real research.

Effective marketing needs to address this issue sincerely and with an open mind - otherwise opportunities will be lost, just as Justin Sun is finding out!

Wishing you well,
Ura Soul

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