Thoughts on Censorship

Who controls the past now controls the future

Who controls the present now controls the past

Who controls the past now controls the future

Who controls the present now?

Rage Against the Machine, “Testify”

My routine finds me watching far more videos on YouTube than I care to readily admit. Whether these videos create a moment of inspiration where I later draw my own parallels between music lyrics and political influence, provide insight into everyday physics puzzles, or flesh out stories which have held my interest for decades, YouTube is often an easy distraction and digital hole in which one can easily lose hours.

Over the last few weeks, the idea of censorship and social media has been a recurring theme. The demonetization of videos, banning of controversial individuals, or the subtle/overt manipulation of opinion have proven to be points of interest enough that my time has been divided between present efforts and historic examples of how censorship has been played out.

By definition, to censor is:

“…to examine in order to suppress or delete anything objectionable.”

In the context of YouTube and social media, this has been the heart of the ongoing debate of whether or not these entities exist as either publishers reserving content control or platforms which objectively provide the medium for communication only. While the question may seem innocuous, the dilemma rests in the law governing digital media and its applications – specifically the ability to “filter, screen, or disallow content.” The sheer scope of this part of the issue would warrant a much longer and distinctively separate post, so I shall move on with the clarification provided and a warning that that rabbit hole is deep and under construction.

The motivations for the altering of information vary. In wartime, it is necessary to protect the movements, capabilities, and vulnerabilities of troops, equipment, and doctrine from the prying eyes of those who benefit from exploiting such data. During times of peace, censorship under the justification of moral and/or ethical reasons are often guided by contemporary social restraints.

The main problems faced in the U.S. today with censorship are multifaceted. For almost two decades, we have been engaged in a seemingly endless conflict against an ideology in the Middle East, while managing the next potential threats around the globe. At the same time, our political and social environment remains inflamed with no conceivable end in sight. With both concerns, the line between the freedom of speech/press has slowly been muddled by the encroachment of tech companies who have slowly come to appreciate the political power of these digital sites.

By manipulating social cohesion and destabilising our perceptions of safety and security;  information has become a powerful commodity – a commodity that is controlled extensively by the private sector and dominated militarily by non-State actors and insurgents.

Nicole Mategic “Influence Wars,” 22 Jun 2019

These issues started an odd and somewhat vague line of thought: what are the stages of censorship and how or when would they become apparent to the individual or collective whole?

Now, a bit of clarification: I do not, nor have I ever, worked in any intelligence field; my interest on the topic is merely academic and the result of my own appreciation for history, society, and the long-term future intertwined between those to broad subjects.

A series of casual searches turned up very little in terms of previous classifications or identification of the stages of censorship, therefore I offer my own:

Permissiveness – for censorship to work, the governmental and legal framework must facilitate and specify how information is controlled, if at all. While this may not seem like a step, it is important to understand that extremes on the political and legislative spectrum do not occur in a vacuum; getting to the point of limitless freedom or draconian control of both speech and press is a slow process.

Problem – censorship exists because of an imbalance – morally, politically, or ethically. Going back to permissiveness, deviations from the internal political and social policies dictate what constitutes a problem when it comes to the exchange of information.

Outrage/Reaction – over time, a continuing issue elicits some form of response. Outrage manifests itself when the material or individual at the focus of censorship is egregious or progressively growing in scope and lack of response. This could be debated as a shifting of norms as well; in many cases, the shift in acceptance corresponds with calls for censorship – the controversy around the first bikinis would be a good example.

Censorship – the root of this post, especially when the process is subtle. At some point, the outrage over a problem takes advantage of the permissiveness of the social and political environment.

Direct or overt censorship has varying levels with are dependent upon the environment, the urgency of the situation, and the possible threat to existing liberties. In the case of the 2019 mosque attacks in New Zealand, merely reposting videos of the shooting resulted in charges and arrests of at least two people. On the other hand the failure to censor similar mass shootings may be the logical inspiration for “copycat” attacks which build upon the published and detailed accounts of previous events.

Indirect censorship, in my opinion is far worse as it lends to overlooking what is censored and accepting the new “reality.” Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 had been altered by publishers and remained in circulation with those changes for 13 years before it came to the attention of the author; while this is only a change to a literary work of fiction, this stands as a great example of how small censorship may start. Revising or omitting history have continued to be points of contention as the struggle over presenting an accurate account of the past is continually at odds with contemporary societal rules. After all – who is to question when no one knows the truth?

Repercussions – in the cases of present issues with YouTube and social media, censorship offers the potential pitfall of unintended consequences in the form of retrenchment and/or opinion blowback. Efforts to stifle an unpopular opinion or perspective may form a sort of an ideological martyr or focal point which can strengthen resolve, discredit the entity responsible for censoring, and – quite possibly – foster in new legal restrictions and/or guidelines as the permissiveness shows that it is in need of reconsideration.

Establishment of new status quo – this is dependent on the success of the efforts to censor. At best, there may be no immediate issue as the problem is either resolved or the unadulterated material surfaces long after the act of censoring has passed or the justifications for censorship have subsided. A worst-case situation would result in a further eroding of confidence as well as the introduction of even further questions about how much has been censored and how long has such efforts been active.

What does this mean for the everyday person?

That’s not really up for me to decide.

I have firmly stated in the past that I am an advocate for the freedom of speech. I support the right for those of differing opinions as strongly as I do for those I agree with. However, with many of my other stances, I place the responsibility of reaction back on the individual – not the government or other publisher/platform.

Are there limits to what information is readily shared and/or promoted? Sure. Not everyone needs to know everything. However, much of the debate on censorship is not about details – it is about one simple and inevitable facet of being human: control… political, social, or both.

Who controls the flow of information, and what measures are used to exercise that control? If history teaches anything, it might just be to ask those questions before it’s too late.

Megan Whelan, “Censorship in the Age of Social Media.”

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Censorship

  1. Reblogged this on DAVEBOOK.

    Liked by 1 person

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