The Problem With Censorship in Social Media



When it comes to social media, and the Internet in general, censorship is a sensitive topic. You probably didn’t read the small print when you signed up to Facebook or Twitter but all your favourite sites have rules, and with so many users posting so much content daily it can be difficult to police them – especially without pissing people off. Free speech is pretty popular after all. There are a number of reasons social media sites decide to censor their users. For example Instagram’s list of blocked hashtags (brought to light by Nike Drewe and the peeps at The Data Pack – who TheVine editor Anna Horan interviewed a little while ago for Spook Magazine) reveals a clear attempt to prevent the site from filling up with sexually explicit pics. Hence a search for “porn” or “tits” won’t return any results. But while this decision aligns with their terms of service and seems to make sense given their majority of young users, there are some terms on the list which fall under the more confusing category. They call them “no value hashtags” and they don’t return results because it would be kind of ridiculous (and too expensive) to index all the photos that use the “photography” hashtag.

But while Instagram are still finding their feet when it comes to the influencing their users Facebook has been described by American academic and legal commentator as wielding “more power in determining who can speak… than any Supreme Court justice, any king or any president.” Before you dismiss that as an an outlandish statement, consider Facebook’s more than 1 billion users uploading their thoughts every day. But despite their size and global influence Facebook still can’t seem to get it right, censoring images such as Gustave Courbet’s L’Orgine du monde (The Origin of the World), uploaded by artist Matthew Weinstein, which depicts a woman’s vagina and hangs in Musée d’Orsay in Paris.   The image was deleted and Weinstein’s account suspension prompted the German photographer to put together a series of censored photos of statues in the Louvre.

While people are certainly using social media to bully and intimidate others which is totally not cool – the horrendous tweets sent to Zelda Williams for example – and sites do need ways of reprimanding their users (props to Twitter for suspending the accounts of those involved) there are consequences of making sweeping bans on terms or styles of images. In an article by Harvard Law Review, “The Brave New World of Social Media Censorship”, writer and lawyer Marjorie Heins makes the point that Facebook’s “power to suppress nude images […] has a huge potential impact on communications about visual art – including cinema and photography – as well as sex education and discussions of sexual politics. Similarly, judgements about what content is gratuitously violent or hateful toward a religious or ethnic group can vary widely, and the result will be subjective and unpredictable censorship of literature, art, and political discussion.” Proving that while there’s no justification for cyber bullying, the line between peace keeper and thought police should be tread with caution.

Published by The Vine on 16 August 2014. Words: Alix Palmer