Social media companies have come under fire recently for their censorship practices. Some companies, like Instagram and Facebook, have been accused of hypocritical policies that lead to content removal. Other companies, like Twitter, have faced criticism for their lack of willingness to prevent online harassment. Because social media sites have become a fundamental piece of not only the way we communicate, but also the way we receive news and information, it is important to understand who is determining what we see.
Though social media sites present the illusion of free speech, ultimately, as private companies, they are not held to the same standard as the government is with the First Amendment. As a result, major social media companies have begun to incorporate the right to censor individuals into their statement of principles. As Timothy Karr explains, “Many users of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube may see these and other social media outlets as soapboxes for free speech. They’re not.”
But who is actually making the decision to edit content? In his article, the Delete Squad, Jeffrey Rosen revealed that representatives from social media companies from all over the world are meeting to discuss the role of censorship on social media.
The reality is that more often than not, the decision on what to censor is not left in the hands of a legislator, judge, or lawyer. It is typically left up to “fresh-faced tech executives” from various social media companies. The “deciders,” as Rosen calls them, will often make their decisions with little knowledge of the legal ramifications. In many ways these young people wield a lot of power. As Rosen would argue, “Their positions give these young people more power over who gets heard around the globe than any politician or bureaucrat—more power, in fact, than any president or judge.”
The curious thing about social media censorship is that there is very little knowledge of where the line is drawn. As Marjorie Heins explains in her article for the Harvard Law Review: “unlike censorship decisions by government agencies, the process in the private world of social media is secret.”
For example, Instagram has had a continued battle with users over their definition of pornography. The relatively recent development of the “Free The Nipple” campaign has been made famous by celebrities such as Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and Scout Willis who have all posted photos of their bare breasts in order to point toward the hypocrisy of the difference between the treatment of male and female anatomy. On the other end of the spectrum, Twitter has also been at the center of controversy for being too liberal with their definition of freedom of speech. This controversy came to a head this past spring as the site has been pressured by Congress to suspend accounts linked to Islamic State terrorism.
In 2012, Amine Derkaoui, a 21-year-old Moroccan man, began to lift the veil on the process of social media censorship. Some social media companies, in this case Facebook, have hired small armies in third world countries in order to review questionable content. In Derkaoui’s case, after being upset by his pay ($1 an hour) for his job on the Facebook censorship brigade, he released the “bible” of censorship, which included a controversial list of priorities for deleting content. For example, while pictures of shirtless males were fine, images of women breast-feeding were forbidden. Equally as intriguing, images of “crushed heads” and mutilated limbs were also fine, unless those images contained visible internal organs.
These seemingly arbitrary sets of guidelines are problematic as they also specified that the news media was not exempt from censorship. This is particularly troublesome when you consider that an increasing amount of Americans rely on social media not just to connect with one another, but also for news and information. A recent Pew Research Center survey concluded that nearly half of adults, who use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, also rely on it for news and information.
As social media sites become more and more ingrained into society, it can be expected that more users will continue to rely on social media to view the news. Therefore, content editors—“the deciders”—will have an increasing role in not only monitoring their websites, but also potentially controlling how informed people will be. That is a tremendous responsibility.
Andrew Cevasco and Kristen Wurth, Graduate Students
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland