HSHS Vol 24: Censorship: To Cut Or Not to Cut, That Is the QuestionPreface: This marks the 24th installment of the ongoing verbal contretemps between Phil Friedman Murray and me. Here we've tackled a serious and complicated topic that should be of concern to every user of social media. We raise several questions, make a few suggestions, and leave a lot open for further exploration. A major part of our objective in doing this series is to stimulate open discussion. So here, as always, we sincerely invite you to join the conversation.
When The Language Or The Discussion Gets Tough, The Tough Keep Going…Or Do They?
PHIL: Jim, we both know that, as a social media platform grows and the number of its active users increases into the tens of millions, the range of ideas and opinions expressed on the platform increases exponentially. As does the probability that some people will be offended by and take exception to a given post or comment.
With more and more people feeling offended, the pressure grows amidst the ranks for increased censorship in one form or another. However, the term “censorship” has varying meanings for various people. Which makes it hard to discuss the matter rationally.
Still, I think that the questions surrounding censorship are so important — especially on a developing platform such as beBee — that it will benefit all of us to try to clarify our thoughts on the matter.
“In its broadest sense … [“censorship”] refers to suppression of information, ideas, or artistic expression by anyone, whether government officials, church authorities, private pressure groups, or speakers, writers, and artists themselves. It may take place at any point in time, whether before an utterance occurs, prior to its widespread circulation, or by punishment of communicators after dissemination of their messages, so as to deter others from like expression. In its narrower, more legalistic sense, censorship means only the prevention by official government action of the circulation of messages already produced.”
Academic America Encyclopedia
To my mind, the following are some key questions to answer:
1) Who decides when a post or comment is sufficiently offensive or abusive or otherwise objectionable to warrant removal?
2) Should a post or comment ever be removed simply because a given number of readers don’t like or disagree strongly with it?
3) What do you see as sufficient reason to remove a post or comment from the site?
To kick off, I recently made approximately the following comment in a discussion about a post that had been removed from beBee by a person or persons other than the author:
“I am generally against censorship in any form, although I recognize that it cannot always be avoided. However, I submit that the threshold has to be very high and rigorously maintained. Simply pissing off a number people does not, in itself, rise to the level of requiring deletion or removal from a social media platform that is nominally open."
By the way, in discussions like this, it frequently helps to quote actual examples. But please, in the discussion and any comments, let’s not identify the authors of any cited examples, to avoid personal attacks. If someone decides to wear one of the shoes that drops, that will be on him or her. And we can concentrate on the substance of the comments quoted in illustration.
JIM: When you get out there into Agent Provocateur territory, you discover that there is a very fine line between constructive criticism and slander. You and I both know that to be true from our own experiences here and over in the Lumpy Kingdom.
But I honestly believe that anybody with the intellectual capacity to move in that territory should be aware of the difference and stay off the line. The 80/20 Differential in this area falls on the side of the 80. These are people who are sophisticated enough as writers to know when they are skirting the line and use their skills and judgment to avoid crossing over.
Censorship (or at least the willingness to see something censored), tends to be triggered when the reader realizes that he or she is actually reading some form of extreme propaganda or something that has been written to further the agenda of a scammer or fanatic or con artist.
We have all encountered this from time to time. I’m happy to say that there’s a lot less of it here on beBee than I have experienced on Facebook or Twitter. But it’s still out there and it ain’t going away.
To answer your questions. IMHO, of course.
1. I think every individual has to decide themselves whether censorship is called for, and if it is, make their opinion known to the custodians of the site where this appeared.
2. No, I don’t think a post or comment should be removed because some people don’t like it. I think, for comments especially, that people reading them can very quickly discern who is crazy and who is not. It’s kinda like reading restaurant reviews online. You see 10 glowing reviews and one crappy one. What do you conclude? Myself, I conclude that the crappy one was written by some nutbar with a personal grudge. And I would say that 8 out of 10 people would probably agree with that.
3. Reasons to remove a post. I would say this fall under the purview of the site’s management. After all, a post that takes an overly radical political position or is obviously just espousing something (almost) everybody knows is bullshit, can do a lot of damage to the site’s image and its ability to attract new users.
If people think, wow, are they supporting this kind of crap, they think twice about whether or not they want be there for fear of being tarred by the same brush.
This to me is the biggest concern that a lot of large social media sites have. I know from observing Facebook over the years that their review board has solid guidelines and they won’t think twice about banning you if you cross those lines.
Does this fly in the face of freedom of expression? Maybe a little. But frankly, there are a great many people who would abuse the concept if they knew they weren’t going to have their bullshit called on them. It’s those people, the scammers, the con artists, the carpetbaggers, the anarchists that can pollute your site and damage your reputation immeasurably if you’re not careful and haven’t drawn a solid line in the sand.
Having said all that, I ‘d appreciate hearing the Floridian point of view.
PHIL: Ya know, I do live in Florida, but I’m not sure there is anything called “a Floridian point of view” ― unless perhaps it’s a move to shield one’s balding pate from excessive sun by putting one’s head where the sun never shines. (Yes, that quip is dedicated to @Matt Sweetwood.)
But seriously, I accept your pointing out, if only implicitly, that beBee and other social media platforms are private, for-profit operations and, as such, have the right to control the content that appears in their pages. I’m just not sure that control of content on a private medium is censorship. Control, si. Censorship, no.
And I agree that even when it comes to removing insulting and abusive comments, platform management has the right to do so solely in its own discretion. (Unless, of course, the SM platform represents itself as “fully open”, when it solicits members to join.)
The thing is, I think we can all pretty much agree that, for example, beBee has the right to manage what appears on the platform. And that it is within its rights to remove postings and comments that are detrimental to its growth and well-being.
Where we run into bumps is when we try to agree on what constitutes being abusive, insulting, and/or disruptive. At one time, there were more than a few people who wanted literally to kick @Candice Galek’s butt off LinkedIn. In spite of the fact that her style of “disruption”, while a bit racy at times, wasn’t abusive or really offensive in any material way ― at least, not above the Bible Belt, so to speak.
Moreover, you and I both know that there were Buzzword Bees who agitated privately to have my “excessive negativism” reigned in, notwithstanding that nobody ever came forward to detail any case in which I had ever been abusive or used offensive language in any objective sense. They just didn’t like me disagreeing with some people. And for some unfathomable reason, they took offense at the fact that, when critical comments were made on my posts, I answered them, instead of simply pulling up into a fetal position.
My point is that there is always a danger that some people will agitate to have content censored quite simply because they don’t like that which is being said. And it is for that reason, I would like to see relevant standards delineated clearly. Well, not so much “standards” as guidelines ― understanding that guidelines are just that, guidelines and not written in stone.
For that reason, I have to admit your #3 point causes real problems for me.
As I said earlier, I would personally like to see the threshold for content removal set at a very high level, with hate speech, verbal abuse, and disruptive repetitive posting being what pops to mind as prime candidates for “censorship.”
However, you point to a different phenomenon. One that arises infrequently, but nevertheless has to be of concern, not only to platform ownership and management but to those of in business and the professions ― people who have put a lot of effort into building, for want of a better term, their personal brands.
For better or worse, one is known by the company one keeps. If a social media platform gains a rep for being rife with phonies, get-rich-quick con-men and other scam artists, questionable appeals for crowd-funding of dubious projects, as well as those who openly celebrate falsification and misrepresentation on social media and otherwise, you can bet your bikini-butt that the foul odor of inauthenticity and deception will eventually foul everyone on that platform.
I think it interesting to observe, in this context, that there is a natural antagonism between freedom of expression and the need to protect the reputations of the platform and those who use it as a legitimate vehicle for their content marketing and brand-building activities.
JIM: Pretty darn articulate for a Floridian. I don’t envy the owners of any social or business media site, because they probably go through every working day with a Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.
But on the other hand, we both know that most people have the attention span of a gnat and so perhaps the danger isn’t quite as imminent as it seems when you’re have a theoretical discussion about it.
Having said that, however, we both know that it really doesn’t take much in the way of complaints to get someone’s post deleted, especially here on beBee and I kind of come down on the side of that being a good thing.
I did a post a while back on calling bullshit on people. https://www.bebee.com/producer/@jim-murray/why-calling-bullshit-on-bebee-is-something-we-should-all-get-good-at.
And the main reason for doing it was that if you don’t, then what you are doing is providing tacit agreement. And the people who generate whatever form of bullshit it may be, and we have outlined a lot of them, are encouraged to just keep going. Pretty soon you can have at the very worst an epidemic on your hands.
And that sort of thing will taint the site and, by association, the reputation of the people who contribute to it.
You know I am not what you would call a conservative, but in this case, I make a rather huge exception. Freedom of expression is one thing. Libel, slander, misrepresentation, fanaticism, sexism, misogyny, racism, extreme narcissism and outright lies are something else again. (My apologies to Mr. Trump).
PHIL: I think you and I pretty much agree on what crosses the line for a private, for-profit SM operation such as beBee. And we agree that ownership and management have the right ― although let’s be clear, not the obligation ― to remove content from the platform, as they see fit.
Again to be very clear, this is not, to my mind, a question about Constitutional law or human rights. Nor one of freedom of political expression. Nothing in, for example, U.S. law requires Jimmy Kimmel to have someone, anyone on his show upon their demand. So why would anyone suppose that a social media platform would be required to publish or display someone’s content just because that person demanded it?
Against that, it is beyond my comprehension why so often simple (polite) disagreement is considered “negative” and harmful to the SM environment, while all sorts of ― in your words ― “slander, misrepresentation, extreme narcissism, and outright lies” are tolerated, even liked, on a knee-jerk basis, by so many. But then, I doubt that I will ever fully grasp the often twisted nature of social media.
That said, I think you and I continue to disagree on a fundamental point. I am in favor of censoring content on a platform such as beBee only as a last resort, and never on the basis of a user vote. Moreover, never in the absence of a clearly formulated and published policy. And I personally believe that the first line of defense against the detritus you list should be that of ignoring it ― that is, not commenting on it, not sharing it, and certainly not blindly commending it without even reading and considering what it really says. Understanding, of course, that there will be times when platform ownership or management will be forced to be proactive.
IMO, we should also keep in mind that there are several different forms of censorship, some of which are subtler than others, for instance, the algorithmic manipulation of what is actually seen by the membership on LinkedIn.
Consequently, I see this discussion as only the start of a needed conversation, and I believe we’re still very far away from reaching a clear resolution of the dilemma presented by the question of when censorship on social media is needed and/or justified. Hopefully, others will join the conversation.
Postscript 1: Censorship, in a free society is always going to be a tough thing to call. But as long as we don't confuse freedom of speech with freedom to push sexism, racism, fascist propaganda and hate, attack other people unfairly or run some sort of con, I'm good with freedom of speech in whatever form it takes.
Postscript 2: Please keep in mind that Phil Friedman can, and always will speak for himself. He has also published his own parallel version of this HE SAID HE SAID No.24. So, you are free to post comments directed to either Phil or me, on either post depending on who you are addressing. And you will always get an answer one way or the other.
If you liked this post, let me know. If you liked it enough to share it, please feel free.
If your business has reached the point where talking to an experienced communication professional would be the preferred option to banging your head against the wall or whatever, lets talk.
Download my free ebook Small Business Communication For The Real Worlhere: https://onwordsandupwords.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/small-business-communications-for-the-real-world/
All my profile and contact information can be accessed here:
All content and images Copyright 2017 Jim Murray and Phil Friedman
This is the first short story I have written in ma ...
After two decades in the advertising agency busine ...