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Owning a Monopoly on Knowledge Production

photograph of Monopoly game board

With Elizabeth Warren’s call to break up companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, there has been increasing attention to the role that large corporations play on the internet. The matter of limited competition within different markets has become an important area of focus, however much of the debate tends to focus on the economic and legal factors involved (such as whether there should be greater antitrust enforcement). However, the philosophical and moral issues have not received as much attention. If a select few corporations are responsible for the kinds of information we get to see, they are capable of exerting a significant influence on our epistemic standards, practices, and conclusions. This also makes the issue a moral one.

Last year Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes surprised many with his call for Facebook to be broken up. Referencing America’s history of breaking up monopolies such as Standard Oil and AT&T, Hughes charged that Facebook dominates social networking and faces no market-based accountability. Earlier, Elizabeth Warren had also called for large companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon to be broken apart, claiming that they have bulldozed competition and are using private information for profit. Much of the focus on the issue has been on the mergers of companies like Facebook and Instagram or Google and Nest. The argument holds that these mergers are anti-competitive and are creating economics problems. According to lawyer and professor Tim Wu, “If you took a hard look at the acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram, the argument that the effect of those acquisitions have been anticompetitive would be easy to prove for a number of reasons.” For one, he cites the significant effect that such mergers have had on innovation.

Still, others have argued that breaking up such companies would be a bad idea. They will note that a concept like social networking is not clearly defined, and thus it is difficult to say that a company like Facebook constitutes a monopoly in its market. Also, unlike Standard Oil, companies like Facebook or Instagram are not essential services for the economy which undermines potential legal justifications for breaking these companies up. Most of these corporations also offer their services for free which means that the typical concerns about monopolies and anticompetitive practices regarding prices and rising costs of services do not apply. Those who argue this tend to suggest that the problem lies with the capitalist system or that there is a lack of proper regulation of these industries.

Most of the proponents and opponents focus on the legal and economic factors involved. However, there are epistemic factors at stake as well. Social epistemologists study matters relating to questions like “how do groups come to know things?” or “how can communities of inquirers affect what individuals come to accept as knowledge?” In recent years, philosophers like Kevin Zollman have provided accounts of how individual knowers are affected by communication within their network of fellow knowers. Some of these studies have demonstrated that different communication structures within an epistemic network in terms of the beliefs, evidence, and testimonies that are shared can affect what conclusions an epistemic community will settle on. The way that evidence, beliefs, and testimony of other knowers within the network is shared will affect what other people in the network believe is rational.

Once we factor the ways that a handful of corporations are able to influence the communication of information in epistemic communities on the internet, a real concern emerges. Google and Facebook are responsible for roughly 70% of referral traffic on the internet. For different categories of articles the number changes. Facebook is responsible for referring 87% of “lifestyle” content. Google is responsible for 84% of referrals of job postings. Facebook and Google together are responsible for 79% of referral traffic regarding the world economy. Internet searching is a common way of getting knowledge and information and Google controls almost 90% of this field.

What this means is that a few companies are responsible for the communication of the incredibly large amounts of information, beliefs, and testimony that is shared by knowers all over the world. If we think about a global epistemic community or even smaller sub-communities learning and eventually knowing things through referral of services like Google or Facebook, this means that few large corporations are capable of affecting what we are capable of knowing and will call knowledge. As Hughes noted in his criticism of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg can alone decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feed, what messages get delivered, and what constitutes violent and incendiary speech. What this means is that if a person comes to adopt many or most of their beliefs because of what they are exposed to on Facebook, then Zuckerberg alone can significantly determine what that person can know.

A specific example of this kind of dominance is YouTube. When it comes to the online video hosting platform marketplace, YouTube holds a significantly larger share than competitors like Vimeo or Dailymotion. Content creators know this all too well YouTube’s policies on content and monetization have led many on the platform to lament the lack of competition. YouTube creators are often confused by why certain videos get demonetized, what is and is not acceptable content, and what standards should be followed. In recent weeks demonetization of history focused channels has been particularly interesting. For example, a channel devoted to the history of the First World War had over 200 videos demonetized. Many of these channels have had to begin censoring themselves based on what they think is not allowed. So, history channels have started censoring words that would be totally acceptable on network television.

The problem isn’t merely one of monetization either. If a video is demonetized, it will no longer be promoted and recommended by YouTube’s algorithm. Thus, if you wish to learn something about history on YouTube, Google is going to play a large role in terms of who gets to learn what. This can affect the ways that people evaluate information on these (sometimes controversial) topics and thus what epistemic communities will call knowledge. Some of these content creators have begun looking for alternatives to YouTube because of these issues, however it remains to be seen whether they will offer a real source of competition. In the meantime, however, much of the information that gets referred to us comes from a select few companies. These voices have significant influence (intentionally or not) over what we as an epistemic community come to know or believe.

This makes the issue of competition an epistemic issue, but it also inherently is a moral one. This is because as a global society we are capable of regulating in one way or another the ways in which corporations are capable of impacting our lives. This raises an important moral question: is it morally acceptable for a select few companies to determine what constitutes knowledge? Having information being referred by corporations provides the opportunity for some to benefit over others, and we as a global society will have to determine whether we are okay with the significant influence they wield.

The Black Wall Street Massacre, Contributory Injustice, and HBO’s Watchmen

black and white aerial photograph of Tulsa Race Riot

On October 20th, the latest adaptation of Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s ground-breaking 1987 graphic novel Watchmen premiered on HBO; its opening scene featured the Tulsa Race Massacre, potentially “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” where thousands of buildings were burned and hundreds of black Oklahomans murdered in the Spring of 1921. Also known as the Black Wall Street Massacre, it was sparked when tensions escalated after a local black shoeshiner was accused of accosting a white elevator operator; because there was talk of an impending lynching, the black community protested, leading to an exchange of gunfire.

For many HBO viewers, the most surprising thing about the scene was not its graphic violence, but the later realization that the Massacre was, indeed, a historical event – an especially bloody episode in American history which, by and large, goes undiscussed in American schools.

Consider now the message that President Donald Trump, embroiled within an impeachment inquiry about multiple cases of corruption and misconduct, tweeted on October 22nd:

“So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!”

Immediately, Trump was criticized for comparing the constitutionally-outlined impeachment process to the lawless brutality of lynching, a form of domestic terrorism almost exclusively used to reinforce racist oppression throughout the country by torturing and murdering black men. For anyone to draw (or defend) such an analogy requires, at best, an embarrassing level of ignorance or insensitivity about the actual history of racial abuse in the United States.

In different ways, both of these cases evidence what Ta-Nehisi Coates has called “patriotism à la carte” – a selective awareness of our national history that highlights certain favorable elements (or, at least, elements favorable to a particular subset of Americans) while quietly ignoring others. To Coates, such an approach to history is dishonest and, when it prevents some groups of Americans from being able to fully understand and engage with their current social situation, oppressive. Rather than cherry-pick the stories which we collectively magnify into cultural icons, Coates argues that an honest treatment of history will include multiple perspectives – even, and especially, if some perspectives emphasize that the U.S.A. (and its heroes) has not always been heroic for everyone: “If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.”

Furthermore, both the general ignorance about Black Wall Street and the specific ignorance about the cruelty of lynching demonstrate various forms of what Kristie Dotson, professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, has dubbed “third-order epistemic injustice” or, more simply, “contributory injustice.” In general, epistemic injustice relates to the ethical implications of how society mistreats knowledge claims from various parties. If a woman accuses a man of sexual assault, but her testimony is, as a matter of principle, treated with skepticism, then she may be the victim of first-order epistemic injustice, often called “testimonial injustice,” because her testimony is unjustly discredited. Cases of second-order injustice – also known as hermeneutical injustice – result when a person is not only unable to communicate their experiences, but is prevented from even privately conceptualizing their own experiences, such as in the case of harassment or assault victims prior to the coinage of terms like “sexual harassment,” “date rape,” or “marital rape.”

Contributory, or third-order, epistemic injustice comes about as a matter of what Dotson calls “situated ignorance” which prevents the voices of marginalized groups from contributing to the wider cultural conversation. By “maintaining and utilizing structurally prejudiced hermeneutical resources,” perpetrators of contributory injustice define what “counts” as “real” history; the fact that audience members of HBO’s Watchmen were surprised to learn about the violent mistreatment of the actual residents of Greenwood, Oklahoma may well stem from the systemic “à la carte” approach to America’s racial history that Coates decried. Importantly, those guilty of maintaining dominant perspectives may not consciously realize that they are silencing marginalized groups, but – whether such actions are intentional or not – such silencing remains and, therefore, remains a problem.

And when Donald Trump or others try to dilute the severity of America’s racist past by comparing professional accountability (and potential prosecution for legitimate crimes) to the painful history of the illegal and immoral lynching of innocent people, this also evidences Dotson’s concern to highlight the role that social power plays in maintaining the process of contributory injustice. As she points out, hermeneutical injustice entails that both a speaker and an audience are unable to understand the thing in question; in a case of contributory injustice, the marginalized group can fully conceptualize their own experience, but differential social positions prevent the confused people in power from attending to the less-powerful perspective – it is a lopsided confusion propped up by the ignorance of the powerful.

Interest in philosophical considerations of epistemic injustice, and the wider field of “social epistemology” as a whole, is growing; it remains to be seen just how long it might take for its insights to substantively contribute to the broader public conversation.