Online Censorship & Elusive Objectivity: The Deepening Echo Chambers

Article by Lauren Delisle

As an average online consumer amid the digital age, I have enjoyed my freedom of speech on social media just as much as the next person.

Since joining the worldwide interweb with my official debut on Facebook around 2010, I look back to old content I shared with the knowing embarrassment of someone who realizes their rather bizarre adolescent musings were a bit too bizarre a couple years too late. Still, I can appreciate these online snapshots of who I was for providing hard evidence that I’ve since changed. No (unfortunately for the losers and haters) I do not still post inspirational quotes from Disney Channel movies and Dr. Seuss novels. Since the old days, I have shifted to sharing photos of places I visit, foods I eat, and photos of myself, and that was quite all right for a while. Until it wasn’t. Within the past two years, I have noticed Instagram cracking down on content it deems “violates the community standards,” but I think it’s important to address what these standards are, who they’re protecting, and why they’re in place.

I’ll begin with the body talk because of all censored content, this happens to be the category that is most under backlash in the communities with which I associate, and on occasion, in my personal content.

Maybe this has to do with the fact that I’m a feminist (I already hear the hems and haws of men who, for whatever reason, can’t stand that label for gender equality) or perhaps it pertains more to the notion that I tend to follow women who love to share their bodies. In any case, I see at least ten posts per month on my feed taken down by Instagram and then edited and re-posted in the name of appeasing Instagram censorship.

As their policy states, Instagram knows that “there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, [Instagram doesn’t] allow nudity.”…”This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples…”

Yes, you read that right. “For a variety of reasons,” Instagram is unable to permit photos of the bare human body (that, mind you, literally any human – adult or child – could find via Google search engine.) The most laughable part of their policy is that they don’t even bother listing the various reasons for restricting the content.

Is it because they’re too politically correct to explain to their users that the female nipple is simply “too erotic” for the entirety of their user-base? Are they trying to tiptoe around telling users body hair and plus-sized women are too offensive for their younger users to see? Do they even truly care about their younger users here – or is this app being censored by executives who fully support the idea of the woman as a glorified slam-piece? So many questions come to mind as I stew over the blatant ignorance that is increasingly apparent as Instagram continues to take down photos of women feeling confident in their bodies (sometimes not even naked) and artistic, erotic art or photography.

The greatest horror with this issue is the lack of consistency.

When a Victoria’s Secret model posts a photo in a bikini, it is allowed to stay posted. While those like nineteen-year-old Ohio college student, Samm Newman, have their entire account deleted from the social media network when posting photos in a bra and boy shorts. If nudity-related content is not quantifiable, and censorship is so skewed and subjective, Instagram truly has no place denying users the freedom to share their bodies freely, or to not share their bodies at all. Ultimately, it should be the choice of the user.

Nudity, however, is just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to online censorship. Violence tends to be another controversial issue addressed by online censorship guidelines.

On August 1st, 2016, Korryn Gaines and her 5-year-old child were shot by police officers in their home after barricading themselves and taking a video moments prior to their murders. Videos throughout a seven-hour-long stand-off had been posted by Gaines to her Facebook page, but within the day that followed, these videos disappeared from Facebook and the young woman’s account was deactivated. It is evident here, and in other cases like that of Philando Castile in the police shooting last July where a live broadcast went down for some time, that law enforcement notifies sites like Facebook of the incidents that occur to restrict public viewership. It is times like these where we must ask ourselves whether these social media sites are restricting access to this information because it’s “too violent for the kids” or if there are vested interests that the sites attempt to protect.

And police brutality isn’t the only subject matter where we see this happening. Facebook removed a cartoon that was critical of Israel and implied that the nation silences criticism. The account that posted this content was then suspended from the site. Facebook restricts a vast amount of political content, which, specifically in the past election, rendered the general public dumbfounded for days over Trump’s election into office. Conservative propaganda was undoubtedly restricted from the media platform, and there was, consequently, an immense lack of online resources that expressed conservative views and data. In the end, the polls left a large portion of America beside themselves. It is absolutely horrific to think that so many users fail to see the level of restriction being placed on content they are privy to, and yet, so many go on believing they know all sides of a political issue.

According to Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank, more than sixty percent of Americans get their news on Facebook or Twitter, and that number is growing. As it grows, social media content regulations will continue to inhibit the amount of accurate information being shared with users. Voters who were once “informed” are now being spoon-fed only information that is permitted by the site via which the information is shared. And, if that site happens to have political interests or specific government affiliations, then censorship is no longer a private issue. It is one that the general public faces as its first amendment rights are slyly stripped away.

Consequently, it would be smart for social media users to take a look at the policies of the sites they’re using and gain an understanding of just what information is being kept from them, but it’s not that simple. Just like Instagram, the guidelines provided by Facebook and other sites are often vague or simply inaccessible to the public since they belong to private companies.

This blatant lack of transparency indicates just how dangerous the censorship is because if we as a society cannot see what information is being kept from us, then we have no means of knowing what the truth is nor are we able to deduce a truth based on a series of sources and opinions. If content is blocked and we never know it existed in the first place, then the source of that content remains an unknown, unheard, repressed voice. And this is no new concept! It sounds like a wild conspiracy to think that the government intentionally manipulates media sources to yield specific votes and social opinions from users, but it is a very deep-seated reality that we must accept every time we go online.

So what, then, is the answer to even finding a truth about anything going on in our world if everything is filtered? How do we take a stand for non-censorship without “harming” the children who are growing increasingly privy to the information online? How do we ensure that what is shown online won’t upset the users surfing the web?

Regarding children, the answer is quite clear, and Marjorie Heins, director of the ACLU Arts Censorship Project seems to put it best when she says, “There’s very little attempt to put violence [or nudity, for that matter] into context, so it would be impossible to frame any kind of censorship legislation that would pinpoint what the harm is.” In other words, there is no quantifiable (here’s that word again!) evidence that children grow more violent or more inherently sexual from seeing such content online. If anything, the children we are “trying to protect” are better to learn about the issues of violence and the way of the human body earlier on so as to gain greater knowledge on how it may be understood.

Rather than “intellectual protectionism” through censorship, it would be more comprehensive for children to experience programs on media literacy and thorough sexual education courses. To those who fear for the exposure of their children to violent or sexual concepts, it is important to think of communities in which speech on these topics is forbidden or “taboo.” Often, these communities see a greater rise in children turning to the very ideals they were restricted from as they become attractive in their unattainability. (Did someone mention prohibition?)

In pertinence to the issue of offending online users, it would be absurd to assert that all offensive content be taken down from social media sites. By that standard, we should all be surfing the web wearing blindfolds, and again, there really is no quantifiable data that allows those who censor to see what offends each human. As we all experience life differently, different content will offend or not offend everyone differently. (Yes, I did just use three variations of the word “different” in one sentence. Bite me.) Offensive content also typically promotes thought and engagement from people who might not typically think about the issues that arise from the offensive posts. The media world stimulates conversation about important ideas by facilitating social interaction!

But, this brings us to the final and hardest question: with all these conversations and ideas emerging, what is the answer to even finding a truth about anything going on in our world if everything is filtered through a lens we are unable to see?

I saved this question for last because I have no answer for you. In the digital age where social media sites continue to censor content, there is no easy way to apply logic to find an answer anymore because we, the public, are only shown small bits of an increasingly complex puzzle.

It is my deepest fear that we have already reached a society incapable of returning to the founding principles of democracy, free speech, and government transparency upon which our nation was formed. It seems the censorship of media reflects, more than ever, the issue of government deception. The way I see it, you can walk away from this article with one of two schools of thought: 1) that everything I’ve said here is an opinionated exaggeration of an issue that does not exist and that you know the real truth, or 2) that everything you’ve read on social media up to this point is an opinionated exaggeration and that your very truth is one that must be questioned.

I’ll let you decide where you stand on that one.

 

 

References:

Gourarie, C. (2016, January 21). Censorship in the social media age.

Ho, M. L. (2016, August 03). Facebook took down Korryn Gaines’ videos – and questions linger.

Rice, L. (2001, July 1). The Censor and the Civil Libertarian – Harvard Law Today.

Rose, R.. (2014, July 16). Instagram Apologizes for Deleting Plus-Size Woman’s Account.

  • Lauren Delisle

    Does anyone think people were any less violent before the existence of television, films and video games?