Welcome, or welcome back, to the FilterLabs Newsletter. Or perhaps it is you who should be welcoming us back! We have had our heads down for the last few months working on some exciting new projects (and landing a major round of investment!).
When it was launched in March 2022, this newsletter almost exclusively focused on the Russian information environment, from how we think Russian propaganda should be understood to some overlooked vulnerabilities (and regions) in the Russian Federation. But as we have expanded our work not only beyond Russia but also into other types of data (economic, consumer, and social indicators), we have come to believe that a broader aperture is needed.
Let us explain.
The information ecosystem is a key site of political conflict, both within national borders and in international affairs. Take the recent dustup over YouTube’s election integrity policy. On June 2nd the video site announced that it would no longer remove content that denied the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. The company stated that its policy was “curtailing political speech without meaningfully reducing the risk of violence or other real-world harm.”
Responses to the change were predictably negative on the left, just as responses to the original policy had been predictably negative on the right. For instance, Julia Millican at the left-leaning Media Matters declared that “YouTube and other platforms … have made it clear that one attempted insurrection wasn’t enough. They’re setting the stage for an encore.” A conservative commentator writing for the Heritage Foundation had previously compared YouTube’s policy to the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, run by Joseph Goebbles.
As usual, there is more heat than light here. Assumptions fly fast and thick, and important issues go unexamined. Do online videos increase the risk of real-world violence? If so, how? When and why? What are the limits, if any, of free expression online? What difference does it make if the censor is a private company, as opposed to a government official or department?
Questions like these are too important to ignore. At FilterLabs we believe that the Internet Age—characterized by a superabundance of information and instantaneous movement across a global network of billions of nodes—represents the largest revolution in human communication, and therefore in human society, since the invention of the television. If not the printing press.
Even so, after decades of living with the internet in our homes and pockets, it is still difficult to say exactly what changes this superabundance of information has wrought on our political, economic, and even personal lives. We need better answers to questions like: To what extent can governments legitimately control their nation’s information environment? How have the internet and social media changed the relationship between people, institutions, and governments? How do people form and change their views in this new information environment—and what spurs them to action?
At FilterLabs we don’t have all the answers (sorry to disappoint), but we’re fascinated by the questions, and we love building tools that make it possible to dig into these questions and provide some answers.
So, in this newsletter going forward we’ll get behind the headlines and uncover the deeper changes to our information environment and society. We’ll investigate stories at the intersection of technology and politics. We will scour the far reaches of the internet looking at online conversations, economic and consumer data, social trends, and more, then present our findings in several forms. About once a fortnight, our staff may share:
- Exclusive looks at FilterLabs’s own research and numbers.
From the front line of the Russia-Ukraine war to political campaigns in the United States (and some stuff farther afield – stay tuned!), FilterLabs works with governments, corporations, and political campaigns to understand their information environments. Some of this research is proprietary. Some we can share.
- Analysis of current events.
Beyond partisan wrangling, policy makers and intellectuals and business leaders are grappling with the new superabundance of information. We’ll look at policy proposals, legal cases, business initiatives, and the best current thinking on our global information ecosystem.
- Interviews with change-makers.
FilterLabs staff at times works closely with some interesting characters who are hard to categorize (and, in some cases, prefer not to be named). Expect conversations with former intelligence chiefs, media figures, dissidents, hackers and spies, and anyone else who has tried to move world events through the medium of information.
- Intellectual history.
The history of thinking about the interplay of information, technology, and society is rich and fascinating. Alas, it seldom informs public debates. We’ll revisit figures like Marshall McLuhan and Jacque Ellul, who were prescient about the coming information age and can still help us navigate it.
- A roundup of notable articles.
Once a month or so, we’ll highlight the best new articles on the issues we care about: information policy, information technology, and the fate of democratic governance in our new information ecosystem.
We hope this newsletter will bring to the fore some overarching themes as well as events, personalities and histories that are relevant for understanding global propaganda and its effects on our politics, communities and worldviews. For those who subscribed in order to learn about the Russian information environment, don’t worry – we are still just as engaged (and fascinated) by public sentiment and propaganda in Russia as ever, and you should continue to expect analysis and reports in and around the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. But, as has become increasingly clear to us, there is no way to understand the Russian information environment outside of the American, European, Chinese, or even Indian information environments. That is the new reality of this interconnected age.
We hope the FilterLabs Newsletter will be a space where we can share how we are thinking about the emergent information environments, responses to it by governments, corporations and individuals, and what we might be able to do in response.
We would love to hear from you all as well. What would you like to hear about? Do you agree or disagree with our take? How would you respond? Send us a note on our Contact page. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.