Censorship can be described as an aggravated assault on the ideals of free speech. It seeks to limit and suppress the voice of the people. However, ironically, in this modern day and age which has been touted as the golden age of free speech, censorship has become a crucial necessity.
With the amount of hatred being spread on the Internet rising day-by-day, Internet giants have resorted to instituting censorship measures in order to protect the common mass. The invention of social media has exacerbated the scenario; hostilities have become more visible and pronounced, with feuds and spats being daily occurrences.
Furthermore, inappropriate and objectionable content is often shared on social media, some of which can hurt the sensibilities of quite a number of people. Conversely, the taking down of a post considered offensive to some may seem like the stifling of another group’s sentiments.
Therefore, although content moderation is vital to the survival of the social media economy, online platforms also have to walk a tight rope in deciding who or what to silence.
It is to be noted here that the word censorship has relatively pejorative connotations (in comparison to content moderation or social media filtering) and refers to an adverse and aggressive crackdown on free speech while content moderation refers to regulations which pre-emptively stop the propagation of derogatory and distasteful material, which violate community standards.
Who is to judge if a post is hateful or not is also a crucial question, the answer to which is yet to be found. Absolute censorship of social media like which is practised in North Korea and China is wrong, but content moderation is the need of the hour.
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The Need for Content Moderation
Recently, in March 2019, a white gunman barged into a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and opened fire on the Muslim devotees; all the while live streaming the entire incident on Facebook. As a result, Facebook received a lot of flak for failing to remove it in time and for allowing people to circulate the gruesome video.
The prompted Facebook to impose new regulations on live streaming to ensure such a situation would be prevented in the future. Facebook was also criticised for facilitating the dissemination of hate speech as the gunman had also previously posted white supremacist propaganda material, which remained on his Facebook profile page for all to see.
YouTube has similarly been denounced for hosting inappropriate content and allowing children to view it. Although YouTube now has a strict adult content filter, some explicit content does manage to slip through.
YouTube has also been attacked for not cracking down on videos showing gratuitous violence and those promoting violence and bullying. American YouTube blogger was blasted when he posted a video of him coming upon on a dead body in Japan’s Aokigahara woods and then proceeded to joke about it.
Memes are a universally-loved source of humour and entertainment but, unfortunately, quite a few cross the line. Most memes have sexist, racist, homophobic, ethnophobic, classist and casteist undertones and these perpetuate further hatred and hostilities, not to mention wrong beliefs.
However, neither of these are said to violate Facebook, Instagram and Twitter’s community guidelines and are rarely taken down. In fact, ironically, it has been observed that activist accounts which endeavour to take down such objectionable material are banned or suspended without notice or explanation.
For instance, posts declaring ‘men are trash’ are routinely deleted due to the statement being incorrectly recognised as hate speech. In contrast, posts trying to assert that women are intellectually inferior to men, or moral policing women, are circulated widely, with impunity.
When Content Moderation becomes Censorship
In March of 2015, poet Rupi Kaur uploaded a photo of herself of wearing blood-stained pants on Instagram for a menstruation-themed photo series. It was swiftly taken down, not once but twice, by the photo-sharing website. This is an example of when content moderation crosses over to censorship.
Instagram ultimately apologised and restored the photo but people already had lost faith in its double-dealing policies. Another point of contention is the exposure of female nipples. A section of feminists are trying to desexualise the display of female breasts under the banner of the Free the Nipples movement.
They argue that since men can post topless photos of themselves, women should also be able to do so. Plus, this will helpful in destigmatizing breast-feeding in public. However, Instagram and Facebook have refused to budge on this stance and in a very sexist policy, have prohibited artwork or photographs which show female nipples or anything sexually suggestive for women.
Politics as in ages past is one of the primary wellsprings of censorship on the Internet. The Chinese government has banned Twitter in the country, so people have turned to Weibo, a Chinese social networking site built on the lines of Twitter.
Additionally, during times of unrest, governments cut off all access to social media to prevent spreading unnecessary panic or contentious information. Social media is cut off by the government for nefarious reasons when they try to restrict information about humanitarian crises, as is happening in Sudan right now.
Political and social satires are common targets of censorship on online platforms. A meme shared by a certain individual might prove too insulting to the ruling class, resulting in his or her arrest within a few hours. Such cases of social media policing have been a dime a dozen in the recent years in India, but have abated somewhat due to the repeal of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act.
Censorship of Social Media in India
Politically-driven censorship of social media is a heinous violation of an individual’s verbal autonomy and expression. Unfortunately, most political leaders do not think of the negative ramifications of stoppering dissent and obstructing dialogic conversations about their capabilities.
A legal loophole that has facilitated impeding free speech is the extremely vague Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000. Although on the surface it offers a protection against the spreading of derogatory messages, hate speech as well as false information, politicians have misused it to prosecute their critics.
It was only in March 2015 that the Supreme Court struck down the law, ruling that it was being excessively and arbitrarily used to repress political dissidence.
In the past few years, censorship has transformed in its nature. Instead of being draconically imposed by a central authority, it has become more community-driven. Now, trolls – people who wilfully abuse people on social media, even if the subject is not directly relevant to them – do the work of censors. By constantly and collectively harassing individuals for their opinions, trolls effectively hinder a person’s fundamental right to free expression.
In December 2018, the Indian government proposed that it would amend Section 79 of the same Information Technology Act, sparking fears of censorship again. The government stated that this was being done in the wake of the spate of lynchings and riots that took place following the dissemination of fake information-laden WhatsApp messages.
According to their proposal, objectionable and provocative content would have to be removed when flagged down by law enforcement agencies and the origin of such content tracked down, all within the prescribed time limits.
These measures would require social media giants like Facebook and Instagram to drastically alter their policies and especially their provision of end-to-end encryption. This would also mean that any post or message that the government finds to be unlawful will have to be removed, thus potentially arrogating a substantial amount of power to a capricious ruling party.
The Future of Content Moderation and Censorship on Social Media
The big question that has arisen in debates over content moderation and censorship is that who will be the watchdog that governs what should be removed or censored? Additionally, what sort of content needs to be regulated? Since there are too many ethnic, social, political and religious group that have diverse beliefs and a lot of them are conflicting.
So whose point of view should be privileged and how do we determine such a selection? If we affirm that morally right or politically correct statements should not be censored, then we’ll have to wade into the controversies surrounding the definitions of political correctness and moral rectitude.
An innovative development in the world of social media is self-regulation. Self-regulation denotes methods by which individuals can tailor their social media feed to see only what they want to see. People can block offensive profiles, unfollow, unfriend or unlike people and pages which post inappropriate, control who can see or comment on their profiles and prohibit the usage of certain words or phrases in the comments’ sections. However, self-regulation is kind of defeatist in its purpose and triggering comments or statements do tend to seep in.
Another issue that needs to be resolved is the process of content moderation, which is extremely automated. Due to lack of personnel, artificial intelligence is used to detect whether content deemed to be inappropriate actually violates a site’s community guidelines. Additionally, this artificial intelligence system also has to identify, report and block offensive content which is being uploaded to the platforms. As such, it is fair to say that not all content gets monitored, nor are they filtered from the public’s eye.
Human beings are a very creative and inventive species, so bypassing machines should also not be too difficult. Censorship is, after all, the reason why allegory came into being.
Finally, censorship also raises concerns over the invasion of an individual’s privacy. The government cannot immediately pinpoint controversial content unless it has been reported first. The person who initially reports it is usually someone who follows the up-loader or is acquainted with him on social media. Therefore, someone acts as a tattle-tale. Therefore, alongside the debate over censorship, maybe we should also discuss the fast-increasing intolerance of dissent.