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Can China's social credit system reach the West?

Available on Netflix since 21 October 2020, the “Nosedive” episode of the series Black Mirror, is one of the best-known products of popular culture to portray, in an almost prophetic way, the tragic course of a humanity that has sold itself completely to social networks. The dystopia starring Bryce Dallas-Howard (Jurassic World) illustrates a world in which digital reputation – measured in likes, comments and positive interactions – has literally become the main bargaining chip between individuals whose access to any material goods (houses, cars, restaurants) is conditional on the score obtained in an official app.

Any resemblance to China’s social credit system purely coincidental? Although the creators of the series never said anything about it, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the universe of “Nosedive” and the mass surveillance system that operates openly in the world’s second largest economy: a gigantic database that monitors and assesses the trustworthiness of individuals, companies and government entities, allowing citizens to report to each other and giving managers the power to determine who buys a plane ticket and who gets on the government’s “blacklist” – to the point of who to call or try contacting one of these people to be warned of the “dangerousness” of the interlocutor. On this side of the world, the supposed paradise of liberal democracies, the mere existence of such a mechanism should cause the disgust one feels when watching science fiction. But how far is the West, in fact, from having its own social credit system?

For entrepreneur David Sacks, a savvy US tech investor with Facebook business, Twitter, Airbnb and Uber on the CV, the answer to this question comes almost too late: the West already has its own version of the credit system, albeit in a “soft” version. The difference is that, in place of the Chinese Communist Party and the declared intentions of its leader, Xi Jinping, to “strengthen the Chinese national identity” and foster a “culture of trust”, who would be in control here are the big technological conglomerates. , the Big Techs, and their oligarchs, moved by an admirable desire to promote social justice – as long as it does not harm their billionaire businesses and, almost always, overriding the beliefs, votes and, ultimately, the freedom of expression of who are not part of the intellectual “elite” (and, almost always, represent the working class).

In an interview with journalist Bari Weiss, dissident editor of The New York Times, Sacks argues that, Contrary to the promise of more freedom, decentralization of power and access to information represented by the internet in the ides of 2010, the digital space became an arena dominated by a “cartel of discourse” capable of operating an analogous system o to the Chinese model, even more “smooth”. “Let’s start by defining what a social credit system is. It’s a system that pretends to give you civil liberties and that won’t send you to a gulag for expressing an opinion. You don’t completely lose access to society, but its benefits are conditional on having the ‘right opinions’. This is the situation we are heading for”, he explains.

The turning point, for Sacks, would have been the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the first major event to displease Silicon Valley to the point of leading it to spread the idea that the elections were not a reflection of the popular will, but of “ Russian disinformation”, technological engineering, etc. Within a few years, the first bans of controversial figures on the right would come. Until 2020, when the Hunter Biden case and the hypothesis of the laboratory origin of Sars-CoV-2 are summarily deleted from the networks as “disinformation”, until they prove to be real.

“A cartel is an economic term that refers to companies that should compete with each other act together, creating a monopoly. I think it is a better definition of what is happening with freedom of expression: there is a cartel (these companies) all kick the same people off their platforms. So even though they should compete with each other and that competition leads to them attracting a larger and larger audience, they keep kicking it out,” says Sacks.

Racial surveillance “for good”

To arrive at China’s social credit system, it is enough to transpose this scenario to a post-pandemic world in which the internet and, especially, social networks have increased their economic relevance by becoming the lifeline for merchants, self-employed entrepreneurs, workers freelancers, among other professionals. Add to this the growing technological war between China and the United States, which, paradoxically, import surveillance technologies used by the Communist Party.

A recent example exposed by The Guardian is the adoption of smart cameras to identify unmasked students in American schools. Another is the recommendation system adopted by Yelp, a rating app for restaurants and small businesses.

At first glance, the action looks like a well-intentioned campaign to promote the desired social justice. In practice, it opens a flank for ideological exclusion. When opening the profile of a restaurant on Yelp, the reader may come across the message: “business accused of racist behavior”. The problem is in defining what the hell is racist behavior: whether it is, in fact, successive episodes of discrimination, or an attendant who explained to a black customer that the bathroom of the place is intended only for the staff – as happened to a Starbucks. Or, who knows, the owner of the establishment just hasn’t taken any “racial literacy” courses and continues to use the verb “denigrate” with the meaning it always had – to tarnish someone’s reputation – before the word police came into play. cena.

The complaint was made in 2020 by journalist Melissa Chen, in a report for The Spectator. In an interview with Gazeta do Povo during the Liberty Forum, when he was in Brazil, Chen mentioned the case as a practical application of the “soft” social credit system from the West.

“In effect, Yelp is introducing a rudimentary social credit system that subjects entrepreneurs to the whims of culture wars. Aware of the controversy, Yelp has already been embroiled in lawsuits alleging that the app forced companies to pay for advertising on its platform and withheld positive reviews until they relented,” writes Chen. “By inserting an official warning based on nothing more than an allegation of racist behavior, Yelp is increasing perverse incentives to substantiate criticism. There is simply no way to know if a business is a victim of false accusations, especially given the frenetic pace of social media posts.”

“Why are you flagging the race of a business owner or your political convictions? It’s a social credit system, only it comes from the bottom up. In theory, liberalism should serve to keep people from being defined by that sort of thing. I’m not saying we should be blind to racial issues, but it’s not the kind of thing we should care about when choosing a restaurant. I don’t need to know who the owner sleeps with,” Chen told Gazeta do Povo.

Denied payments and the Canada’s “pilot project”

There are cases in which the western version of the social credit system has already reached the pockets of its victims: Sacks recalls that, in January of last year, PayPal blocked a Christian crowdfunding site that raised money to drive protesters to Washington. The following month, the platform announced that it was working with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to ban users. This week, the company announced that it is partnering with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to investigate and close accounts that the ADL classifies as “extremist”: the same ADL that once championed absolute freedom of expression and currently opposes to the appointment of conservative justices to the Supreme Court for “hostility to reproductive freedom,” the new nickname for “hate speech,” and called for Fox News to fire host Tucker Carlson. As usuala, in “hate speech” anything and everything fits.

“I do not wish defend genuinely hateful or extremist groups. In fact, when I was head of operations at PayPal, we regularly worked with law enforcement to curb illegal activities on our platform. But we’re talking about something very different here: it’s about blocking people and organizations that express totally legal opinions, even if they’re unpopular in Silicon Valley,” says Sacks. Behold, in February of this year, the Emergency Act enacted by the President of Canada, Justin Trudeau, against truck drivers who opposed mandatory vaccines for Covid-19 ended up functioning as a “pilot project” of the system in its “perfect” functioning.

“One of the most indefensible aspects of what Trudeau did is that the freezing of accounts was done retroactively. The problem is that at the time protesters engaged in their acts of civil disobedience or received donations, it was a perfectly legal activity. (…) In other words: anyone who had opinions that Justin Trudeau believed to be unacceptable could be retroactively subjected to this punishment”, warns the businessman.

To combat this system, according to the expert , there is an urgent need for the rebirth of a Republican Party capable of confronting not only the forces of the State, but the collusions between large corporations. “This will require the party to adopt a historically unusual stance, which is to propose the regulation of private companies. It is necessary to return to Teddy Roosevelt, who (…) defended the rights of the common man against the power of these gigantic monopolies”, he evaluates.

For Chen, the solution lies in public awareness and in the progressive boycott of platforms that adopt these policies. “There is still time to reverse the scenario. If consumers don’t get into the logic of reviews, we have a chance. The point is: how to coordinate this? How to make people avoid Google? I think there is a way, but some will is lacking.”

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