If governments and tech companies insist on censoring “offensive” content from the minds of the masses, it will lead to more censorship of free speech and a black market for banned material.
Over the last week, the internet and news landscape has been filled with stories dissecting the shooting at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. Fifty people were murdered as a result of the shooting. Authorities and news pundits reacted to this disturbing act of violence in typical fashion: ignore inconvenient questions surrounding the incident, shut down all potential dissenters, and finally, call for more state control as the solution (including the obligatory call for gun control). However, this particular shooting in New Zealand has helped reveal the truly scary lengths governments will go to in their attempt to control the narrative.
What sets this shooting apart from others is that the New Zealand shooter livestreamed the massacre via Facebook where it was viewed more than 4,000 times before being taken down. Video of the shooting was then posted on YouTube, Twitter, LiveLeak, and other platforms before all platforms began actively removing it.
The Wall Street Journal called the livestream “a gruesome example of how social-media platforms can be used to spread terror despite heavy spending by their owners to contain it.” New Zealand government officials and police reportedly made the public aware they might face up to ten years in prison for possessing the video. Government officials are also calling on social media platforms to create new ways to halt the spread of “hate content.”
In a speech at Parliament on Tuesday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said social media companies are not neutral and must be held accountable for allowing the spread of videos depicting violence. “We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher, not just the postman. It cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility,” Ardern stated.
Reuters reports that New Zealand’s biggest telecommunications company, Spark NZ Ltd, worked with Internet Service Providers to cut access to websites that were hosting or allowing sharing of the video. Spark spokesman Andrew Pirie would not publicly identify the websites that had been blocked, but did admit that it was a “pretty extreme step” that has not happened before this incident. In addition, New Zealand companies are being asked to reconsider using social media companies for advertising until they find ways to combat the spread of this so-called hate content.
While some readers may initially believe these steps are necessary to prevent the spread of the graphic and traumatic images and to deny the shooter his wanted infamy, these types of actions ultimately lead to more censorship of free speech and a black market for banned content. Of course, private companies have the right to police their platforms how they please, according to their own community standards. The danger comes when a tragedy leads to calls for increased “speech-policing” practices, as we are already seeing in New Zealand and Australia. (Not to mention the fact that New Zealand is a part of the global surveillance state known as the Five Eye’s nations—the U.S., Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada—yet none of the five countries were aware of this terror threat.)
As the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) notes, these type of practices often expand to silence legitimate voices. “It’s understandable to call for more aggressive moderation policies in the face of horrifying crimes. Unfortunately, history has shown that those proposals frequently backfire,” EFF writes. “When platforms over-censor, they often disproportionately silence the speech of their most vulnerable, at-risk users.”
The obvious truth is that when governments pressure platforms to drastically increase efforts to police speech, the inevitable result is an increase in more censorship than intended. How would the governments of 2019 react if the World Trade Center towers were struck by planes? Would the social media companies and government officials threaten anyone who shared a livestream video of JFK’s assassination if it took place today?
It’s important to ask these questions as calls for censorship and policing of “hate content” ramp up. If we allow tragedies to be exploited in the name of protecting our virgin eyes and ears from graphic content, we will ultimately find ourselves locked inside a sanitized world where only approved opinions and approved experiences are allowed.