For most of our history, control by the ruling elites was hardly subtle: state-sponsored or privately financed violence was always a threat, in the background or foreground depending on the context. That still exists, of course, as both the North Korean gulags and the hundreds of unarmed dead black men in the US can attest. However, with the rise of truly global and essentially immediate networks, modern methods of control have developed a number of more insinuating forms. As recent examples, we have been witness to three separate and dangerous acts of control by Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube within the last week or so.
- Over the last week or so, media has been full of Facebook’s decision to censor the famous Vietnam photograph that includes, inter alia, a naked and terrified young girl running along the road. There was no way to distinguish, they said, between this naked child and images of child pornography. This follows earlier decisions to ban breastfeeding images and Facebook censorship of great works of art.
- On September 12th, Wired printed a story about how Instagram had begun “a wonderfully simple ways of dealing with the harassment” that plagues many social media sites. Their solution? Instagram has developed a list of “abusive words to block comments by default.” The Wired writer wonders why other networks, Twitter in particular, can’t just copy Instragram’s “wonderfully simple” solution.
- On the same day it was reported that YouTube has decided to demonetize videos it deems inappropriate and not “advertiser friendly”. In other words, video creators will not be able to earn money for their work unless YouTube decides they are suitable.
Sounds reasonable, you might say. There is no argument (from me at least) that abusive behaviour happens on social networks, that pornography is both damaging and ubiquitous, and that genuinely dangerous people can use these networks for their own evil. So why are these three actions so problematic?
In each of these cases, it is the company that decides what is “suitable” and “acceptable”. They are limiting your options and those of everyone else who wants to make their own decisions about what they will or won’t see. This is censorship of the most patronising and elitist kind. The moguls know best and will protect the little people from their own “weaknesses”. And if you don’t agree, they will use their power like terrorists to eliminate you.
The problem of abuse needs to be dealt with in a way that does not diminish all the rest of us. I don’t have the answer, but I do know these new intrusions are not it.