Digital censorship has been a growing problem for years. It has become most prominent in platforms like social media and has even spread to regular news and media. Note: while this paper does focus on political matters within censorship, it is not a criticism of any political party or opinion.
The inclusion of such material is strictly due to the nature of the topic, and as such this paper was written with as much of an unbiased opinion as possible. The main goal of this paper is to it identify the main problems of censorship in the modern day. This will be accomplished by looking at things like who is doing the censoring, what is being censored, and who is being affected as a result. It will also investigate how censorship is affecting media and news coverage, as well as looking at government-controlled censorship programs and the effects there of.
When someone says “digital”, most people tend to think of something that has to do with the internet. And while what we know as the internet was originally created as the World Wide Web in 1990 by computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, it plays an integral part in the world of the Digital Age. But in more recent years, certain parties have begun cracking down on what is uploaded to the internet and have started to censor the content that users put up on various platforms. And while censorship as a general practice is not a major issue, digital censorship has been a growing problem for years.
Censorship in Social Media
For years there has been an argument that censorship violates the first amendment. Simply put, the first amendment guarantees and protects the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom to assemble. Straight forward thinkers would say that if these guidelines are to be met and carried out offline, then they should also be met and carried out online. But how does digital censorship conflict with this set of principles?
To answer this question, we must first answer a few more questions, like who is doing the censoring? What kinds of things are being censored? And, who is being affected, either directly or indirectly by the censorship? The answer for who is doing the censoring is obvious. In most cases, it is the owners of the online platforms that directly handle the censoring of content on their platforms. This means that private companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple are all solely responsible for the censorship within their platforms. In his paper from August of 2018, Will Tomer mentions that after an incident where a specific individual was completed censored and removed from Apple, Facebook, and YouTube, all three companies had each displayed a willingness to censor content when it suits them, stating that these companies have adopted the view that “hate speech is not free speech”, and that their commitments to free speech are limited to statements they find politically and culturally palatable.
The statement that the companies are willing to censor content “when it suits them” shows that they only care when uploaded content conflicts with what their private policies are. But what types of content are being censored exactly? Here in the United States, most censored content falls into three main categories: explicit/mature, not safe for consumers, and various types of political content. Explicit/mature content are usually what you would think of as R rated content. Not safe for consumers is typically things that conflict with most of the content guidelines of individual platforms and must be completely removed from the platform all together. And political content is usually only removed when it reflects the extremist beliefs of a political party. The individual that Tomer discussed in his article was Alex Jones, the owner of Infowars, which is a far-right American conspiracy theory and fake news website. And while Alex Jones is a rare case, there are many others they are being affect by the power of these kinds of companies.
Another noteworthy case of individuals being completed censored happened back in May of this year. James woods was banned from Twitter, and Paul Joseph Watson, a UK citizen, was banned from Facebook. The thing that these men have in common is that they are both on the conservative side of the political spectrum. In an article by Justin Caruso, James woods was banned for what Twitter considered “abusive behavior” in relation to a tweet aimed towards the Mueller report (the report that found no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia). However, Caruso notes that Twitter does not appear to have the same standard for leftists.
Censorship in the Media
Censorship has not just become a problem amongst online social platforms. The problems that have stemmed from censorship have made their way into news and media. According to a report from July of 2014, a bulletin from CNN IBN (CNN’s franchise branch in India), along with certain graphics on air, were edited to remove references to criminal changes that were being faced by Amit Shah, the president of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party. This is a good example of news being censored specifically to make the topic of discussion appear in a better light than it does. It is left to digital platforms and social media to spill the beans on in-house censorship. When the state attempts to censor, journalists come out on the streets in solidarity. When a media owner does the same, everybody pretends that nothing has happened. Incidents of censorship consume the Twitterati but get scant exposure on mainstream platforms. Legal intimidation and self-censorship are worrying variants of private censorship. Such censorship is enforced through legal threats. Often a mere legal notice, which never gets converted into an actual lawsuit, is more than enough.
In recent news, there was a similar incident. One source of “news” and media that is still relatively new is the livestreaming community, and alongside that is the emerging eSports community and it’s growing, already massive fan base. Back in early October, Blizzard Entertainment, an American video game developer, was running their Hearthstone Grandmaster Tournament. According to Boren, the tournament’s winner, a player going by the screenname Blitzchung, during a post-match interview on the official Taiwanese Hearthstone stream, Blitzchung, while wearing a gas mask, cried “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” At that point, the stream cut to a commercial break. Shortly after, Blizzard announced that Blitzchung’s actions violated its rules of competition, citing a prohibition on “Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages” Blizzard’s image.
After this announcement, Blitzchung was stripped of his prize money, and banned from any further tournaments, all for taking a stand to show his support for the protests in his home country. But why would Blizzard do this? Well, the fact of the matter is that Blizzard did not want to upset the Chinese government, as one of the other eSports Leagues for another of Blizzard’s games has a heavy presence in China. As noted in Boren’s article, Blizzard has long had a partnership with NetEase, the Chinese Internet company, and it is believed to derive 12 percent of its revenue from the Asia-Pacific market. From this incident, sort of the opposite of the incident involving CNN IBN. While CNN IBN was censored to make one person look better, Blizzard essentially censored themselves, as it was their tournament and their licensed property, to make themselves look better to one specific party.
Government control is probably the biggest factor as to why censorship is problematic. The biggest and most relevant example of government-controlled censorship is China. For years, the Chinese government has controlled what goes on within its online space, taking down any form of content that they disagree with and constantly posting their own propaganda. Even services like Google and Facebook are banned in China, which has its own versions of both that fit within the country’s guidelines.
One incident that furthers this comes from a report from 2011. In July of 2011, there was a high-speed rail crash in Beijing.
After the crash, China’s online space saw over 200 million users writing and posting on microblogs, relating events in real time without censorship, as well as venting their anger against the government. One of these popular microblogs is Weibo, which is owned by Sina Corp. According to the report, China’s Communist Party was openly worried. After the July accident, a senior official visited Sina’s offices, reportedly to press the firm to stop its microblog from spreading false information. That month, the government channeled its concerns through People’s Daily, its mouthpiece. “We have failed to take into sufficient account just how much the Internet is a double-edged sword,” a column noted.
In the past, China’s government has been active in monitoring the Internet. Online bulletin boards with controversial content have been taken down. And several years ago, users of Fanfou.com, another microblog, reported outage for more than a year. These suspected acts of censorship are in conjunction with the “Great Firewall,” which denies access to certain IP addresses, like that of U.S.-based Facebook and Twitter. At the time, this seemed like a new and more aggressive effort at censorship, but it also exposes the likely limits of that effort. Part of the problem is the technological challenge of monitoring. Automatic checks for keywords can be easily circumvented. Manual monitoring on services like Weibo is difficult because of the speed at which users post, read and re-post entries. These posts also have a very short half-life of readership: Even if a bureaucrat deletes an inflammatory post several hours later, almost everyone who was going to see it already has.
China of course is not the only country where the government has a hand in online censorship, it just happens to be one of the strictest. Many eastern countries have started to crack down on censoring online content within the last few years.
The table above shows various eastern countries that have been noted as censoring various forms of online content and how harsh the censoring is. This table was taken from a study from 2017, done by Clark, Faris, Morrison-Westphal, Noman, Tilton, and Zittrain. In their study, they mention that governments around the world have been using technical, legal, and extralegal strategies to regulate online content for more than two decades. And over the last couple of years, a confluence of technological, behavioral, and market forces have ushered in a new reality in which the playing field has been fundamentally altered.
The default implementation of encrypted connections by major social media and content hosting platforms along with messaging applications has effectively downgraded the filtering apparatuses used by states that filter the Internet by counting on “deep packet inspection” or URL analysis to intercept unwanted connections as users attempt to forge them. In those cases, state authorities can no longer selectively block individual accounts, web pages, and stories. For example, governments can generally no longer selectively block a specific article on the New York Times or Wikipedia, or any account on Twitter or Facebook, without blocking those sites and services in their entirety.
Of course, there are various reasons that a government may have for giving a hand in censorship policies. The most common of which is typically to maintain a specific aspect of the country’s society.
The accompanying Venn diagram is taken from an article discussing the 10 countries with the most internet censorship. There are of course dozens of other countries actively blocking access to the Internet, repressing journalists and otherwise impeding the free flow of information. The degrees vary but, in the end, censorship is censorship. Turkmenistan only allows one internet provider, the government. It blocks access to many sites across the web and monitors all email traffic. There are no outside reporters allowed into the country and the control of media is so dominating that it is nearly impossible to get information out. And in Azerbaijan offices are raided, advertisers are threatened and trumped up drug charges are used to dissuade journalistic activity.
Social media silences people based on what they put online. The news and media being controlled and twisted to keep certain things from the eyes of the public. And elitist governments go in and manually silence the voices of their people. While some cases are certainly more extreme than others, censorship is still a problem. The biggest tool we have is information, and if we don’t have access certain information, all our judgements and assumptions about people, places, and things, are all skewed, leaving us vulnerable in the expansive see of misinformation and false truths.
- Anonymous, Beijing’s Weibo Conundrum; The Party is reaching the limits of censorship in the digital age (2011, September 21). In ProQuest. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/893432160?pq-origsite=summon
- Bicheno, S. (2019, May 10). Social media censorship is a public concern and needs a public solution. telecoms.com. Retrieved from https://telecoms.com/497273/social-media-censorship-is-a-public-concern-and-needs-a-public-solution/
- Boren, C. (2019, October 8). An esports player spoke out in support of Hong Kong protests. He was suspended for a year. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/10/08/an-esports-player-spoke-out-support-hong-kong-protests-he-was-suspended-year/
- Clark, J., Faris, R., Morrison-Westphal, R., Noman, H., Tilton, C., & Zittrain, J. (2017, June 29). The Shifting Landscape of Global Internet Censorship. Retrieved from https://thenetmonitor.org/research/2017-global-internet-censorship
- Tackling private censorship in media (2014, July 24). In ProQuest. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1547760491?pq-origsite=summon
- Tomer, W. (2018, August 13). The unintended consequences of censorship in the digital age. In ProQuest. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/2088173540/fulltext/2F9F564440FD4426PQ/1?accountid=108
- TOP 10 CENSORS OF THE INTERNET AND HOW TO AVOID INTERNET CENSORSHIP (2018, July 25). In Le VPN. Retrieved from https://www.le-vpn.com/top-10-censors-internet-avoid-internet-censorship/