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When social media and censorship collide

When we think of moderated comments, the specter of censorship seems inevitable. But is censorship such a bad thing? The rise of social media suggests we ought to take the rough with the smooth, but why should we?

When we think of moderated comments, the specter of censorship seems inevitable. But is censorship such a bad thing? The rise of social media suggests we ought to take the rough with the smooth, but why should we?

So what have the recent elections in Iran, Skittles and Trent Reznor got in common? All three represent what happens when social media and censorship collide.

If we can’t curate our comments and manage our messages, do we run the risk of not only losing the signal in the noise, but the noise itself becoming the signal? For all its failings, Digg points the way to a new kind of democracy on the web. However, a free-for-all does not for free speech maketh:

“Free speech is not the right to talk crap, insult people and generally be an idiot. While I will always defend the rights of the individual to exercise their individuality, if those individuals are incapable of recognizing their failure to offer something of value to everyone else, or to remain at least reasonable and calm, then someone has to make that decision for them. That’s not censorship, that’s citizenship…”

Reznor’s on a razor’s edge, slashes his social profile

Case in point, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame backs away from the social web:

“Reznor’s withdrawl comes just days after Michael Arrington pulled the plug on TechCrunch’s official FriendFeed account, partly because of a massive influx of comments riddled with personal attacks.”

But why? The guy’s had enough of being bombarded with inane, insulting crap, that’s why. The more high profile a person you are, the bigger a target you become. Trent just became a huge crap magnet.

Skittles scuttled by Twitter twoddle

Depending on who you ask, the recent Skittles marketing hustle was either a roaring success or a case study in how not to effectively use social media to raise brand awareness. Just hop onto Google and search for: “Skittles Twitter campaign” to see what people think. My favourite headline being: “Skittles viral campaign holds a mirror to twitter”. Indeed.

In the end, the whole Skittles + Twitter thing descended into an expletive-ridden farce. I am approximately 99.99975% sure the likes of Disney, Nike, GAP et cetera watched the proceedings with great interest, wisely concluding that the execution of such an open campaign is open invitation to disaster.

I clearly remember reading about the proposed marketing campaign and clearly imagining the outcome in my mind, which was mirrored by the events as they unfolded. The sad thing is, the predictability of the whole saga relied entirely on the very predictable nature of people, when gifted with editorial privileges.

A fundamental weakness of social media is the unhindered access people have, which also happens to be the greatest strength of social media. The power to influence is phenomenal. Equally, the power to demolish, damage and decry is frightening.

However, some balk at the idea of censorship, citing all manner of Orwellian nightmare scenarios as possible, inevitabilities. I disagree. On balance, if we look at the mean quality of blogging and social media as a whole, the ratio is low. If we then consider examples of censorship in media, its use is usually to raise perceived quality, maintain impartiality and reduce the likelihood of impropriety. And where are you most likely to see the judicious and mainly correct use of censorship? In the top five percent websites that constitute the higher end of the quality ratio.

The fact of the matter is, few businesses in their right mind would willingly expose their brands to deliberate attempts to being undermined and abused. Given the tools to censor such things, they will nod appreciatively every single time.

If you think censorship has no place in a modern, media-saturated world, think again. Why would WordPress, one of the most high profile content management systems give you the option to edit, moderate and even delete comments if censorship wasn’t on the agenda?

And if you think you personally wouldn’t condone censorship, then I suggest you stop using Digg with immediate effect. Every time you vote an article down, you’re effectively moderating and, consequently, censoring those articles. And if you’re a power user, you can kill an article dead and buried.

In reality, censorship (or a lack thereof) is all around you; from the moment your mother or your father tell you to be quiet to the politically sensitive or personally invasive story on CNN.

But when the web is the medium, how do you shut the whole world up? There’s such a thing as brand management, which is the pro-active effort to build a consistent image of your business. Then there’s reputation management, which is more a case of managing the damage inflicted by unfavourable reviews, for example, after the fact.

In so far as the former, you’re effectively attempting to paint as clean and as happy a picture of your business as possible. Regarding the latter, you’re just trying to gloss over the cracks and shout louder than the guy you somehow annoyed, and is voicing their anger. For its part, social media is the battle ground, where both parties are given the tools and the audiences to do with as they see fit.

In this respect, there’s little room for direct censorship. Instead, you’re trying to saturate the media channels with as much positive stuff about you and your business as possible, which should relegate the negative stuff to cold and less traveled regions of page three and onwards on Google.

There’s little doubt that big businesses have taken a shine to social media. However, the perils and the prizes are so intricately interwoven, the final balance can be exceptionally fine, as the guys behind Skittles discovered.

When censorship becomes citizenship

So what did we learn? It’s easy to say that people will be people and therefor can’t be trusted. But that theory quickly erodes when you consider the groundswell of global support for the pro-democracy protesters in Iran, all powered by social networking and social media:

“The episode demonstrates the extent to which the administration views social networking as a new arrow in its diplomatic quiver. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks regularly about the power of e-diplomacy, particularly in places where the mass media are repressed.”

So is it a question of motives? I think there’s an element of that. If there’s social momentum and a feeling that right and correct thing must be done, citizen censorship comes into effect, and those who decry the movement are often compelled to be silent and move along.

The difference between what’s happening in Iran and say for example, Holocaust denialists and the laws enacted to forbid such things, one is censorship while the other is citizenship. And therein lies the future of censorship through social media.

In the end, censorship will be a shared movement; with the media and the politicians on one side and the people and their global social networks on the other. As the years and months pass, we’re going to see social media mature, and with it, we’re also going to see censorship evolve into something both shared and coveted, not vilified or ridiculed…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

4 replies on “When social media and censorship collide”

I think its nearly impossible to police down the social media to be able to push the censorship regulations. The WWW is so wide and a fast changing and moving environment.

There are ways that the Skittles campaign could have and probably should have censored the type of tweets that were pulled through to the feed. Mostly as the microsite was acting on behalf of the brand, they built the site and installed the feed for the single reason to promote the company.

Good article, thanks for sharing

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