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We’re Dangerously Close to Giving Big Tech Control Of Our Thoughts

9 minute read
Alegre is a human rights barrister, Senior Fellow at CIGI and author of Freedom to Think

Elon Musk has proclaimed himself to be a “free speech absolutist” though reports of the way employees of his companies have been treated when exercising their free speech rights to criticise him might indicate that his commitment to free speech has its limits. But as Musk’s bid to takeover Twitter progresses in fits and starts, the potential for anyone to access and control billions of opinions around the world for the right sum should focus all our minds on the need to protect an almost forgotten right—the right to freedom of thought.

In 1942 the U.S. Supreme Court wrote “Freedom to think is absolute of its own nature, the most tyrannical government is powerless to control the inward workings of the mind.” The assumption that getting inside our heads is a practical impossibility may have prevented lawyers and legislators from dwelling too much on putting in place regulation that protects our inner lives. But it has not stopped powerful people trying to access and control our minds for centuries.

At his trial for War Crimes in Nuremberg after the Second World War, Albert Speer, Hitler’s former Minister of Armaments, explaining the power of the Nazi’s propaganda machine said: “Through technical devices such as radio and loudspeaker 80 million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man…. Today the danger of being terrorized by technocracy threatens every country in the world.”

When whole communities are deprived of independent thought, it undermines their individual rights to freedom of thought and opinion. But it is not only a threat to the rights of the people who are manipulated. As the world saw with Nazi Germany, it becomes a threat to all our rights. Tragically, Speer’s warning is acutely resonant in the 21st-century as technology has been harnessed as an even more efficient tool for manipulation and control of the minds of populations with devastating consequences.

Facebook’s role in facilitating genocide in Myanmar, a country where the platform turned into a “beast” according to UN factfinders was a wake up call to the potential for social media profiling and targeting to twist people’s minds inciting deadly violence. Facebook committed to doing better, but as the events that played out across the world’s screens from the U.S. Capitol on 6 January last year and the ongoing ethnic violence in Ethiopia today show, their approach is hopelessly inadequate.

It is not just because of the enormous challenge of content moderation on a global platform, the business model of social media based on surveillance advertising facilitates the hijacking of user engagement to deadly effect. An investigation by the campaign group Global Witness last year showed that they were able to get inflammatory adverts approved on Facebook to target individuals in Northern Ireland across the sectarian divide at a time of heightened tensions. When propaganda can be automated, curated and targeted to reach billions worldwide for profit, it is an existential threat to humanity and one that none of us can afford to ignore.

It may have been Facebook in the frame for these incidences of violence, but a global platform like Twitter could be an equally powerful tool for manipulation on a massive scale as Donald Trump well knew. Twitter is valuable, not because of what you can say on the platform, but because of the billions of opinions you can control through the curation of individual news feeds.

Increasingly the purpose of technological innovations, whether in the online environment or using big data, artificial intelligence or neuroscience is, precisely, to access and control the inner workings of our minds. That is where the money is. Inferences drawn from huge pools of data about us are used to decide if we are susceptible to gambling or prone to conspiracy theories, if we are anxious or over-confident so that our vulnerabilities can be managed, sold and exploited. Our minds are a valuable commodity in both the commercial and the political spheres.

Technology is being developed not only to predict our political leanings from our faces, but also to identify our individual psychological buttons and to press them in ways that might make it more or less likely that you’ll get off the couch and go out and vote. The rise of “neuropolitics” and the use of political behavioural psychography in electoral processes around the world is problematic because it undermines the foundations of democracy, no matter who is paying for it or which way you vote.

The use of these tactics spans ideological divides but we when we are talking about mass mind control, the implications are so profound and devastating that the ends can never justify the means. Politics is always about influence and persuasion, but democracy relies on the votes of individuals who have formed their opinions free from manipulation. At a time when many of us get most, or all of our information online, we need to make sure that our minds cannot be easily hijacked and sold to the highest bidder. The Washington DC Attorney General’s recent move to sue Mark Zuckerberg personally for Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal may mark a shift in the right direction. Free flows of information allow us to form our opinions freely, we cannot afford to make one person the global gatekeeper to our minds, no matter how keen they may seem to be on freedom.

It’s not just about social media. Technologists have ambitions beyond the screens we stare at and the enthralling devices we have glued to our palms. Elon Musk’s Neuralink has its sights set on nothing less than direct access to our brains. It claims to be “designing the first neural implant that will let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go.” Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI’s) won’t just control the way we receive information, they will control how our minds meet the world.

When Facebook announced its own project to develop non-invasive BCI in 2017, it promised that it would only read the thoughts you wanted it to. In 2021, it shelved the project. Perhaps it realised direct access to the human mind was just a bridge to far. Reading our minds in real time is only a part of it, in 2019, neuroscientists published an experiment where, by implanting electrodes into the brains of mice they could make the animals see things that were simply not there. If you worry about deepfakes, imagine how much more dangerous they could be if they were not on your screen but actually in your head.

While brain implants for manipulative marketing or mind-reading may not sound too appealing, when dressed up as health tech, these tools suddenly become saleable. Musk has reportedly claimed that Neuralink could help control hormone levels and mood to our advantage. But if your hormone levels can be changed to alter your brain to your advantage, they may also be altered to the advantage of someone else if that was more profitable or politically expedient. And imagine if you had to upgrade your brain as often as your phone to deal with those tricky built-in downgrades depleting your battery and clogging up your memory just that bit faster with every new model….

Whether we are looking at the global management of information flows or the tiny threads of Neuralink’s brain-computer-interface pushing through our skulls, we need to wake up to the fundamental threat of systems that allow direct access to our minds en masse.

While freedom of speech can be limited in certain circumstances, the right to freedom of thought is absolute in international human rights law. It means that we have the right to keep our thoughts private, not to be penalized for our thoughts alone, and to keep our inner lives free from manipulation. We can no longer rely on the Supreme Court’s outdated assumption that no one can control the inward workings of our mind. Whether or not the claims are overblown, technology is already trading on its potential to do just that.

We need freedom of thought to combat climate change, racism and global poverty, and to fall in love, laugh and dream. It is crucial to the cultural, scientific, political and emotional life in our societies. Once we lose it we may never get it back. Musk’s takeover of Twitter combined with his ambitions for Neuralink make the threat of big tech to our freedom of thought impossible to ignore.

We need serious regulation to check the systems that want get inside our heads and we need it now. Tackling the business models underpinning social media and banning the use of BCI’s as consumer products before they become a mass-market reality would be first, but urgent steps. We must learn from history the dangers of letting one man control the minds of millions or billions of people and we must be prepared to say no before it is too late.

It’s not about Elon Musk, it’s about anyone having that kind of access to your mind. Our future should not be built on the best way to monetise the global population and obtain world domination for the few. It must be grounded in what it means to be human, and for that, we must have the freedom to think.

Adapted from Alegre’s new book Freedom to Think: The Long Struggle to Liberate our Minds” by Susie Alegre, published by Atlantic Books

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