Recently, Mark Zuckerberg was in Congress, not as a congressional representative, but as a respondent. He was shedding light to the Congress about privacy invasion by the social media behemoth and manipulation of people during elections. This was the hallmark of social media censorship. The United States and many other countries are having a difficult time controlling what happens on social spaces, especially when they happen to be online. Social media has been censored in countries such as China, which have a different perception of social media. America often positions itself as the ‘the free world’ and even premises such freedom in the constitution through the First Amendment. Our ancestors fought for freedom, and we are escalating the same to newer platforms such as online platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and many others. This paper is a candid analysis of social media censoring; how it came about, different perspectives of the problem from different quotas, and possible solutions to the problem.
Large social media-based companies have for long maintained that they do not have the mandate to censor what happens on their platforms. They have held the position that they are simply neutral platforms where users are encouraged to exchange and interact freely. They, therefore, have evaded the obligation to filter content in their platform for accuracy, social consequences, and other effects. Further, such companies have found reprieve in the law. The Communications Decency Act of 1996, Section 230 provides that such companies are exempt from liability for what appears on their platforms as long as they do not play the role of traditional media companies as explained by Bolson (2016). Unfortunately, the comfort zone of the large internet companies was about to be disrupted; it was done fast, violently, and abrasively.
People have been finding comfort with Section 230, for a couple of decades as platforms developed and were adopted. People have continuously gravitated towards such platforms for information and communication. The views of the public about the freedom of social media platforms were changed after the 2016 elections in the United States and in Britain as espoused by Allcott and Gentzkow (2017). It was evident that Russians have been meddling in the democratic processes of the United States and other countries. It was a wakeup call. Further, social media has been weaponized by far-right actors, such as Alex Jones.
Why is Social Media Censorship a Problem?
Social media use has been growing fast, to become a powerful tool where millions interact and even conduct business. Censoring such platforms can be used in a positive or negative way. For instance, filtering out unethical issues such as terrorism and child pornography is positive for society. On the same note, censorship of social media can be abused, especially by authorities. We have seen it in countries such as Russia and China where social media is seriously a government business. In other countries, such as in Uganda, the government uses it to oppress the people by restricting their access to information, which would otherwise be a threat to the ruling regimes. Further, even in advanced economies such as the United States, authorities will often find means to ensure that information that is not regime friendly is not tolerated. Censorship makes access to information by the masses a reprieve of the government or corporates running such platforms – something that contravenes the maxims of freedom of expression and speech. The process of censorship is not a transparent one and it denies the public and the media necessary tools they need to get accurate information. The graphic below shows the prevalence of the censorship problem when assessed in 27 countries.
Source Freedom House (2017)
Different quotas have different perspectives concerning social media censoring – an aspect that is determined by the specific group’s interests. To begin with, the government or authorities, especially in growing economies or other forms of government, want to dominate in their jurisdictions as expressed by Shirky (2011). As such, aspects that might lead to the development of a different perspective of the regime in the eyes of the public are frustrated using whatever means necessary. The first option is social media censoring. According to Bennett (2012), such governments justify their actions by claiming that censorship is better than anarchy like what was experienced in Arab countries in the famous Arab Spring.
Social media platforms will claim their innocence concerning social media censorship. They will ride on the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Section 230 as expressed above. Of late, the feeling of leaving social media unregulated by the platforms is being relooked by social media platforms albeit strong condemnation by the people and the state for allowing the spread of fake news, which ultimately alters the course of the society as expressed by Fuchs (2017). Social media companies will, therefore, try to impress the people by trying to operate along the wishes of the public as Facebook has been doing.
The public is at crossroads with censorship. The public feels that as the ultimate consumer of information and other interactive opportunities, the information thus, put forward should be factual and accurate (Napoli, 2015). As such, it is the opinion of the public that censorship should be happening but in a transparent way. On the other hand, when censorship is effected, especially by the government and other social media platforms, it is deemed invasive and a barrier to actual and factual information. It is an impediment to freedom of expression and right to information.
Social media censorship has always been a sloppy topic due to the inherently complex nature it has, such as from the perspectives of globalization and transnational perspectives. From the American perspective, it has proven futile that social media cannot be left to its own devices, and it is significant when national issues arise. This, just like any other social problem, calls in the need for regulation. Regulation in this sense calls for repeal and re-evaluation of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Section 230. In this sense, the responsibility of transparent censoring should be placed on the platforms themselves; after all, it is their own making. This solution will effect important changes on the user policies of social media platforms and as thus, the spread of wrong, misleading information, and information with wrong intent will be curtailed. The designing of algorithms will be tailored towards transparency and not merely by clicks and virality. It will open up opportunities for creativity rather than the current use of mediocre tactics to lure people to like or double tap on a newsfeed. With proper regulation of platforms, which is anchored on the law it will ensure that data is kept secure and it is not available for manipulation. The privacy of the public will be respected and upheld by the same platforms since the use of personal data will not be for use at their (social media platforms) discretion.
According to Bershidsky (2018), Germany, in 2017, effected a law that compels social networks to delete hate speech immediately it is detected or rather faces massive fines, and the law has actually caught up with its first victim. On the same breadth, Ramzan Kadyrov (a warlord from the Chechen Republic) was banned from Facebook and Instagram since Kadyrov had been placed on a U.S. government sanction list. Notably, not all sanctioned individuals get their accounts closed. These two cases show that social media censoring is possible out of both legislation and own initiative of social media platforms. Further, Obar, Zube, and Lampe (2012) who after doing an analysis of 169 individuals based in 53 advocacy groups, revealed that such advocacy groups use social media technologies for communication on a daily basis and cannot overrule the importance of social media. This is an indication that social media is here to stay.
As indicated in the map below, only a small number of countries have allowed internet freedom an indication that censorship has taken center stage among governments.
Source Freedom House (2017)
Ensuring that censorship is transparent and operating within legal parameters will ensure the development of ethical environments where an action can be justified with the clarity that leaves no doubt. Transparent and legally defined censoring ensures that despotic government regimes will have little or no headway to gag the people and deny them a right that is fundamentally theirs as opined by Townsend and Wallace (2016).
In conclusion, social media censoring has had a long journey that has been accentuated by the different perspectives that different stakeholders have been having on the issue. Some countries, for instance, Germany, has demonstrated that social media censoring can be a transparent affair that is tenable. This will prevent the misleading of the public by unscrupulous individuals. Social media companies are also held accountable in a positive way, especially if the controls are in the public domain. Ethics are upheld in this way.
Allcott, H., & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(2), 211-36.
Bennett, W. L. (2012). The personalization of politics: Political identity, social media, and changing patterns of participation. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 644(1), 20-39.
Bolson, A. P. (2016). Flawed But Fixable: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act at 20. Rutgers Computer & Tech. LJ, 42, 1.
Bershidsky, L. (2018). Welcome to 2018, the Year of Censored Social Media. Bloomberg Retrieved fromhttps://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-01-03/welcome-to-2018-the-year-of-censored-social-media
Freedom House. (2017). Silencing the Messenger: Communication Apps Under Pressure. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2016
Fuchs, C. (2017). Social media: A critical introduction. Sage.
Napoli, P. M. (2015). Social media and the public interest: Governance of news platforms in the realm of individual and algorithmic gatekeepers. Telecommunications Policy, 39(9), 751-760.
Obar, J. A., Zube, P., & Lampe, C. (2012). Advocacy 2.0: An analysis of how advocacy groups in the United States perceive and use social media as tools for facilitating civic engagement and collective action. Journal of information policy, 2, 1-25.
Shirky, C. (2011). The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change. Foreign affairs, 28-41.Townsend, L., & Wallace, C. (2016). Social media research: A guide to ethics. University of Aberdeen, 1-16.
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