Q: I have posted on a variety of social media sites for many years and have enjoyed the opportunity to speak my mind. A few days ago, however, I was temporarily suspended from Twitter for posting something that others apparently called offensive. Is it legal?
Isn’t “moderation” just censorship?
A: You raise a really interesting and very timely question, especially a few days after an election. While we here in the United States enjoy a high level of freedom regarding what we can say, it is not without limits or constraints.
Much of it revolves around community norms, what a neighborhood or social group finds acceptable or unacceptable. In other words, what is acceptable for one group may be completely unacceptable for another. I like to think of it as the “how about in
in front of your mother? criteria, itself a modification of an old internet adage about not sharing anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of The New York Times.
We’ve all met people who use obscenities to shock without regard to those around them, and every parent has had to keep their kids away from people who swear there’s no tomorrow. Move that to the digital realm and it gets even more complicated, though.
On a site like Facebook, Nextdoor, Twitch or Snapchat, who decides what is “acceptable” for the digital community? And is it the overall community of each user, or the sub-community of people from a specific group, subreddit, or similar?
In other words, when you are on Twitter, should you make sure your messages are acceptable to every Twitter user or not?
The answer: community moderation?
The solution on almost every social media site turns out to be a combination of software that scans for obscenities and other problematic words and phrases and community moderation, where other members of community report or flag problematic content.
A vote is ignored, but if dozens or hundreds of people report a post, the post will usually disappear and the user may also be suspended. Do it half a dozen times, even for months, and you may find that you are no longer welcome in this digital realm.
Acceptable community standards are then essentially what people will tolerate, while thousands of misogonic users might applaud a grossly sexist post, thousands more will find it offensive and flag it for moderation.
So this is censorship?
Not really. Censorship generally applies to shared ideas – think of a repressive government that removes all posts critical of its leader – not the way
in which the idea is shared. In North Korea, it’s a safe bet that even if you post something that subtly criticizes the government, you’re still going to get in trouble.
Is Twitter temporarily suspending you in response to your post in the same category? I do not think so. Just as the comments on this newspaper’s website are moderated to weed out the worst offenders (mostly through algorithmic means), I think all social media
media just needs a little AI and adult supervision.
Adult supervision. Even that is probably controversial…
Dave Taylor has been involved in the online world since the beginning of the internet. He runs the popular tech question and answer site AskDaveTaylor.com and you can find his entertaining gadget reviews on YouTube. Chat with him on Twitter as @DaveTaylor.