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Digital Censorship

A staggering 88% of U.S. adults surveyed use social media, according to 2019 data from Pew Research. This is made even more astonishing given that social media has rocketed from relative obscurity into an integral part of the daily routines of many in only around a decade.

The popularity isn’t all that surprising, given that the internet offers exceptionally rapid exchange of ideas in the form of videos, memes, textposts, tweets, and so forth. Social media platforms function as conduits for the flow of this digital information, compiling vast amounts of content into single locations that are immediately and easily accessible; as virtual forums for public discourse, untethered by the physical location of those conversing.

Given just how enormously prevalent and influential platforms have become and how invaluable they are for rapidly disseminating information, it is alarming when these platforms silence certain ideas. For instance, Instagram admins will “remove content that contains credible threats or hate speech,” according to its community guidelines. Part of this statement is clearly spelled out: a genuine, non-satirical threat that calls for violence against another person or people will be removed. What’s more, inciting violence is not protected by the Constitution as free speech, meaning this stipulation is merely reflecting federal law and precedent.

On the other hand, the “hate speech” portion lacks clarity. According to the American Library Association, hate speech “doesn’t have a legal definition under U.S. law, just as there is no legal definition for rudeness […] or any other kind of speech that people might condemn.” There is tremendous grey area when judging what is and is not “hate speech,” and although one can make an extremely strong argument that using racial slurs and posting bigoted messages fall in said grey area, the boundaries remain unquantifiable.

Therein lies the problem: hate speech is not a rigorously defined term, so these massive platforms with hate speech provisions can, if they wish, remove or demonitize content they potentially disagree with under the guise of it containing “hate speech.”

Case in point: A political cartoonist on Instagram with the handle @madebyjimbob posted a comic that satirized the inconsistency with which certain words are labeled as hate speech, specifically how straight individuals are condemned for disagreeing with gay preferences but not vice-versa. It was removed by Instagram on Sept. 27 because admins deemed that it “[went] against [Instagram’s] Community Guidelines on hate speech or symbols.” Jimbob is decidedly right-wing and the cartoon in question was certainly blunt, edgy in its delivery and politically incorrect but it was a far cry from being hateful, degrading or inciting violence. The message of the comic was lost on Instagram admins, who removed it anyway, probably because they disagreed with it.

YouTube exhibits similar bias. The most subscribed-to conservative YouTuber, Steven Crowder, points out in a recent video that if you type “Steven Crowder” into the YouTube search bar, none of the first page results are from Crowder’s channel, whereas searching the names of liberal channels with comparable subscriber counts and average views does not yield the same anomalous search results. (At the time of writing, this is still the case.) This would suggest a potential blacklist of certain political channels on Youtube’s part. This also follows the demonetization of Crowder’s entire channel in July. Regarding the demonitization, YouTube commented vaguely and baselessly that “[Crowder’s] channel is demonetized due to continued egregious actions that have harmed the broader community” without citing any specific videos or evidence. And Crowder’s channel is only one of many cases afflicting mainly conservative channels.

That’s not to say that these platforms can’t restrict what they deem to be hate speech or otherwise against the guidelines. Being private companies, they legally have the right to do so. However, it’s plainly wrong when they exhibit what can be interpreted as ideological censorship and political sway without being transparent about their true motives. Instead, platforms like YouTube and Instagram silence content largely because it contains ideology they don’t like, while lying to the public about their justifications for doing so.

It’s immaterial that this is occurring mostly one-sidedly. If liberal thought was being purged from internet platforms and hidden from the public with stilted search algorithms, it would still be an equally shady move on the platforms’ part. Though entitled to do so, social media giants are abusing their immense influence on American society by capriciously, unequally applying their nebulous terms and conditions to their users, which is not only dishonest but also potentially detrimental to the virtually unrestricted exchange of content and ideas on the Internet many of us value so much.

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