China's draconian censorship efforts appear a world apart from the freedom of speech protections tenuously preserved in American society. But as the two world powers evolve the similarities are becoming just as striking as the differences. While their social designs diverge, their intended results do not: both seek to shrink the Overton Window in favor of what the governing class considers a healthier, more orderly, more moral discourse.

In China, censorship isn't just limited to critiques of the government. It also includes what the ruling party considers moral rot. Underage drinking, drug use, violence, and hyper-sexualized content get scrubbed from media and film. This top-down social engineering finds its shape in the country's new social-credit system, which punishes undesirable behavior like canceling dinner reservations or jaywalking by restricting travel rights or access to (financial) credit.

Far from feeling threatened by this development, ordinary Chinese seem to actually welcome it. A 2017 Ipsos poll revealed that 47 percent of the population regards moral decline as the country's biggest threat and an astonishing 87 percent believe the country to be heading in the right direction. According to the same poll, only 43 percent of Americans feel their country is heading in the right direction, and most would argue we are undergoing a moral reckoning. (It is important to note that a cross-national comparison of survey results is complicated by China's punitive monitoring of criticism.)

Many Chinese view the country's social-credit system as a way of addressing moral decline. Source: Ipsos Public Affairs

In the U.S., there is no law against denying the holocaust or hurling racial epithets. What we lack in legal redress, however, we are quickly and successfully suppressing via business, media, and academia. These institutions increasingly find themselves overrun by "internet mobs," those vicious and fickle masses of self-styled online vigilantes who comb the internet for transgressions by public figures. The pattern is predictable: targets are identified based on their statements or positions, their offenses are amplified on social media, and then a litmus test is presented.

Companies overwhelmingly respond by capitulating. Universities respond by de-platforming speakers, or students drown them out with protest. Though universities have historically been the bastions of rigorous intellectual debate, they are also, like businesses, adapting to their new boundaries. Media entities, especially mainstream ones, more often than not succumb to calls for eliminating perspectives that fall afoul of the approved discourse.

In Stalinist Russia, citizens were encouraged to report their neighbors for "counter-revolutionary" thought or behavior. Mere accusations were often enough to ensure the banishment of the state's "enemies" to gulags to die of torture, starvation, and disease.

The United States is not Soviet Russia or Maoist China. Neither is modern-day China. Nevertheless, both share outcasting as a potent social and economic weapon. The ruling class in Russia and China was of course the government. In the U.S., where the government is regularly refreshed, our ruling class is comprised of those who define our accepted modes of discourse through the institutions—many of them non-governmental—that they control. While no one serious has suggested the transgressors of today be sentenced to hard labor in a gulag (though certainly some non-serious individuals have), it is alarming how accepting many have become to inflicting on these transgressors a direct hit to their careers as just punishment for their wrongthink. Today's mob scans and censors the citizenry like past regimes have, except businesses and academia are the enforcement mechanism. This dynamic will continue to evolve.

America's leading tech companies are already grappling with how to censor, de-platform, or de-rank fake or inflammatory content. Facebook and Twitter have purged large numbers of Russian and Iranian accounts even though the spread of misinformation and divisive content is protected under the First Amendment. Along with YouTube and Instagram, their efforts have often gone too far. They ban not only foreign-sponsored actors but also repeatedly "shadowban" the accounts of domestic conservative activists and other "offenders" in both intentional and purportedly unintentional ways.

YouTube parent Google has been building a sophisticated, censorship-powered search engine for the Chinese government and Facebook has begun attaching a "reputation score" to its users. While these efforts don't contravene American law, the impact can be considerable since many rely on social media for their livelihood. This social currency will only increase in utility and sophistication as technology evolves and adapts. According to job search firm CareerBuilder, 70 percent of employers screen their candidates' social media presence before making a hiring decision. Avoiding social media altogether isn't a wise decision either — 57 percent stated they were less likely to hire a candidate if they had no social media presence at all.

Google's work with the Chinese Communist Party has sowed internal divisions about the role of technology in censorship and has created an ongoing public relations challenge for leadership

Tech companies' censorship and content-grooming techniques are now primarily a defensive posture, but users will soon recognize the impact of these changes and demand to see how they're "scored." Failure to respond will invite intervention by the government, who will use it to identify potential security threats. Businesses will add it to the trove of user information they already gather like demographics, location data, shopping preferences, and credit scores. Employers will integrate the preliminary vetting into their recruiting processes. Universities will use it as another critical data point in assessing applications. Dating tech will add it into its growing list of filterable criteria. The digital ghetto will become a reality, and we will know what we need to do to avoid it.

This decade will likely be remembered as the final chapter in the unregulated adolescence of our collective digital identities. The many calls to silence critics, curb misinformation, and improve the toxicity of our discourse are a cry for constraints on our freedom. China's social-credit system seems like an Orwellian dragnet, and it very well may be, but the U.S. is quickly constructing a parallel scheme. Because much of this evolution is inevitable, it is our responsibility to demand transparency from the organizations that seek to catalog and classify us. As technology and society evolve, we will be challenged to protect the voices of the people we'd most like to silence. Progress relies on a vigorous stress-testing of dogma. After all, Socrates was a traitor, Galileo a heretic, and Gandhi a dissident, and we are wiser now because we heard their voices.