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Your censorship is my content moderation

C Gopinath | Updated on March 10, 2021

What’s the difference between content moderation and censorship? This is an existential problem facing social-media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Parler. They are being criticised for allowing postings that are deemed to spread fake news, fraud, violence, and even hate speech. And, they are making knee-jerk responses. Amazon Web Services dropped the account of Parler because its users streamed live the riots in the US Capitol on January 6. Discord, a messaging app, banned a chat group for boosting frenzied purchases of stock. Facebook banned former president Trump.

And to add irony, while Google is being asked to censor public postings, it is being accused by its own employees of censoring free speech within the company.

US Congress (that is, parliament) has called the chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter to appear before its committee on March 25. The hearing may give the representatives ideas for legislation. Business likes certainty and China and Saudi Arabia have a better solution — clear rules of censorship. In Saudi Arabia you cannot criticise the government, the royal family or Islamic values. China doesn’t like any challenge to its communist political ideology.

In the US, the Constitution gets in the way of direct government action and clarity for the public. In the much valued First Amendment, the Constitution guarantees free speech and leaves it to the political composition of its Supreme Court to regularly figure out which way they want to understand that guarantee.

The price to pay

When India suspended the internet from use during terrorist threats in Kashmir or during farmers’ protest when it turned violent, it attracted the ire of the free world media for its repression. But that free world knows the price it has to pay. When conservative supporters of President Trump rallied through social media, that was too free for even the liberals to tolerate.

This brings us to the question of whether free speech is all it’s made out to be? Whose value is it anyway? Should societies that value free speech over everything else be prepared to tolerate a certain amount of violence in the fringes. When that violence spreads to the centre, like it did in the US, then there begins a re-examination of that value.

A more stark conflict arose in 2005 in Denmark when a newspaper published cartoons that were considered blasphemous to Islam. It sparked riots in several countries with majority Muslim populations leading to reportedly over 250 deaths and destruction of property. Societies that have diverse and sensitive population segments would certainly consider a value of not stirring discord among its citizens to be more important than individual free speech.

In hiding behind the First Amendment, the US is now expecting business executives to do right. It is always convenient when politicians have someone else to blame. They now expect private commercial organisations to interpret political rights and make decisions. Rather than lay down censorship rules, they expect the organizations to moderate content themselves. This allows the country to maintain its garb of free speech.

So Facebook has machine learning algorithms in place, and reportedly has 15,000 human moderators who review flagged content, and a financially independent oversight board that includes a former judge and a former prime minister of Denmark. At the end of all this cost, it is still suspect in the public eye which wants a perfect world while enjoying the companies’ services without making any payment.

So at the end of my rambling, what’s the difference between censorship and content moderation? I guess it is the same difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. It depends on whose side you are on.

The writer is a US-based academic

Published on March 10, 2021

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