Editing or censoring? Editing, argued Dan Gillmor in a recent post for The Atlantic. By removing photos and videos of James Foley’s beheading from their channels, Twitter and YouTube actively refused to participate in the spread of murderous propaganda carried out by irrational religious fanatics. Because (as far as we know) they were not ordered to remove the content by a government, it should be considered editing, not censorship, Gillmor said.
I was onboard at that point, following along, nodding my head, briefly pausing now and then to consider semantics.
Did Twitter and YouTube do the right thing? I think they did. Should we consider it editing instead of censorship? I don’t take issue with the distinction since I do usually associate censorship with government censorship and immediately think of China and Baidu, or a room full of North Koreans staring at Google’s homepage, keyboards untouched, while the VICE cameras roll, knowing full well that hitting “enter” would result in life imprisonment, maybe even execution (at 15:45). Censorship has a sinister connotation, and that just didn’t seem to be the case in this particular instance. However, if someone were to disagree, they’d be justified in doing so since censorship, by definition, does not require government intervention.
There was a reason Gillmor distinguished between editing and censoring. He wanted to address the precedents set when we appoint these mammoth platforms as unchecked gatekeepers. Usually, in less intense circumstances, the decision-making process would be more akin to editing than censoring.
When we allow the likes of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to dictate what information we consume, we give rise to “a concentration of media power that will damage, if not eviscerate, our tradition of freedom of expression.”
That’s where he lost me.
What tradition is that? It’s a good ol’ days way of looking at an issue. Oh, how we miss the days when a few major newspapers and three television networks from which we consumed all news had no agenda and presented an unfiltered worldview!
There’s less of a concentration of media power than there has ever been in this country. The amount of news sources is by no means on the decline. It’s expanding, rapidly. Exponentially. Sure, nowadays it’s more scattered than it’s ever been. Maybe it’s not as convenient. You have to be passionate about finding good sources, but they’re there in abundance.
When The New York Times loses 80 million homepage visitors, don’t think they magically disappeared. They’re just looking elsewhere for their news. When The Wall Street Journal slashes its staff daily, it certainly doesn’t signify a concentration of media power. It’s a symptom of the decentralization of power.
Questioning the amount of power we freely grant social media platforms is understandable. The belief that our access to information has narrowed, that news has become less transparent, or that the power has shifted from many to a select few isn’t. On all accounts, quite the opposite has occurred.
Granted, we also have more garbage and more copycat outlets than ever before, for better of for worse. Beyond news, it’s true in music, in publishing. That’s what happens when you give everyone a voice and a platform. But giving everyone a voice and a platform is the essence of freedom of expression, not the beginning of the end.
As a user, if a particular social network fails to meet your standards of content curation, I encourage you to try another. If your work is unfairly filtered from newsfeeds, don’t take it personally. It may be a disguised compliment, recognition that an algorithm finds your non-clickbaity headlines unappetizing. Share it elsewhere.
But to say that social media giants’ ability and willingness to edit, or censor, or however you define the filtering of information, “will damage, if not eviscerate, our tradition of freedom of expression,” is like pulling a fire alarm when there’s no emergency.
Obviously I disagree that media power is becoming centralized, as I see the exact opposite happening, but there were some other gems in the post.
A few more paragraphs in, Gillmor made an excellent point that I wholeheartedly agree with: the love affair journalists and media outlets have had with social media will come back to haunt many of them. In some cases, it already has.
“Journalists have been especially short-sighted in their eagerness to use social networks, feeding enormous amounts of content into third-party services they do not in any way control and which get, by far, the best of the bargain in the long run. Guess what, journalism companies? Facebook is going to be your biggest competitor in the long run. Twitter is a media company, too. And Google’s eating your lunch every day.”
And it’s funny, the biggest media outlets are by no means the best at social media. Or mobile for that matter. Look at The New York Times still trying to figure out how to reach the mobile-first audience, the audience of the future, which they’ve had an incredibly difficult time appealing to, hoping a new app will solve it all. Maybe it will. Probably not.
We’re living at an exciting and pivotal time in the history of media. What constitutes a legitimate outlet, journalist, or source are all being questioned and redefined. Both content creators and consumers need to play an active role in building the future. Creators need to ask themselves whether they’re going to focus on quality, the fleeting satisfaction of clicks and shares, or a healthy combination of the two. Audiences need to consider what they support, because what’s supported is what will last. Investors should be taking time to struggle with the moral dilemma of what to finance, knowing that whether they fund thought-provoking or mind-numbing media outlets, the public will feel the consequences in the long run. There is a tremendous opportunity in front of us and if we all play our parts, information will be more meaningful, open, and lasting.