In China, a new social credit system, sponsored by the government, has been implemented called Sesame Credit, which is part of the giant Chinese eCommerce company, Alibaba (which is still part of Yahoo!).
Here’s how it works: Users of the system are given a score (similar to a credit rating) that’s based on their purchases, what they say on social media, and on the scores of their social media connections. If you post things that are critical of the government, or buy “unpatriotic” things, or associate with people who have low social credit scores, your score will go down. If you do the opposite of these things, your score goes up.
The system is voluntary, but will become mandatory in 2020. High Sesame Credit scores may get you rewards such as a faster internet connection and more freedom of travel. Low scores will be punished by restricting the sorts of jobs you can get, and generally causing you to be isolated from society.
The whole concept is extremely frightening. We think about it as something that’s happening “over there” and something that we, who live in the US, would never allow to happen “here”.
In the U.S., we do see a similar social media pressure, although it’s not directly sponsored by the government. Employers and potential employers check your Facebook page and your number of LinkedIn connections. Purchases you make and websites you visit are tracked and you are scored and rated by many different companies. You’re unlikely to know about events or parties you’re invited to unless you go on Facebook regularly. And if you like Donald Trump or Barack Obama, people are finding out on Facebook and either unfriending you or marketing to you because of it.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that the U.S. government is already watching us. Things you say on social media may not always get you locked up in the U.S. (although, it has happened), but increasing pressure in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks make it more likely that governments will be monitoring social media more closely and taking action based on that monitoring. The use of strong encryption to protect private conversation is also under attack and any laws passed with regard to it will make it less likely that there will be anything outside the reach of surveillance by governments or businesses.
The effect of people’s fear of terrorism, ad tracking, government surveillance, and social network peer pressure is that we all become more afraid to read and express unpopular opinions, or even the truth.
So-called “social credit” systems aren’t just another way that that authoritarian governments control their citizens. They’re a formalization of a natural reaction to primal human fears and desires. This is what makes Sesame Credit so frightening. It’s happening all around us; “here” and “there”, and we’re even inviting it.