The following piece was written for Writing 2202: Winning Your Argument - Rhetorical Strategy in a Visual Age course at Western University. It was submitted in partial fulfillment of the final project. You are more than welcome to use the information provided here by correctly citing the source; however, you may not use or submit this for an assignment.
The term censorship has a complexity to its meaning; however, the modern conceptual definition of censorship, as defined by the American Library Association, is “the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons - individuals, groups or government officials - find objectionable or dangerous” (Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q & A).
Censorship both in media and politics has always been around, and the controversy associated with it has been one of the most discussed topics. The growth of services such as social media, blogging platforms, and video sharing websites in the past decades have given the public the opportunity to share their opinion more freely and constantly. The real motivation behind censorship on the Web is no different than that of the censorship implied to the traditional publications. Its sole purpose is to either silence an idea or hide an opponent's point of view from the public.
Although content censorship is very easy on the Web, the result is very ineffective since the Web serves as a barrier for enforcing censorship. First of all, there is no magnitude on which the censorable content is determined. Secondly, it is very difficult to completely eliminate the content from the Web once it is posted. Thirdly, the act of censorship itself motivates individuals to seek further inquiries about the censored subject, and therefore, it should be avoided.
People Love Sharing
To begin with, as discussed previously, censorship is a convoluted word with different meanings and purposes. For that reason, the concept of censorship on this research paper is limited to censorship of the content on the Web and not how people access the Internet. The Web is home to billions of websites with approximately more than two billion blog posts written every day (“Total Number of Websites”). People not only share their thoughts and feelings regarding their personal life but also express their opinions on a vast majority of social topics.
With all the freedom of speech on the Web, people are under the assumption that they are able to share and express their opinions without any restrictions. They expect to be able to express their views on social and political events freely and without being questioned or prosecuted. However, the act of censorship is many cases have been observed both at the personal and social levels.
What makes it censorable?
“Does this promote violence?”, “Is it too aggressive”, “Does this damage our reputation” or “Should this even be published” are questions website owners face every day when they decide that content needs to be censored. Censorship on the Web is either prompted by a powerful entity (for example a court order or government officials) or by the website administrators who find the content significantly against their interests. But what makes content censorable? Are there specific guidelines to follow to be sure that the right content is being censored? When people talk about censorship, there is often this idea that violent, erotic and sensitive contents should not be allowed to be viewed by users on the Web.
One study shows that the “support for censorship [of violence] was higher among mothers and parents of younger children, and marginally higher among older parents” (Hoffner and Buchanan 241). Another study assessed through a random digit dialing survey of adults shows that “substantial majorities (71-77%) supported censoring sexually violent media, about half (47-54%) supported censoring nonsexual violent media, and about one-third supported censoring nonviolent sexually explicit movies and videotapes” (Fisher, Cook and Shirkey 229).
Consequently, these studies show that among ordinary people violence and erotic contents are two of most important factor for supporting censorship. However, there are no guidelines on deciding what determines a censorable content. Back to the question of what defines a censorable content, let’s look at the data published as part of the “Transparency Report” by Google Inc. regarding the number of removal requests made by governments to Google services.
Figure 1.0 shows the frequency of removal requests made to Google products. It can be seen that products such as Google’s web search service are targeted by governments around the world. However, the majority of removal requests from December 2010 to December 2012 were made to Blogger, Google’s blogging platform and YouTube, its video-sharing website.
Now let’s look at the reason behind these removal requests:
Figure 1.1 shows that “defamation” accounts for almost half of these removal requests followed by “privacy and security”, “adult content” and “government criticism”. When in fact “violence”, “suicide promotions” and “bullying/harassment” is responsible for a minor portion of these removal requests. This demonstrates that the majority of content removal is not based on public safety but rather political reasoning.
It is clear that public’s view of censorable content differs from that of what the government considers relevant censorable materials. What people want to be censored is actually different from what is being censored. Moreover, even website administrators are in the hot seat when it comes to identifying the right content. For example, recently Instagram, an online mobile photo-sharing, and social networking service decided to remove a topless photo of Chelsea Handler, an American actress, and television host. The same website did not remove a topless photo of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. This shows content censorship on the Web is ineffective in a sense that there is no guideline for deciding the right content to be censored.
It Is Always There
Once content is made available on the Web, it remains on the Web forever which ultimately makes censorship ineffective. Unlike the printed materials which can be destroyed to avoid redistributions in a case of an error, the contents published on the Web are shared immediately with thousands of people around the world.
The web does not differentiate contents based on their accuracy and correctness, and even false information can circulate among thousands of people. The Washington Post highlights how easy it is for false information to go viral by having a “What was fake on the Internet this week” column to prove that “there is so much fake stuff on the Internet in any given week that we’ve grown tired of debunking it all” (Dewey). For instance, they mention the story of a Florida woman who claimed she’d had a third breast implanted. The story exploded the Internet only to be found that it a hoax.
To look back at the previous example, the governments’ largest removal requests were made to YouTube and Bloggers services. However, according to Google, 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute with more than 1 billion unique users visiting this website each month (Statistics). If the government identifies a video as a censorable content and request a removal, that video can be downloaded, re-uploaded and shared by thousands of users.
The same principles apply to Bloggers, where the content can be archived online, or downloaded and accessed by readers even if Google removes it. On the other hand, there are alternative ways for an individual to express his/her thoughts if they are being censored as a result of website administrations.
As discussed, there is no specific guideline to determine what should be censored, so one website’s description of a censorable material is different from another website. With more than two billion blog posts being published every day, there is no easy way to identify the source of the original post and be able to delete that content fully. One can simply select an alternative route and still publish it on the web.
People are Curious
Undoubtedly, a censored content will trigger the curiosity of individuals and seek to access the censored content. Several studies, including one by Stephen Worchel, Susan Arnold, and Michael Baker, have shown that “censorship led to an increased desire to hear the communication and attitude change toward the position of the communication” (Worchel et al. 227). The act of censorship often motivates individuals to seek further details. Therefore, by blocking a content and labeling it as a censored content, we put it at the center of attention.
Considering the example where the photo of Chelsea Handler is removed from Instagram because it did not follow the community guidelines, it never stopped individuals from accessing that photo. Handler immediately expressed her concern about this matter on Twitter and provoked individual’s interest in viewing the censored picture.
The graph displays the interest over time for the keyword “Chelsea Handler” which is searched on Google search service. It clearly shows that during the incident which took place at the end of October to the beginning of November 2014, the number of users who searched for this term increased exponentially.
The evolution of the web and the exponential growth of various websites almost doubled the number of internet users worldwide. The web allows individuals to become part of a grid, a system which links them to unlimited resources.
To censor the web, to take control of individual’s freedom, to decide what is wrong and what is right and to repress someone’s opinion is practically impossible
The web has broken boundaries set by government authorities which make it unique in terms of freedom. To censor the web, to take control of individual’s freedom, to decide what is wrong and what is right and to repress someone’s opinion is practically impossible.
Sharing of information on the web is becoming a habit for individuals, thousands of content are being published every second, which makes content censorship ineffective. Censorship is a futile attempt to keep the web silence, not only because it is very difficult to determine which content needs to be censored but also because the censorable content may be accessed through different routes and censorship itself simply encourage people to share the censored subject.
- Dewey, Caitlin. "What Was Fake on the Internet This Week: Everything, Basically." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
- Fisher, Randy D., Ida J. Cook, and Edwin C. Shirkey. "Correlates of Support for Censorship of Sexual, Sexually Violent, and Violent Media." Journal of Sex Research 31.3 (1994): 229-30. Web.
- Hoffner, Cynthia, and Martha Buchanan. "Parents' Responses to Television Violence: The Third-Person Perception, Parental Mediation, and Support for Censorship." Media Psychology 4.3 (2002): 240-41. Web.
- "Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q & A." American Library Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
- "Statistics." YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.
- "Total Number of Websites." Internet Live Stats. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
- Worchel, Stephen, Susan E. Arnold, and Michael Baker. "The Effects of Censorship and Attractiveness of the Censor on Attitude Change." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 9.4 (1973): 227-39. Web.