I think it’s wonderful that I live in a country where there are free speech protections where I get to say what I want. The United States is mostly free of censorship, and whatever censorship it has is mostly tolerable. Yet there is something deeply wrong with this unfiltered media environment that we live in.
For one thing, there is an incredible amount of misinformation in the world right now. The Internet has provided a forum for anyone to voice their opinion, even conspiracy theorists, poorly informed people, or shameless liars seeking attention. Perhaps I am being too harsh on the Internet, when television was popular there were concerns about the accuracy of the information provided by the “boob tube”. But certainly, because there are no editorial standards for the Internet, we are constantly bombarded with misinformation. Most of us don’t have the time to fact-check everything we read, so many of us end up taking on faith what we see.
Then there is the whole problematic issue of online harassment. When people send threatening or demeaning messages online it poisons the social environment of cyberspace. But should online harassment or cyberbullying being counteracted with censorship? This is a difficult question to answer, because this type of censorship could easily devolve into violation of freedom of speech. Legally this is not a problem, because the United States constitution only provides freedom of speech from the government, but websites are run by private businesses so they can censor however they like. But ethically it’s much tougher to decide. In the case of cyberbullying, there is a case to be made that if you bully someone online, it makes the person resort to self-censorship. I think there should be censorship, but done with good guidelines to prevent abuse of the system.
Censorship should be like war; something that should never happen in a perfect world, but has to be available as a last resort. Most of us would rather there’d be no censorship, but there are difficult situations where even the most liberal-minded of us would acquiesce. A while back Twitter had to face the decision whether it should take down the accounts of ISIS members who were spreading propaganda and recruiting people. At first it decided not to, but that caused public outrage, and eventually they decided to crack down on the organization. Whether this is ultimately a good thing or not, we can only see through hindsight; but personally I thought it was an appropriate response. Still, I think minimizing the amount of censorship is a good thing.
But what will remain problematic is that censorship is silently slipping back into our world. What I am talking about is that search engines and social media sites can manipulate our search results to filter out certain results it doesn’t want us to see. Famously, Facebook’s trending news section has been shown to have certain biases because it was curated by hand. Currently there are no accountability standards mandated by law or agreed upon by the industry, which is troubling.
The good news is that censorship has never prevented people from finding out the truth. In France during the ancien regime, the monarchy censored many things, everything from the first French encyclopedia to naughty drawings of Marie Antoinette (yes, that was a thing back then). But the people were still able to get their hands on these materials by smuggling them from Switzerland. The Soviet Union did its best to prevent Western movies and music from entering, but virtually everyone had access to them through smugglers. The same thing is happening in North Korea.
The greatest challenge may not be censorship that any authority imposes, but the way we censor ourselves. What I am talking about is the inability for most of us to listen to or engage with ideas we disagree with. The Internet is less of a “global village” and more of a collection of warring tribes stuck in their own echo chambers. Liberals and conservatives occupy different niches on the Internet, only meeting on Twitter or the YouTube comment section to taunt one another. Conspiracy theorists are stuck with their bizarre theories without seriously examining their ideas by looking at facts that contradict their ideas. Metalheads ridicule One Direction fans for their own inane reasons. This is actually the most dangerous form of censorship because it is not imposed above but arises organically from below, and therefore harder to get rid of.
Even though censorship will very likely be necessary to some degree, we should always as an ideal treat it as unnecessary. What stands in the way of getting rid of it are flaws in human nature. We need for humans to be kinder and more reasonable about the world. While human nature may never be perfected, it nonetheless stands as a goal to strive for.