Censorship by algorithm


Two months ago, I was contacted by a man who sells books online at Amazon. He complained that the retailer had removed from its database any number of legitimate titles that of his – books written by me, and other writers. The censored texts all had one thing in common – they were books about fascism. Some hinted at lurid contents (“A history of Nazi involvement with the Occult”). Others sounded like respectable works of academic history (“The Cautious Crusade: Franklin D. Roosevelt, American Public Opinion and the War Against Nazi Germany”)

The seller wanted me to take sides in a dispute with Amazon – although how he or I could fight the platform was from clear. The books had simply been removed from Amazon’s selling list – no one had asked him for his reaction, there was no person for him to complain at.

Here’s the page he sent me. If you can’t see the text it reads: “We are writing to let you know that the following detail pages have been removed from our catalog …. Title: When We Touched the Sky…

My book When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981 is a piece of anti-fascist history. Yes it takes sides – against racism. It has been positively reviewed by dozens of papers and magazines, including the Independent on Sunday. Surely, if the origins of the rule was to prevent hate speech, there was something grotesque about it being used to censor a history of a mass movement against fascism.

Why had the books been taken down? For years, anti-racist and anti-fascists have complained about the role played by all the major internet companies in making life easy for the far right. The far right’s biggest publishers have an open door on Amazon, swastikas and other Nazi-style jewelry can be bought freely on the site. Even Mein Kampf is on sale there. People have complained, and continue to complain, that Amazon gives real help to fascists.

Plainly, what Amazon has done has been to pre-empt such public criticisms by agreeing to remove some of the most extreme material – and by passing on the task of checking for offensive material from people to an algorithm, which would catch such material and remove it early. Maybe it sounds like a good idea, but judging by the story of When we touched the sky, it seems that non- and anti-fascist books have been more effectively censored than fascist ones.

I’m annoyed but I’m sanguine. The book in question When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League is 15 years old, the publisher defunct. Nothing I can do will ever get it reprinted. Five years ago, the book was published in a new edition, with a new title, by Routledge. The new edition sells perfectly well, even on Amazon – it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

The removal of my book is a petty annoyance – not the career-ending blow it might be to a first-time writer. And yet the decision still annoys me.

It just seems wrong, even offensive, that a program can make the decision and I have effectively no means to challenge it. What if, next time, they do this to one of my books the very day it is published?

If I was to draw any longer-term conclusions from the whole affair they would be as follows. Amazon, like all the big internet companies is lazy. It is uninterested in the content sold on its website, blithe as to whether the books it produces do good or evil. It doesn’t want to look bad, nor does it care enough to do this properly.

You can petition the companies to remove hateful material, and sometimes that is a right and necessary thing to do. But, in every case, making that demand is to give the companies more power. I don’t trust Amazon to get these decisions right any more than I trust Twitter or Facebook.

I have no problem with great public campaigns removing symbols or artefacts of racism. I trust crowds of people and the causes (trade unions, anti-racism, etc) which sustain them. But these all rely on a vision of popular power which is capable of democratic challenge. By contrast, the likes of Amazon or the social media companies are big monopolies unaccountable to their shareholders or still the public.

Sure, its right to make demands of them sometimes. But political wisdom means making those demands rarely and in the clearest cases, and retaining a continuing scepticism about the wisdom of their censorship machines.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here.

Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

2 responses »

  1. Thanks – and as someone who writes about the far right, I am painfully aware that the author is right, there is indeed a phenomenon of people who buy books to disagree with them…

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