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Emulating China: How Social Media Groomed Us for a Social Credit Score System by David Boos

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Emulating China: How Social Media Groomed Us for a Social Credit Score System

Quietly, without much public notice, on March 29th, the city of Bologna announced plans to launch an app that will go down in history as the first European social credit score system. At the end of April, The European Conservative reported on the introduction of the “Smart Citizen Wallet;” now, starting in fall 2022, Bologna residents will be allowed to earn points for “virtuous behavior,” which the mayor and his “Digital Agenda” henchman likened to “a supermarket bonus card” in a press conference. Those who diligently separate garbage, use public transportation, and don’t get fined, can soon look forward to receiving points that will give them some kind of advantage. Some kind? Yes, because the exact rewards have not yet been determined. But apparently that’s not important; the people in charge obviously assume that citizens are so conditioned to a system of intangible social “credits” and “debits” that the process of collecting points in the vague promise of reward is enough to get people to participate. And they’re probably not wrong about that.

I’m left with a lot of questions. Is this really the first social credit score system in Europe? Where is the boundary between earlier prototypes and the “Smart Citizen Wallet” from Bologna? What might be added to a final form? 

All these are secondary to the central question: why would people—ostensibly free, rational people—let something like this happen to them. Is the principle of the social credit score system not known and feared enough? To stop it, do we simply need to make people aware of it? Or is the truth graver: that a majority of people would accept such a system given a certain period of acclimatization? 

First, a brief overview: already since 2014, China has been testing (these systems are constantly being tested, rarely fully implemented) a social credit score system. Basically, it is nothing more than a digital ID  coupled with all kinds of monitoring mechanisms to constantly assess the behavior of citizens. Those who abide by all the rules receive plus points and easier access to loans or visas, while those who run red lights receive minus points. If the score is too low, there is the threat of exclusion from participating in certain aspects of social life, e.g. by being barred from buying train or airline tickets.

So far, so dystopian. When this system was introduced in China, people in Europe turned up their noses at such surveillance measures. Realistic assessments of the Chinese model were mixed with long-established prejudices. At that time, people might have called this “typically Chinese,” although sometimes with an appreciative “but efficient” mixed in. Yes, the Chinese can be efficient, and even if people did not want to admit it for a long time, this efficiency has led to Europe being overtaken by China in terms of economic and political importance long ago. It should come as no surprise that in certain circles in Europe, bureaucrats eye China with a little envy in view of such efficiency, even if they would not admit it publicly. Thus, efforts by the ruling classes to establish a similar system in the West are not really surprising. 

Apparently the Bolognese app has already been tested for some time in Rome. I can only hope that I missed the Europe-wide outcry of indignation about this project in the Eternal City when Rome presented its urban “Smart City Plan” at the “City Innovators Forum” in early 2020, including the “Smart Citizen Wallet” now being introduced in Bologna. 

The Roman presentation gives more insight into the real motivations behind this project.

The Municipality of Rome intends to implement an incentivizing system to reward the city users’ virtuous behaviors that contribute to the achievement of the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
The first solution will focus on incentivizing the use of digital systems and cashless payments. The Municipal Administration of the city of Rome intends to develop and manage the project, based on blockchain technology, through private-public partnerships.
Aim of the project:
▪ To incentivize virtuous behaviors;
▪ To increment the volume of cashless transactions.
Once implemented, the model could be replicated in other Italian cities and integrated with the future system that will be developed at the national scale.

This already reads far more to the point than the media’s trivialization of the system as a “supermarket bonus card.” The explicitly intended abolition of cash in combination with the “promotion of virtuous behavior” leaves little doubt about the future plans already envisioned on a national level. After all, the faster the country can encourage people to receive “rewards” via points and thus stop using cash, the sooner the abolition of cash will become a reality and access to services and goods will be handled via the points account. Gradually goods and services will disappear behind a points barrier—first luxury items and non-essential services, then things as basic as food and water—until every area of public life is linked to the balance of the social credit score. It is not at all far-fetched to imagine that eventually health insurance companies will make their monthly contributions, or their benefits, dependent on the exemplary behavior of citizens: if you buy sushi, you get plus points; if you devour a pack of potato chips, prepare for deductions.

Against this backdrop, it is good to remember that between the presentation of the “Smart Citizen Wallet” in Rome and in Bologna, there were two years of COVID-19, over the course of which further preliminary stages of such a system were tested. People grew accustomed to constant monitoring of their health status. They became comfortable with always carrying proof of their “virtuous health” (or demanding such proofs from others); with the introduction of various green passports; on- and off-line virtue signalling about the number of jabs already received; and, conversely, social discrimination and exclusion for those who do not approve of such measures. 

All this gave us a clear roadmap for a future based on total control. But above all, these past two years have shown that people are frighteningly willing to be part of such a system.

Last but not least, the reference to the “2030 Agenda“ in the Roman presentation is important because it provides us with the broad context in which these projects should be understood. What the “Smart Citizen Wallet,” the “Smart City Charter,” or the “Sustainable Development Goals” have in common is that they combine green socialism with Orwellian newspeak. Everything seems to add up to a brave new world at first glance, but the devil is in the details. Just as we have witnessed on issues of social justice, climate protection, or vaccination, diversity of opinion must fall by the wayside in the implementation of such utopias. We are always all to blame for a grievance, and consequently the problem can only be remedied if we all make our contribution… and social credit systems make it quite easy to punish, and grievously, those who hold a different opinion. 

From this it follows that the world is divided into two very simple camps: “virtuous” and “non-virtuous” people. Any third option—neutrality, ambivalence, nuance—has no place in this binary system. We have only to look at America’s binary political system to see the fate of those who do not swear total allegiance to one side or the other; they are attacked and condemned by both sides and excluded from political representation. Make this a social situation, not merely an electoral one, and we have a glimpse of what awaits those who try to find a via media: absolute social exclusion. 

The question of guilt can rarely be answered simply. It would be convenient to say that “those up there” are responsible for these social credit systems and to assume that “the majority of people” reject such policies. This is the thinking of naive revolutionaries who believe that all they have to do is mobilize the masses in order to change the world.

The reality is far more dismal. The truth is that the docile man of the late West likes to be efficiently administered; he is grateful to the ruling bureaucrats for removing the burden of free will outside of basic consumer desires. With effective management, our bureaucrats promise (and we believe), we can survive even major crises by staying on our sofas and continuing to consume our favorite products. Indeed, state-financed advertising like in this COVID-campaign by the German government confirms to us that this is heroic.

This is all the result of various strands, some of them decades long, converging into a common rope to bind us. About 15 years ago, the boom of social networks began; this began the global conditioning of people to be dependent on constant validation. All the mechanisms that would take effect in a social credit score system in the real world have existed on Facebook and Twitter for years. Anyone who says unpopular things is restricted. But mind you: not ONLY by the invisible rulers of these platforms, but also by our own acquaintances. What began as a platform for food photos and cat videos has developed, partly through momentum, partly by design, into a forum of self-censorship. Every form of self-expression now goes through countless filters. Gone are the days when we showed a different side of ourselves in the circle of certain social groups than in the circle of our families or work environments. The transparent person, the streamlined person who takes the path of least resistance in every question, has become a reality, and ultimately, a necessity.

As the individual became increasingly dangerous, social media at first welcomed people who promoted a certain consensus view, then demanded it. Social issues became opportunities to flaunt one’s own virtue—virtue that was little more than enthusiasm for the consensus view. Through a system of tiny nudges called “likes,” social media steers us along a predetermined path, for these “likes” are highly addictive.

Of course, such a system also has a downside. For although the mainstream opinion lectures us on how equal we all are, deep down in all our hearts, ambition slumbers. A healthy understanding of competition has now almost become taboo; instead, mendacious double standards flourish. When there is no healthy, socially acceptable way to validate and embrace individuality (true individuality, not the gratuitous “self-expression” so common today which always follows the same path of progressivism and celebration of deviance), a merciless and deceitful fight for a place in the spotlight begins. The encouragement of socially more successful people enhances our status, but those who stumble and fail at the hurdles of social expectation are quickly sorted out, censured, and abandoned. Often, this censoring is not motivated by genuine personal antipathy, but by fear of guilt by association: “You don’t want to be seen with someone like that.” Thus the isolation process begins.

These behaviors are already commonplace on social networks. Anyone who has come out as a conservative in a progressive circle of acquaintances has already experienced the censure and rejection first-hand, right down to the concerned friends who offer—from a safe distance—a few stray “last chances” to toe the progressive line and save yourself from social exclusion.

Given that this is the world we’ve all lived in for several decades, it should come as no surprise that people are not outraged about a social credit score system. On the contrary, many will probably welcome that the mechanisms long rehearsed in exchange for cheap “likes” can finally have real-life rewards—and punishments.

Social credit score systems will become a reality in Europe over the next few years, no matter how many times we write against them at the European Conservative or on other platforms. But it is still worth decrying them, even though this will come back to haunt us. That is because there are many, many Europeans who have already been assigned the status of outcasts in this social credit score system. Due to their resistance to progressivism in all or some of its many forms, many of us will find ourselves gradually edged out of society. For those Europeans, it will become vital to know, despite all the messaging from progressive bureaucrats and media, that they are not alone.

We must also decry these systems for the sake of those who believe they could end up winners in such a system, or at least see in it the path of lesser resistance. The reality is that in any system that demands absolute ideological purity, there can be very few winners. As social credit systems take hold, the range of acceptable opinions and actions will become ever narrower; and more and more people—even people who have striven to stay within the boundaries of the acceptable—will find themselves excluded. 

These people, the ones who are currently passively accepting the coming social credit system as they have passively accepted all other reductions in freedom, are a majority. Only when all these people see how hollow are the promises of this brave new world, and how cruel this world will be to all but a few chosen winners, only then will we be able to begin to rediscover true freedom… if it is not too late.

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.