Social Confinement: Tech Companies Narrowing Our World

Dear Reader,

First off, I hope you and your loved ones are doing well through all this.

Whether you are in Victoria or elsewhere, I would love to hear how you are doing and how this pandemic has affected you (or not). You can reach me at cs@portphillippublishing.com.au.

Here in Melbourne, our world feels like it has gotten smaller. At the moment we are pretty much physically confined to the limits of our own homes.

In the outside world though, the US continues to move away from China.

This week it’s TikTok that’s at the centre of the debate.

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To be honest, I’ve never used it. But from what I’ve read, TikTok is a social network and video sharing service owned by Chinese Bytedance.

It has about 800 million active users. To give you a comparison, Instagram has over a billion users.

Anyway, US President Donald Trump has given Microsoft until 15 September to buy it — and wants Treasury to get a cut on the sale — or they will ban it from the country on grounds of national security.

The argument is that TikTok has a lot of personal data from American citizens and that could help China influence the US’ public opinion.

It could be.

According to an article on The Intercept, TikTok is not free of government interference:

The makers of TikTok, the Chinese video-sharing app with hundreds of millions of users around the world, instructed moderators to suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform, according to internal documents obtained by The Intercept. These same documents show moderators were also told to censor political speech in TikTok livestreams, punishing those who harmed “national honor” or broadcast streams about “state organs such as police” with bans from the platform.

These previously unreported Chinese policy documents, along with conversations with multiple sources directly familiar with TikTok’s censorship activities, provide new details about the company’s efforts to enforce rigid constraints across its reported 800 million or so monthly users while it simultaneously attempts to bolster its image as a global paragon of self-expression and anything-goes creativity. They also show how TikTok controls content on its platform to achieve rapid growth in the mold of a Silicon Valley startup while simultaneously discouraging political dissent with the sort of heavy hand regularly seen in its home country of China.

Personalisation is narrowing our world

One is that this is another open front in the US­­–China decoupling that started a few years ago.

Add it to the trade war, Hong Kong, 5G, problems in the South China Sea…and the list goes on and on.

But it’s not just the US that is moving away from China. Other countries are doing the same.

Japan, for example, has set aside US$2 billion to help Japanese companies move manufacturing back to Japan from China.

Australia has also started to ‘divorce’ from China and, as editor Greg Canavan says, it could be a long and painful process.

The other point is about the influence that tech companies like TikTok — and others like Facebook — have. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for tech, but big tech profiting from users’ data…using logarithms to personalise data…account banning. I think there’s a real danger here.

For one, everything you do in these services gets tracked and rated. Tech companies are using our data to classify and define who you are…but also to censor.

We could end up in a world akin to Orwell’s 1984. I mean China’s already experimenting with a social credit system.

Then there is also the personalisation of what you see. We only see content that we’ve already searched for or shown some interest to already.

This is supposed to personalise our experience but it hides away anything that we may not interact with, dislike or that is different.

You see this in Facebook quite clearly. You may have hundreds or thousands of friends, but you only see the feeds of a few of them, usually the ones you have the most contact with.

According to Pew Research, 43% of adults in the US get their news from Facebook. Reliance on tech is growing during the pandemic.

This personalisation narrows our world instead of expanding it, even with large amounts of information at our fingertips. It reinforces what our view of the world already is instead of challenging it. It limits it.

And I’m sure you can see how this could be a real risk.

Best,

Selva Freigedo Signature

Selva Freigedo,
For The Rum Rebellion


Selva Freigedo is a research analyst for The Rum Rebellion.

Born in Argentina, her passion for economic analysis started at a young age. Her father was an economist for the Argentinean governments and the family used to discuss politics and economics at the dinner table.

Argentina is a country with an unusual economic history. Growing up there gave Selva first-hand experience on different economic phenomena such as hyperinflation, devaluation and debt default.

Selva has also lived in Brazil, Spain and the USA.

Back in 2000 she was living in the US as the dot com bubble popped…
And in 2008 she was in Spain as the property market exploded and then collapsed…

She has seen first-hand what happens when bubbles burst.

Selva joined Fat Tail Investment Research’s team in 2016, as an analyst. She now writes from her vantage point in Australia, where she settled in 2015.


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