There’s a group of people who control what you are allowed to see–the news you read, the videos you watch, the posts you engage with.

This is the opening sentence of Ben Shapiro, “Meet the Company Trying to Control Your Mind,” The Daily Signal, August 2, 2023. The whole thing is worth reading.

This is a rare instance where the title is more accurate than the opening line. Shapiro makes a good case that a company called NewsGuard has inordinate influence on what ideas get spread and looked at. Indeed, one of my friends who’s managing editor of a site spent over 10 hours answering NewsGuard’s questions. NewsGuard even told him that his site should list the names of everyone who contributes $100 or more. He pointed out that NewsGuard received a high six-digit payment from the Pentagon but didn’t list the Pentagon as a finder.  Fortunately, my friend has refused to trim his site’s sails.

Shapiro writes:

NewsGuard is also working with others to use AI technology to enforce Brand Safety standards at scale, by identifying scalable hoaxes and misinformation in order to streamline blanket removal. This means that the news that you read, news that is supposed to be fair and objective or at least diverse, must adhere to GARM [Global Alliance for Responsible Media], the WEF [World Economic Forum], the WFA [World Federation of Advertisers], and their subjective and biased standards in order to be deemed monetizable.

I think Shapiro is correct here.

At the same time, he overstates. It’s not a matter of what you’re allowed to see; it’s a matter of what’s easy and convenient for you to see.

I object to the “allow” language for two reasons. First, it’s inaccurate; you can, sometimes with a lot of effort and sometimes with little effort, find things that these groups don’t want you to see. Second, it’s demotivating; if Shapiro or others convince you that you can’t see certain things, you can see yourself at the effect of the world rather than a powerful person determined to make his or her own way in the world.

Shapiro’s first sentence reminds me of something I wrote about some students who staged a walkout from Greg Mankiw’s economics class at Harvard. In “What Greg Mankiw’s Defenders Missed,” EconLog, November 9, 2011, I quoted this statement from one of the protestors: “As your class does not include primary sources and rarely features articles from academic journals, we have very little access to alternative approaches to economics.”

I wrote:

The only way they have “very little access to alternative approaches to economics” is if they don’t have the web and they don’t have libraries. Is Harvard lacking in those? I think not.

That’s why I satirically led my post with:

News Flash: Harvard Has no Access to the Web and No Libraries

If you think you have zero power to choose, you will act as if you have zero power to choose. Don’t be that person.

UPDATE: Here is a link to the $749,387 payment from the Department of Defense to NewsGuard.