Social media censorship

Last month there were clashes between tribes in Assam, a north-eastern state of India. Following this, messages were apparently sent using social media, threatening migrant workers that further attacks were in store. As a result, ethnic minorities are feeling vulnerable and thousands of them are leaving cities like Bangalore every day in a mass exodus.

The Indian government is responding to this by asking for a clamp down on the material. They want the social media sites to take responsibility for the threatening content and the effects it is having.

The Indian government itself has blocked a number of web pages – almost 250 – for content that they feel is inappropriate, related to the threats. The Indian Express apparently “disputed the motives of the web page blocks, suggesting an overzealous level of censorship” (source: BBC), so even within India voices are inferring that perhaps it’s not as closely related to the mass exodus as is being portrayed.

Whether countries should censor social media is a very interesting debate, reminiscent of the questions asked in the UK surrounding the riots and the use of social media -especially Blackberry Messenger – in gathering the rioters together. The UK riots proved that social media could equally be used to help fix the damage caused by the violence, as seen in the @RiotCleanUp campaign.

So social media is never solely the enemy but a neutral medium used by those wanting harm and those wanting good. To shut down these kind of sites, as some nations have in times of unrest, stops good connectivity happening as well as bad. Hopefully social media (if they can access it) will equally help those fleeing Bangalore by providing information about where it is safe to gather, and where food and shelter is available.

Some censorship is essential, for example when it relates to child pornography. In the UK the Internet Watch Foundation blocks countless sites and ensures that their activities are not accessible to the public. This seems a very healthy practice. But where is the line drawn between good censorship and unhealthy censorship?

Having myself been on the receiving end of several cases of trolling, stalking and threatening contact via the internet, I was disappointed how little there was that Myspace, Facebook and Twitter could do about it. For example, it’s very difficult to get Facebook to shut down an account that impersonates you. There seemed little help available beyond hitting the ‘block’ and ‘report’ buttons on these sites, which didn’t seem to have much effect.

Every medium will be used for good and for harm. Blaming the medium itself rather than the users of it, seems fruitless. David Cameron, speaking during the riots said “Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.” Calling people to account for threatening messages and violent intent is important, as long as the sites themselves are not shut down, as then the “good” use Cameron referred to, will also be lost.

The OpenNet Initiative (ONI) Reporters Without Boarders (RWB) have a system of classification for levels of internet blockage across the globe. The highest is “Pervasive” and countries practicing this include China, Iran, Burma, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Some of the categories blocked are ‘political news’ and ‘things pertaining to freedom of speech’. Some social media sites are entirely unavailable, e.g. in Iran where following unrest surrounding the 2009 elections YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook were blocked entirely. So in some nations, social media and the incredible freedom of communication it brings, are sadly not an option.

Are smaller steps to censor social media a slippery slope that will eventually give governments the ability to shut entire networks down and prevent the good as well as the bad? Or do you think it’s wise for governments to take these smaller steps, to prevent violence and hate speech? What was your take on the use of social media in the UK riots – do you think the government should have shut down the Blackberry Messenger network temporarily? These are questions that should and must consume us as we ensure that technology is both free and safe.