If algorithms built to spy exist, they will be used.
There has always been an urge among us Soviet refugees to tell the story of socialism as a warning to the world. Leftist politicians in the United States may smother their ideas in do-gooder rhetoric, but we know from personal experience that any nation embarking on the road of central planning will inevitably cripple its soul.
In the past decade, however, the idea that it can get as bad here has given way to the realization that it may actually get worse. In large part, this has to do with the capabilities available to a surveillance state in the age of digital communications. Although the Soviet state suppressed free speech, the act of suppression does not guarantee the desired outcome of total thought control because, in the physical world, people always found ways to circumvent repression.
The Soviet state controlled the production and distribution of the media. Censorship of the printing press, cinema, and music was established following the Bolshevik revolution and remained in place until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost reforms. Any work of art could fall prey to the whims and calculations of those in power.
For instance, Joseph Stalin praised Sergei Eisenstein’s 1942 masterpiece Ivan the Terrible. The General Secretary identified with the 16th-century tsar and awarded the director with the coveted Stalin Prize. However, the second part of the biopic angered him, and he ordered the reels seized. The film wasn’t released until Khrushchev’s thaw, when Eisenstein was already dead. The production of the final part of the trilogy had been halted and most of it destroyed.
Censorship distorted the flow of information, the relationship between an artist and his audience and the very nature of everyday communication. Yet in the physical world there existed spaces outside—or at least partially outside—of the state purview, where ideas could still be shared and these pockets of relative freedom were significant, if not in size, then in impact.
Inexplicably, considering the bloc’s raging deficits, the USSR manufactured enough shortwave radios for 20 million households by 1960. This type of device was readily available in stores, even arguably overproduced. Shortwave radios were capable of receiving programming from abroad, allowing Russian speakers to tune in in the privacy of their own apartments to Russian-language Western broadcasts, which hosted the discussion of uncensored current events, literary readings, and forbidden Western music. That prompted the state to jam foreign radio frequencies. Nonetheless, the programs from abroad brought news like the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, which were then spread person-to-person.
Some banned literature was published in the West and then smuggled into the USSR, a phenomenon known as tamizdat, literally there published. Samizdat, or self publishing, meant the reproduction of censored materials, typically by typing, but sometimes by photography, and circulating through networks of friends.
Samizdat had a limited reach, estimated to be only 200,000 people, though all important cultural figures were said to have read banned literature. Magnitizdat, or reproduction of foreign or underground music, usually on reel-to-reel or cassettes, was far more common. It did not require the time commitment of, for instance, retyping The Gulag Archipelago by hand; plus, there is always a bigger market for music than books. Not everyone read or was interested in Solzhenitsyn, but even the most committed communists listened to the censored songs of the singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky.
In reality, uncensored culture was everywhere in the USSR. Joke-telling became the favorite pastime of Soviets of the Brezhnev era. Many anekdos were subversive, whether political or obscene, and of course there was a possibility of being reported to the appropriate authorities for sharing them. The oral tradition reflected on that: “How does every Soviet joke begin? With a look over your shoulder.”
At the same time, the ability to trust someone was highly valued, not only for emotional and social reasons. Soviet people relied on underground black-market networks or blat. The word friend carried profound meaning; only people with whom deep ties were forged were considered friends. Intimate companionships were formed early in life and much time and energy was invested in their maintenance. Loyalty was one of the most important qualities, betrayal the most serious transgression.
Despite the possibility of betrayal, passing on an interesting book or a tape or the Voice of America headline was judged by many to be a risk worth taking. On the one hand, it was a thrilling experience. On the other, verbal exchanges in particular left no record, which made them hard to trace (not that Soviet jurisprudence was necessarily fact-based). Even the act of passing a physical object like a book usually went under the radar. There is a Russian proverb—не пойман, не вор, the one who isn’t caught is not a thief—that expresses a belief that totalitarian subjects can get off scot-free.
In The Collective and Individual in Russia, Oleg Kharkhordin makes the point that the Soviet state organized individuals to spy and police each other. Kharkhordin argues that thanks to a campaign of mutual policing, in the 1950s the USSR eradicated the nascent stilyagi, or hipster culture. The point of being a hipster is to peacock identity in public, which makes them easy targets. Even in its final decades, the USSR was playing whack-a-mole with various neformaly, or informal youth groups, from bodybuilders to metalheads to punks who flaunted their subcultural affiliations. That’s because, as Alexei Yurchak explains in Cynical Reason of Late Socialism, the masses were neither overly ideological nor excessively cautious about hiding their ostensibly illicit activities by the 1970s. What the USSR successfully accomplished was germination of a counterculture that kept bubbling up to the top.
Here and now, we have traded undetectability for the speed and ease of digital communication. We can’t even tell jokes; we only share memes. Yet if the physical world has a certain God-given bias toward liberty our interactions in today's America leave digital marks, and these records can be stored forever for future access. At the same time, we believe ourselves to be free and are therefore less cautious than the Soviets, rarely changing our language for privacy reasons.
In the Soviet Union, it was taken for granted that all letters could be opened and, therefore, some information probably shouldn’t be put in writing. On many occasions, my family received letters from our American relatives that looked like they were molested by a steaming kettle. Some letters, we learned, didn’t arrive at all.
That said, we figured that the authorities didn’t bother to open every envelope and even when they did, they only scanned them. Even if we understood that it could be used against us, we figured that most of our correspondence was never going to be known to the KGB. We learned to balance caution and daring.
In the digital world, all thieves are caught; the only question is who will face consequences and when. One of the lesser revelations of the Twitter Files was that the publisher has the ability to spy on our direct messages. It was less shocking than manipulating an election and, in any event, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise—most of our emails and texts are not encrypted either. But even in the rare cases when they are encrypted, there is no guarantee that the company providing the wires won’t change its practices. Freedom of speech and privacy are now graces allotted by media conglomerates and these conglomerates are in communication with the national security apparatus.
The Soviet mechanism of control was made up of humans. Censors could allow the publication of a cryptically written book—writers like the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko excelled at communicating using Aesopic metaphors—either because they didn’t get it or because they were on the side of the writer. Sometimes an assist came from an unexpected direction. The godfather of Russian rock, Boris Grebenshchikov, believes that the KGB was more lenient to rock-n-rollers than the cops and the communist youth apparatus because their agents were drafted from the philosophy and philology departments of the best universities. Even if they personally weren’t interested in music, they were sufficiently refined to understand culture.
There is an understandable natural revulsion toward anyone employed in a spook capacity. However, some of these people didn’t end up in their positions by choice and even if they did, they weren’t uniformly loyal to the regime.
The Twitter Files showed Twitter’s Yoel Roth resisting the role of censor pushed on him by the federal agencies. But Roth is one of a few living, breathing individuals in charge of a vast social media network that relies mostly not on middlemen spies but on 1s and 0s. With a stroke of a keyboard, and without so much as making eye contact, he—or any other person in charge—had the ability to silence opposition or promote a lie. As twisted as a relationship between a secret agent and a citizen can be, it is probably preferred to that of a citizen and an algorithm.
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Perhaps I should mention that I suspect my own Twitter account has been restricted. I have my suspicions about what happened and—I will not lie—I have asked myself if it was worth it. It is not that I’m afraid of being banned from social media, but if I’m going to lose my ability to communicate with my friends and readers, I want it to be over something consequential. I treat every word as if it is my last.
Uncensored internet platforms are a fiction. Creation and maintenance of a real-life spy network is an uneasy chore, even in a totalitarian society. Meanwhile, algorithms and the accumulation of data are the basic facts of digital communication. If they exist, they will be used. We need to create a culture that discourages spying and canceling and erect legal barriers to storing and retrieving online communications.
The built-in bias of digital society is toward autocracy. As of yet, nobody has gone to prison over the Twitter Files. And if nobody is getting punished for it, then government censorship is de facto legal.