A wave of anti-government protests arose in Iran, ignited by rising fuel prices. The protests saw 106 fatalities at the hands of government forces. On November 16th, the government shut down the internet access country-wide as a means of censorship and oppression of information concerning this violence. As of November 21st, Iranians still do not have access to the internet. By restricting internet access, the government ultimately cuts off its citizens from the rest of the world, not allowing them to communicate, suppressing their freedom of speech.
Listed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of speech is a fundamental and inalienable right. With this put into consideration, the “suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security” leads one’s organic response to this definition of the word censorship to be one of sole dismay. Unmistakably, this take on censorship is far too ubiquitous in many regions where governments use censorship to apply the oppression of civil liberties.
Concurrently, censorship is illustrated in another manner: ironically, one that directly counters the spread of misinformation.
The protection of people from harmful opinions includes, genocide denial and misleading proclamations on the Internet, which falls under the umbrella of censorship. Without this facet of censorship, fallacious and unjustified beliefs fall at risk of gaining greater prevalence.
As a repercussion of the correct, but incomplete, common rendition of the term censorship that projects images of propaganda and tyranny, one may have trouble understanding the relation between censorship and positive laws that forbid, to give an instance, Holocaust denial. However, censorship also pertains to the suppression of politically unacceptable, obscene demonstrations. It would be justifiable to state that the outright dismissal of the systematic, genocidal wipeout of two-thirds of European Jews can be considered politically unacceptable. Nations, primarily situated in Europe, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, to name several, have laws implemented which in one way or the other, implements laws that ban Holocaust denial.
While it may be said that this can be considered a violation of the human right of freedom of speech, the exercise of freedom of speech comes with duties and responsibilities. These duties and responsibilities extend to ensuring that speaking on a viewpoint does not have harmful reverberations on society as a whole. By denying the proven genocide of millions, an erroneous message can possibly be proliferated—one that constitutes a threat of the manifestation of harmful “opinions”.
The use of censorship to establish the truth, however, is itself a double-edged sword.
While sometimes useful in a democratic country, it is a recipe for disaster in a police state. Take the example of the Armenian genocide, an atrocity which led to the loss of 1.5 million lives by the hands of the Ottoman empire. Worldwide, it is recognized as the first modern systematic elimination of an ethnic group. In Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, the genocide is systemically denied by the government in an effort to push forward a beneficial strategic narrative. In a country where even Wikipedia is banned, the government essentially establishes an Orwellian state monopoly over truth.
A common misconception of censorship in Western society relies on the wrongful assumption that it must be exerted by the legislative branch of a given government. Fortunately, high levels of democracy carry higher civil liberties, making blatant censorship a rarity.
One of these rarities is caused by the growing influence of social media on public opinion.
Through campaigns deeply rooted in vigilantism, multitudes of social media-based “activists” aim to suppress the views they find mildly offensive and disturbing, or “triggering”, without the critical consideration of other perspectives. Under the guise of political correctness, a term coined almost exclusively by their movement, “social justice” is executed by ‘cancelling’ those who disagree.
Paradoxically, despite striving for equality, the opposite has been achieved. A key principle of a democratic society, is the ability to facilitate a discourse between followers of drastically different ideologies. By suppressing one side of a valid argument, the gregarian crowd seeks to enforce their point of view. The double-standard seen in carrying this out serves to make the hypocrisy coherent. When photos of the very progressive Justin Trudeau doing blackface were discovered, the accusers moved on after a week. If not for his liberal policies and left-wing stance, there’s little chance he would have been reelected.
Blunt misinformation can create a confining dominant-subordinate relationship between the power and the people.
More recently, China demonstrated a new yet powerful form of economic censorship. When during the Houston Rockets preseason tour of China, their general manager, Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the ongoing Hong Kong protests. In the chaos that ensued, tickets were ripped, shirts were burnt, press events were canceled, and the events were no longer televised. Despite clear ethical concerns, the NBA sided with the Chinese government out of fear. With many players and teams heavily sponsored by Chinese enterprises, they simply could not afford to speak out against their government. Through economic pressure, China was able to effortlessly silence the supporters of the Hong Kong protests making their stance on the matter crystal clear.
The use of censorship, and whether or not it can be conclusively deduced as a positive or negative means of control is open to question. The line between the use of censorship to combat misinformation and censorship as a means of propaganda is blurred, and is subjective, with the notion of a “harmful opinion” being relative to different parties involved. Evidence suggests that what sets apart ‘positive’ censorship from its negative counterpart is a very specific set of circumstances. While in a democratic society, where truth is birthed by citizens, the suppression of ‘unhealthy’ statements may foster balance, this never holds true under authoritarian rule. In the end, the severe risks of censorship far outweigh its benefits, imperiling one’s freedom of speech.