Should social media have the final say for online censorship?

Leaving censorship to social media companies could have consequences. Picture: Studiostoks on Shutterstock.
Leaving censorship to social media companies could have consequences. Picture: Studiostoks on Shutterstock.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers: Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the UN in 1948.

This world was still very raw from World War II and the obvious damage that was done when The Third Reich established a Ministry of Propaganda in 1933.

It took control of the national education of the German people with control over schools, universities, film, radio and the press.

Keep that in mind with the latest announcement by Google. A new policy from Google, which includes YouTube, will prohibit ads and monetisation for content that contradicts the existence and causes of climate change.

It is hot on the heels of a blanket ban on vaccine misinformation and banning of channels of people identified as anti-vaxxers.

Facebook also removes posts that contain information with false claims about vaccines and they use labels to inform users when information being posted is questionable.

Former moderators for Facebook claim that rules for Facebook censorship include such things as hate speech and racism and criticism of Facebook and ... hold on there. That last one?

Social media organisations have a greater influence over the world than any single government.

YouTube has 2.3 billion users who watch over one billion hours of video every day. Facebook has 2.79 billion users with 73 per cent of those using it daily.

Social media organisations are not governments elected by the people. They are companies focused on delivering profits for shareholders. If criticism of your company is bad for profits, then delete those posts!

Censorship typically has negative connotations but I don't know too many people who would not be in favour of removing images of child pornography - which is censorship.

And therein lies the problem. When the governments of France, Germany and Austria all decided, independently, to introduce laws that prohibit the spread of Holocaust denial, a public and transparent process was undertaken by elected leaders.

When a social media giant decides to censor, say, criticism of their organisation, it is hidden censorship. When the Facebook CEO was questioned by the US Senate, he admitted that, even with their policies in place, it can be difficult for their AI and moderators to decide what to censor.

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If social media had existed for hundreds of years, some now well-accepted scientific concepts would have been labelled as misinformation or removed.

In 1632, Galileo published a book that implicitly implied that the earth revolved around the sun. The next year he was convicted of heresy and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Ignaz Semmelweis was an obstetrician who published evidence in 1847 that doctors who washed their hands before delivering babies had mothers with lower mortality rates. Worse than having a label of misinformation, he was locked away in an insane asylum for pushing his crazy ideas.

In 1912, Alfred Wegener proposed the concept of continental drift. It was roundly rejected and his ideas were mocked.

Now, I have opinions about climate change denial and vaccination and I base those opinions on scientific data available right now, but Article 19 says that everyone has a right to freedom of opinion.

Leaving censorship in the hands of companies with such huge influence and striving to deliver profits sounds like danger to me.

Let me know your thoughts. Send an email to ask@techtalk.digital and tell me if you think we should have individual companies setting their censorship policies or if the UN could have a place in this discussion.

  • Mathew Dickerson is a technologist, futurist and host of the Tech Talk podcast.