Censorship: Corroding the “marketplace of ideas” and silencing truth


With the recent revelation that Facebook is censoring not only breastfeeding photos, but also political activists, I wanted to take a moment to discuss censorship — especially as it pertains to social media and business-consumer relations.

I think it’s fine to have a “curse filter” to help keep dialogue on your site family friendly, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go. I’ve mentioned before that I only delete comments if they’re potentially libelous, and there’s an important reason for that.

Filtering anything beyond that is liable to make people suspicious of an agenda or ulterior motive (which can make you a target for radicalized individuals or groups). It also dampens the “marketplace of ideas” — the idea that the more people you have engaged in a conversation, and the more viewpoints you have at the table, the more likely the truth will emerge. This is especially important to me.

Granted, it’s a very double-edged sword. In order to get the truest results, even the worst ideas must be able to be represented. But I’ve noticed these ideas often get filtered out quickly. The longer a conversation goes on, the more I see people reach across the aisle and come to some consensus. And even when they don’t, they still bring a wealth of information to the table for others to pore over and come to their own conclusions as well.

The end result, I believe, is that everyone is better informed than they were before. And that is one of the fundamental building block to progress. Informed people make better thinkers and doers. In a capitalist democracy, that is especially important. Voting, what you consume, health, environmental quality… so many things depend on being an informed person.

But what about when people aim negative things at you (or your organization)?

The first thing I do is take any negative feedback (or questions) to the people they are aimed at. I talk with them about it and try to get their side of the story. Often, they have a good explanation and it will satisfy a disgruntled customer/critic.

Sometimes there isn’t a good explanation and the person just plain screwed up. For that, an apology is in order. An apology should always be sincere, and it’s best to try and explain what happened as best you can and assure the complainant that it won’t happen again. I always thank the complainants for being vocal about their concern as well, because even negative feedback is a good lesson for everyone.

If that isn’t good enough for them and they keep egging you on, you have to take the high road. You can reiterate that you’ve done all you can, and steps have been taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and you are sorry to hear they aren’t satisfied — but that’s all you can do. At no point should you respond disrespectfully, and at no point should you delete their comment or your conversation — that’s a great way to dig yourself a hole.

After all, censoring others can also weaken your own ideas and lower your credibility. As a colleague once said to me, “How do you expect to forward a proposition (or yourself), if you have to silence opposing points of view?”

(Thanks to manachron for linking me the article from The Conversation.)

SOUND OFF: What do you think about censorship of comments — is it necessary?

Casey has a background in writing and journalism – and is known for his mediation and discussion skills. In his spare time he enjoys absorbing, dissecting and disseminating information — particularly in U.S. politics, religion, technology, science, music, gaming, and pop-­culture.

2 thoughts on “Censorship: Corroding the “marketplace of ideas” and silencing truth

  1. Interesting post. Lately a lot of people have been arguing that the social media marketplace as such is leading to increased self censorship for fear of attacks that go viral. I love this stuff for there is a real psycholgical/ cognitive nderpinning and shift. Keep up the discussions!

    1. mimi, I hope you’ll forgive such a delayed response! Usually I try to check comments daily, but I’ve been tied up in a project the last few days that’s left me little time for anything else!

      Ppeople DO seem to watch their footing more these days… when their real name is attached. I work on a site where people are able to make their own username with no real identifying details attached and it can be a mad house sometimes. Some people seriously don’t mind slinging mud. You can see the same thing on YouTube, which is infamous for its commenters. I think Google has tried to do away with some of that anonymity by trying to get people to link their Google+ profiles to their YouTube profiles (not to mention it makes it easier to collect data on people).

      I’ve advocated for a commenting system linked to people’s Facebook profiles myself on our website because I think it would help rein in some of the crazy (unfortunately, the final decision for that is not in my hands). Though, to be fair, I don’t know if it would. I’d be interested to see if it works, more than anything.

      I’m an advocate for anonymity in most cases, but I like the idea that people are willing to back up an opinion with their name (as hypocritical as that is for someone who uses anonymity to speak out on a blog).

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