It's no secret that knowledge is power, and that controlling knowledge is a key to controlling people and nations. Interestingly enough in modern history, the internet has so far existed as a great equalizer to those who would control speech and discussion. While it was easier at one time for governments or elements within a state to control the mass media of their populations with little threat, like perhaps media from others states also being accessible, the internet has been hailed in recent history as a democratic force allowing people to communicate and share ideas without the suppression of an iron authoritative hand. We can see some governments have recognized the internet as a potential threat, such as China, and have made great efforts to control the internet and to censor that which is not state approved. Similar control measures have also been proposed in the United States, and the recent revelation of the NSA conducting warantless spying on American citizens leaves little doubt as to the chilling effect such a revelation will have on even "private" conversations between people online.
As an MIT graduate and software engineer, Michael Salib, states in his article, Secrecy as a Means of Control: Coercion versus GroupThink:
In a society where knowledge is power, the ability to control the distribution of knowledge, what people know and when they know it, becomes the ultimate power. Secrecy is thus a means to an end: the end is controlling other people by controlling what information they have (or do not have)... In some cases, secrecy became the ultimate bargaining chip, giving a privalaged few the right of the censor: the power to decide who is permitted to speak and what they are allowed to say. In other cases, secrecy facilitated control by creating insular, psychologically isolated environments in which individuals were cut off from both the consequences of their actions and the value system of the larger community. These environments became incubators for a new group identity in which morality was redefined to serve the purposes of the group. Secrecy plays a vital role in the creation and maintenance of these isolated group identities. In other words, secrecy can be used to control either by making speakers beholden to censors or facilitating the creation of a group identity.Some may find it interesting that Mr. Salib would write such a paper as a software engineer. However there is a real intersection between software and communication, and the internet has truly taken center stage and become a real battle ground in the realm of ideas and opinions. So much so, that people are actually employed to disrupt or guide conversations to fit a particular agenda on popular websites. In fact, our own military has developed software making this easier to do where various online personas target social websites and spread a particular message while disrupting competing messages, although the professed targets are foreign and not domestic. Of course many will understand that such capability, once it exists, will at some point be likely used internally, just as recent revelations are making clear about other technologies.
What I find far more interesting, however, is how some people take it upon themselves to do the same in their private discussions. They demonize those with a different viewpoint, and they disrupt unpopular views (no matter how valid, well cited or orthodox those views might be). In these self-styled star chambers, the uniformity of opinion and lack of rational discussion is often as obvious as the unsupported demonizations made of non-approved opinions. While certain views may be allowed to be professed in order to give the illusion of open discussion, those views may only be allowed to be presented ineffectively, or by those who will not defend them when given the signal to shut up and color. On other sites, a tenuous connection to the target audience for little if any recognizable gain, brings into question the motivation for community moderation and leadership and brings front and center the goal or purpose of any particular social media site. In many cases the goal is financial, but the message, and controlling it, can also be a goal and can also be financially rewarded. The internet, like any battle ground, can shift and become more complex and recent history shows this to be the case.
The internet is an important battle space for ideas and is becoming increasingly so as more Americans turn off the TV and instead boot up their laptops. People should be cognizant of the dynamics of a place they digitally frequent, and be on the look out for closed information systems that have an agenda that does not involve uncensored discussion. Fortunately, despite the best attempts of those who wish to control the messaging, it is typically apparent when such a system is encountered, as one viewpoint will be declared bad or invalid, by another person who censors that opinion and refuses to spar in a debate. Power over substance is a hallmark of a closed system.
Like two NBA basketball players who have a disagreement over who is the better basketball player, it can be obvious to see who is interested in putting-up, and who is interested in merely shutting-the-other-up. Imagine if one of those players wanted to settle the dispute on the court, and the other refused to suit up, and instead got his fans simply to heckle the other player. It would be obvious who lacked the courage of his conviction and who was, ironically, an all-talk punk who couldn't hang. And knew it.