Is censorship effective at preventing violence and extremism?
Censorship is the latest installment in a long list of good intentions. While many people don’t support the extremism that censorship combats, attempts at censorship are being retargeted at the activists speaking out against the violence. Many of these victims are people of color, one example of which includes a woman calling into question the harassment of her children--a post which Facebook ultimately censored. Censorship also disproportionately affects marginalized groups, who may need to remain anonymous for their own safety and wellbeing.
The idea of social media censorship inevitably leads to the argument of who exactly decides what should be censored--as it is difficult for algorithms to differentiate between an activist and a person making extremist posts. In most cases, the owner of the platform or the government can censor at their own discretion. However, the lines drawn for censorship can be fuzzy, and it is ultimately difficult to determine what actually crosses that line.
Unfortunately, censorship is ineffective in eliminating dangerous or extremist content because it can lead extremists to share their opinions somewhere they cannot be monitored--like the dark web. In fact, the BBC has already launched a site on the dark web to oppose censorship in countries like Iran, China, and Vietnam. People are developing new and innovative ways to get around censorship guidelines, like researchers at Georgia Tech, who developed a way to hide messages in Flickr photos.
Censorship is an effective way to limit the spread of dangerous ideas that may lead to violence, particularly those based on conspiracy, racist and sexist beliefs, or other factual inaccuracies. The rise of social media has made the need for this type of censorship apparent.
Though not the source of violence and extremism, social media platforms have amplified extremist messages through their algorithms designed to show users agreeable content. This can have the effect of distorting reality by creating echo chambers in which users are never challenged by facts or alternative viewpoints. It's easy to see how moderating or censoring extremist content could disrupt these cycles, ultimately preventing acts of violence.
Some people incorrectly assume that anything said on the internet is protected under the First Amendment. The general rule of thumb for whether inflammatory speech is protected is called the 'shouting fire' test, named after the concept of shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater. If someone's words can be shown to most likely endanger others, they can and must be censored under the First Amendment. This can be particularly important for social media users with many loyal followers willing to carry out deeds merely suggested online.
Those opposing censorship will point to anecdotal evidence of past problems, such as the banning of certain words, which led to those attempting to report racist speech being censored. Difficulties and past problems are no excuse to stop progress. There will be challenges that arise with censoring violent and extremist content. Still, we must learn from them, apologize where necessary, and continue to move forward with weeding out extremism wherever it is found.
- The ACLU defines censorship as 'the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are 'offensive' and cites that it happens 'whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal, political, or moral values on others.'
- A 2020 Pew Research Center poll revealed that censorship is perceived differently amongst political parties, with 90% of Republicans saying that it is 'likely that social media sites censor political viewpoints,' while only 59% of Democrats believed so.
- One of the functions of the First Amendment is that it 'prevents government restrictions on speech,' however, this does not apply to private individuals or businesses.
- According to the Counter Extremism Project, far-left extremism 'largely centers around the notion of correcting an injustice but is otherwise broad in its ideological catchment.' On the other hand, far-right extremism involves 'ethno-nationalist and white supremacist movements in the United States and Europe includ[ing] far-right political parties, neo-Nazi movements, and apolitical protest groups.'