A Citizen’s Primer To Censorship

A brief primer on issues of censorship and how it can effect governments, organizations and individuals.


I no­ticed some­thing re­cent­ly while view­ing dis­cus­sions on the top­ic of cen­sor­ship. There seems to be gen­er­al mis­con­cep­tions about what does and does not en­tail cen­sor­ship, about whether only a gov­ern­men­tal body can cen­sor, and the gen­er­al thought that free speech pro­tects against all cen­sor­ship. It’s un­der­stand­able giv­en how lit­tle we are taught about cen­sor­ship in schools and what we see in our day to day lives. Things may have changed since the time I was younger, but I do not re­mem­ber any lessons on the sub­ject of cen­sor­ship in sec­ondary school. We have the idea of free speech and the First Amendment that is taught in our his­to­ry and so­cial stud­ies class­es. When it comes to cen­sor­ship, though, I don’t see much em­pha­sis giv­en to un­der­stand­ing the is­sue out­side of se­lect col­lege lev­el cours­es. So it comes as no sur­prise that some peo­ple may be ig­no­rant on the mat­ter. I feel pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion and cer­tain en­ti­ties do not have a mo­ti­va­tion to want peo­ple to un­der­stand the fin­er nu­ances of this topic.

With this in mind, I want­ed to give a primer of sorts on cen­sor­ship, its ef­fects, and what one can do when they feel cen­sor­ship is an issue.

To do this, we first need to de­fine what cen­sor­ship is. The ACLU ex­plains censorship:

Censorship, the sup­pres­sion of words, im­ages, or ideas that are ‘of­fen­sive,’ hap­pens when­ev­er some peo­ple suc­ceed in im­pos­ing their per­son­al po­lit­i­cal or moral val­ues on oth­ers. Censorship can be car­ried out by the gov­ern­ment as well as pri­vate pres­sure groups. Once you al­low the gov­ern­ment to cen­sor some­one else, you cede to it the pow­er to cen­sor you, or some­thing you like….Censorship by the [U.S.] gov­ern­ment is un­con­sti­tu­tion­al be­cause free­dom of speech is pro­tect­ed in the First Amendment, and is guar­an­teed to all Americans.”

As seen in this de­f­i­n­i­tion, cen­sor­ship can come from a gov­ern­men­tal body or a pri­vate group. This brings me to the first mis­con­cep­tion I see when peo­ple dis­cuss is­sues of cen­sor­ship. I’ve heard the idea that only a gov­ern­ment can cen­sor, which is not true. While it is true that cen­sor­ship en­act­ed by gov­ern­ments with laws pro­tect­ing free speech can be il­le­gal, any per­son or group can try to cen­sor ideas or issues.

soviet-censorship-naval-commissar-vanishes-1-225x300I feel we all know what cen­sor­ship from a gov­ern­men­tal body looks like. One can draw from past overt ex­am­ples to high­light how all-encompassing cen­sor­ship can be. Soviet U.S.S.R. up to and af­ter World War II had near to­tal con­trol of in­for­ma­tion in their so­ci­ety, lit­er­al­ly eras­ing ideas and peo­ple who were in­con­ve­nient and ex­er­cis­ing com­plete pow­er over what was taught in schools and talked about in the me­dia. This style of com­plete con­trol over all as­pects of a so­ci­ety can be seen em­u­lat­ed to­day in coun­tries such as Iran and North Korea.

It can be easy to de­fine ex­am­ples of gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship as they hap­pen. Take, for ex­am­ple, the Great Firewall of China or the fil­ter­ing and block­ing of sec­tions of the in­ter­net by Middle Eastern coun­tries; these are much more cut and dry is­sues. With these stark­ly de­fined ex­am­ples, it can be eas­i­er to break free from the con­trol cen­sor­ship has on you be­cause you know in­stinc­tive­ly to not ex­pect truth from the of­fi­cial sources.

It be­comes more neb­u­lous in people’s minds when con­sid­er­ing ex­am­ples of cen­sor­ship from out­side the gov­ern­ment. When re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions push for a mu­sic al­bum to banned, when groups work to pull video games from store shelves, when web­sites take an ac­tive role in block­ing the cov­er­age or dis­cus­sion or cer­tain top­ics, these are all ex­am­ples of pri­vate groups at­tempt­ing to cen­sor con­tent or ideas. It just isn’t il­le­gal.

There are times when a web­site, news or­ga­ni­za­tion, or on­line com­mu­ni­ty may choose to cen­sor cer­tain is­sues or top­ics from be­ing dis­cussed or cer­tain words or phras­es from be­ing used. A news or­ga­ni­za­tion that re­fus­es to dis­play curse words, even in the con­text of a quote, is a more be­nign ex­am­ple of cen­sor­ship. The same or­ga­ni­za­tion not show­ing footage of a ter­ror­ist be­head­ing some­one is a more ex­treme ex­am­ple. There are many on­line fo­rums that cen­sor dis­cus­sions of pira­cy in an ef­fort stop pira­cy it­self from oc­cur­ring. For the con­sumers of me­dia and the users of these fo­rums, it is an at­tempt on be­half of the or­ga­ni­za­tion to im­prove qual­i­ty of their prod­uct or brand. Whether you agree with or can deal with these forms of cen­sor­ship is up to you.

This brings me to an­oth­er mis­con­cep­tion that peo­ple seem have: cen­sor­ship in any form is neg­a­tive. There are many in­stances where we are un­der pos­si­bly ben­e­fi­cial forms of cen­sor­ship, and we self-censor on many oc­ca­sions. When you keep your­self from curs­ing around your grand­moth­er, you are cen­sor­ing your­self. When you hold in that fart on your first date, you are cen­sor­ing yourself!

Most work­places have rules against speak­ing about re­li­gion, pol­i­tics, or oth­er po­lar­iz­ing is­sues (I had a job that ruled out talk­ing about sports!) due to an ef­fort to avoid un­need­ed con­flicts and in­crease the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of em­ploy­ees. This is cen­sor­ship as well. It just is not an ex­am­ple of cen­sor­ship that peo­ple tend to ral­ly against, be­cause it is with­in the rights of the com­pa­ny in ques­tion. You are not stopped from dis­cussing what­ev­er you will in your free time. You can choose be­tween be­ing cen­sored dur­ing work­ing hours for your pay or sim­ply not work­ing there.


censorship-300x267Censorship can be­come in­creas­ing­ly in­sid­i­ous, though, de­pend­ing on the top­ic in ques­tion or the form that cen­sor­ship is tak­ing. We can cir­cle back around to news or­ga­ni­za­tions to pull ex­am­ples from. If a news or­ga­ni­za­tion blocks cer­tain top­ics from be­ing cov­ered due to gov­ern­ment edict, this is cen­sor­ship that can im­pair pub­lic dis­course or po­ten­tial­ly cause per­son­al harm. While it is still not il­le­gal in all cas­es, it is high­ly un­eth­i­cal and can jeop­ar­dize the rep­u­ta­tion of the peo­ple or or­ga­ni­za­tion involved.

Another ex­am­ple that can be dam­ag­ing to pub­lic dis­course can come from Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced en­cy­clo­pe­dia and is cu­rat­ed by thou­sands of peo­ple. On more con­tro­ver­sial top­ics, en­tries can change mul­ti­ple times a day as ed­i­tors bat­tle over what ver­sion of events they want to make de­fin­i­tive. This is why Wikipedia is not a citable source for col­lege pa­pers. When the ed­i­tors of Wikipedia in­ad­ver­tent­ly or pur­pose­ly dis­tort, delete, or re­vise ar­ti­cles based on ide­ol­o­gy or opin­ion, they en­gage in cen­sor­ship. Again, this is not il­le­gal, but it is un­eth­i­cal in the ex­treme and helps to bend pub­lic per­cep­tion. Wikipedia is a flu­id set of truths and ‘“facts,” and the en­tire fab­ric of it ebbs and flows. More con­tro­ver­sial or pop­u­lar top­ics are al­tered so of­ten that it can be amus­ing to see as it hap­pens. At least Wikipedia al­lows users to see the dis­cus­sion be­hind the prover­bial slap fights and at­tempts to al­ter perceptions.

People are in­creas­ing­ly ac­cess­ing crowd-sourced in­for­ma­tion por­tals these days, as the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Reddit shows. Reddit is a pop­u­lar and in­flu­en­tial web­site that works with vol­un­teer mod­er­a­tors, just like Wikipedia does. However, in­stead of at­tempt­ing to be an en­cy­clo­pe­dia, it works to ag­gre­gate con­tent for the com­mu­ni­ty to vote on how in­ter­est­ing an item may be and to dis­cuss that item. Reddit was found­ed on ideas of be­ing pro-free speech and anti-censorship, only delet­ing items or users that were against their Terms of Service or the law. Idea and ex­e­cu­tion are not the same, though, and over time Reddit has shift­ed away from this stance with their ac­tions. Recently re­port­ed on ex­am­ples from the mod­er­a­tor chat logs of cer­tain red­di­tors high­light how cen­sor­ship can emerge and how it is en­forced in an ad hoc com­mu­ni­ty. These were not iso­lat­ed ex­am­ples of how in­for­ma­tion and per­cep­tion is con­trolled, but that is di­gres­sion for an­oth­er article.

Image Via www.businessinsider.com
Image Via www.businessinsider.com

This should help form an idea of what cen­sor­ship can look like in its more heavy-handed ex­am­ples, as well as the less vis­i­ble in­stances. This brings me to the last mis­con­cep­tion I’ve seen that I want to ad­dress: we are not be­ing ac­tive­ly cen­sored every day by gov­ern­ments or pri­vate groups. Even with laws pro­vid­ing for free speech, America cen­sors items on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. Despite ideas to the con­trary, some groups will al­ways work to cen­sor oth­er groups that they dis­agree with.

This is not to ped­dle a de­ject­ed view of the state of af­fairs we live in. There are al­ways things you can do to fight against the forms of cen­sor­ship that you feel are harm­ful. The most im­port thing you can do is to point it out — let oth­ers know what is hap­pen­ing and en­cour­age dis­cus­sion of the is­sue. I feel that when an en­ti­ty wants to cen­sor an item, it is im­por­tant to dig into it and de­ter­mine why it is oc­cur­ring. It is true that not all forms of cen­sor­ship are harm­ful or il­le­gal. In my view, though, when a top­ic or idea is cen­sored, there is of­ten an agen­da at play or there are peo­ple who sim­ply do not want to face in­con­ve­nient truths.

You can also work with groups or found your own to help un­root and bring to light cen­sor­ship in ar­eas you feel are neg­a­tive­ly im­pact­ing is­sues. Keeping a watch­ful eye on the process­es of gov­ern­ment and busi­ness is a big el­e­ment in a free mar­ket and a free world. The modus operan­di of cen­sor­ship is to block dis­cus­sion. Don’t mis­take si­lence for ig­no­rance of is­sues. You are not alone.

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Josh has worked in IT for over 15 years. Graduated Broadcasting school in 2012 with a fo­cus on A/V pro­duc­tion. Amateur pho­tog­ra­ph­er with a pas­sion to make things work… by any means nec­es­sary. Editor-in-Chief and do-er of tech things at SuperNerdLand

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