It is often said that people are entitled to their opinions. But are they really? Do you have a God-given right to believe that torture is good, or that the moon landings were faked? To the extent that opinions are not merely secret possessions but dispositions to act a certain way in society, they are everyone’s business. So, no, you do not have an inalienable right to your dumb opinion.
Unfortunately, that was also the position of the Spanish Inquisition and witch-hunters, who dreamed up vicious ways of attempting to uncover inner impiety. So these days we generally separate opinions (or beliefs) from the expression of them. Expression can be regulated, in the case of incitement to hatred, for example, but opinion is sacrosanct. It’s a fundamental freedom, but one that is everywhere under attack.
So begins human rights lawyer Susie Alegre’s fascinating book, which sketches a brief history of legal freedoms from the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi onwards, and explains the conceptual struggles behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights announced in 1948. That text defends rights to freedom of both “Thought” and “opinion”: some delegates understood “thought” to mean religious belief, while others considered it superfluous as an addition to “opinion”; it was the Soviets who insisted it remain, “out of respect for the heroes and martyrs of science”.
But if “opinion” was merely a private, internal affair, why did its freedom need protecting at all? This was, Alegre explains, at the behest of the British, who “insisted that ‘in totalitarian countries, opinions were definitely controlled by careful restriction of the sources of information’, stressing that interference could happen even before an opinion was formed”. The Brits, having had a Propaganda Bureau and then a Ministry of Information, as well as birthing a certain George Orwell, knew what they were talking about.
If propaganda undermines the right to freedom of opinion, however, then we are all in trouble. And this is one of the main arguments that Alegre pursues. The modern online environment, polluted as it is by fake news, violates our freedom to form reliable thoughts. On this view, the people who stormed the US Capitol in January 2021, in the apparently sincere belief that the presidential election had been stolen by Joe Biden, were victims; and so are the millions of ordinary Russians who believe what the state-controlled media is telling them about the so-called special operation in Ukraine.
The online world, Alegre argues, harms our freedoms in many other ways, and is of a piece with the cruel history she sketches of phrenology, lobotomies and CIA mind-control experiments. It was recently reported that Nadine Dorries, the UK Minister for Culture wars, stormed into a meeting with Microsoft and demanded to know when they were going to get rid of “algorithms”: not really possible for a software company, since all computer programs are made of algorithms, but the story does reflect an increasing public suspicion of the ways machines are being used to manipulate us.
Researchers in facial-recognition AI systems, for example, claim to be able to read political affiliation from a photograph; social-media companies analysis posts for indicators of personality traits; fitness trackers are attempting to move into mood-tracking; and fancy new brain-scanning “lie detectors” have been used by prosecutors in Indian courts, arguably infringing the right to avoid self-incrimination. Even if the claims for such technologies are so far overblown, they all represent novel attempts to intrude into what used to be a private mental space.
Here Alegre adroitly cites Nineteen Eighty-Four and its discussion of the lesser-discussed sibling of thoughtcrime, which Orwell called “facecrime”: “It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in a public place or within range of a telescreen . The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself – anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. ”
From facecrime to Facebook, and Orwell’s “prolefeed” (“the rubbishy entertainment and spurious news which the Party handed out to the masses”) to the Twitter feed, is a worryingly short distance. It’s amusing that liking a Facebook page called “Being Confused After Waking Up From Naps” is a strong predictor of male heterosexuality, but it’s grimmer to learn that a leaked Facebook document boasted it was able to target “moments when young people need a confidence boost ”On behalf of advertisers. Any and all information we feed into the social-media maw, Alegre notes, “will be analyzed to reveal psychological traits or fleeting states of mind that will, in turn, be used to manipulate our behavior or to tell others how they should treat us ”. This is particularly egregious in the realm of behavior-tracking targeted at children.
Whenever you hear tech companies paying lip-service to “ethics”, Alegre warns, you should be suspicious. “You do not need to be much of a cynic to see why ethical guidelines may be more palatable to big tech than actual regulation. Ethics are optional. ” Legal remedies, then, are required. The headline remedy she suggests is quite thrillingly radical: an outright ban on “surveillance advertising” – the kind dependent on trackers and cookies, that beams out your personal data to hundreds of companies whenever you load a webpage. We never asked for it, and we do not like it. Just make it illegal, along with other key parts of the digital panopticon, such as “emotion analysis” tech in public places, or Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa devices. “When my daughter asked why she could not have an Alexa like her friends,” Alegre relates heroically, “I told her that it is because Alexa steals your dreams and sells them.”
We have all sleepwalked into this gloomy fairytale, and it’s time to wake up. There remain questions, though, about how far regulation can or should go, since it seems impossible to police all the manifold threats to our cognitive autonomy that Alegre identifies. Some, indeed, are hardly peculiar to the digital age at all. “If inferences can be drawn about your inner world based on your appearance,” she writes, “it does not matter what you actually think or feel. Your freedom to be who you are is curtailed by society’s judgment of you. ” Maybe so, but this is lamentably inevitable if you want to live in society at all.
If it should be impermissible, meanwhile, for “governments, companies or people” to seek to “manipulate our opinions”, on the grounds that this violates our right to freedom of thought, one wonders what kind of persuasive speech would still be allowed in such a brave new world. Aren’t arguments of all kinds – political, scientific, artistic – attempts to manipulate the opinions of others? How do we sort the good kind of manipulation from the bad? A benevolent philosopher-king would no doubt figure this out for us, but in the regrettable absence of one it does not seem likely that many people would want to leave it up to a legal authority, whether or not it’s called a Ministry of Truth .