Censorship in Social Media

Ed. Note: This post by Arvind Pennathur is a part of the TLF Editorial Board Test 2018

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.”

– Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Humans, as a society, learn and thrive off each other. Initiating discourse about various topics enriches us with knowledge and we subsequently learn many new things. It is only natural for us to want to speak freely on whatever we wish, especially on social media, which is growing more and more influential by the day. However, in these turbulent times, there exists a lot of content on social media that is considered as ‘hate speech’ or that project unpopular views. As such, social media sites have taken it on themselves to discard all such content in an effort to keep things civil on their platforms. While this is certainly a welcome intention, at what point does censorship go too far and prevent discussion of any kind on the interweb? This article will talk about censorship in social media, discussing incidents that have happened in the past as well as why censorship should be exercised with due caution; and what can happen if its not.

Censorship can be broadly classified into two types: complete censorship and soft censorship. Complete censorship involves IP and DNS filtering of certain websites within a country. A prominent example of this is the ‘Great Firewall of China’ that prevents people within the country from accessing selected sites. However, this article is going to focus more on soft censorship, which is what social media sites enact with their specific guidelines as to what can be put on their sites and what cannot be. While this is welcome, as there needs to be some form of moderation on these sites where people can interact with one another, there is also a line that must be drawn between what is considered unsafe and what is all right to be broadcast. For example, in 2012, reddit removed many communities from their sites under the grounds that said communities were in direct violation of their community guidelines. This is acceptable, as on face value one could tell that it was a move that was warranted. However, due to the influence that social media has on our lives, there have been several more ambiguous decisions taken which have stirred quite a bit of controversy. In 2016, a photo of a girl taken during a war in 1972 in Vietnam was taken down by Facebook, but later reinstated as people accused Facebook of abusing its power. The editor in chief Norway’s largest newspaper criticized the decision, calling Mark Zuckerburg the world’s most powerful editor and that people should not be restricted from learning important information due to a ‘small minority’ being offended by the photo. Instagram was guilty of taking down several photos in favor of the ‘Free the Nipple’ movement in 2016, even though the photos were clearly posted in furtherance of spreading a social message. On top of that, they only took down photos of female nipples, not male ones. They even took down a photo of a cake because it resembled female breasts.  The shooting of Philando Castile in July of 2016 was live streamed to Facebook by his wife, but Facebook removed it within hours. It was brought back after there was outcry that such videos that show instances of injustice ‘validate the people’s rage’ and give ‘credence’ to lives lost in such instances.

In India, censorship has mostly been associated with the controversial Section 66A of the Indian Technology Act, 2001. Shreya Singhal v Union of India was the case that led to the scrapping of the section with the reasoning that it ‘arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invades the right of free speech’. The case made the distinction between three forms of speech: discussion, advocacy and incitement. It was held that a speech could only be limited on grounds of exceptions mentioned in Article 19(2) when it reaches the threshold of incitement. All other forms of speech, even if offensive or unpopular have to be protected under Article 19(1)(a).

Incidents such as two girls getting arrested for complaining about traffic in Bombay due to the funeral of Bal Thackarey, or two students being arrested for circulating an email with a photo of a mansion that was wrongly attributed to Pinarayi Vijayan come to mind as serious instances of misuse of the section. The judiciary in general tends to be rather slow in keeping up with the rapid technological advancements that are being made, and the boundary between what can be considered slanderous or inappropriate can be blurred very easily. In today’s world, the corporations that run these sites get to dictate what we see, and this is problematic to an extent because if important information is withheld from the public, how can discourse about sensitive topics be initiated?

Platforms lose their meaning if proper conversations cannot be had on them, and censorship discourages this by blocking important information from the eyes of the public. However, it is a bit of a conundrum considering the fact that it is overwhelmingly difficult for any government to enforce a set of guidelines for social media due to its immense rate of growth. In March 2017, the Law Commission of India elucidated upon what constitutes ‘hate speech’. The parameters included the extremity of the speech, how much it incites people, the potential harm it could cause, etc. However, no clear-cut rules can be defined, and arbitrary control is exercised, it could lead to disastrous consequences.

Defining what is considered acceptable is difficult and not practical, especially over the Internet. However, there needs to be some common consensus among people among what they want to see on social media, since government regulation is almost a non existent option. The right to see and access information should always be available as interaction with other people is an important cornerstone in any society.

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