Further Thoughts On Moderation v. Discretion v. Censorship

from the playing-semantics dept

Welcome back to Techdirt’s favorite faux game show, Playing Semantics! This week, we’re diving back into the semantics of moderation, discretion, and censorship. As a reminder, this bit is what we were arguing about last time:

Moderation is a platform operator saying “we don’t do that here.” Discretion is you saying “I won’t do that there.” Censorship is someone saying “you can’t do that anywhere” before or after threats of either violence or government intervention.

Now, if we’re all caught up, let’s get back into the game!

A Few Nits to Pick

In my prior column, I overlooked a couple of things that I shouldn’t have. I’ll go over them here to help everyone get on the same page as me.

  1. anywhere???In re: “you can’t do that anywhere”, this refers to the confines of a given authority or government. It also refers to the Internet in general. Censors work to suppress speech where it matters the most (e.g., within a given country). Such censors often carry the authority necessary to censor (e.g., they work in the government).

  2. violence???”Violence” refers to physical violence. I hope I don’t have to explain how someone threatening to harm a journalist is a form of censorship.

  3. government???This refers to any branch of any level of government within a given country. And anyone who uses the legal system in an attempt to suppress speech becomes a censor as well. (That person need not be an agent of the government, either.)

Censorship or Editorial Discretion?

From here on out, I’ll be addressing specific comments ? some of which I replied to, some of which I didn’t.

One such comment brought up the idea of a headmaster as a censor. Lexico defines “headmaster” as “(especially in private schools) the man in charge of a school.” We can assume a headmaster is the highest authority of the school.

In a reply to that comment, I said the following:

If the headmaster is a government employee, they’re a censor. If they’re the head of a private institution, they’re a “censor” in a merely colloquial sense. The privately owned and operated Liberty University (henceforth Liberty U), for example, has engaged in what I’d normally call “moderation” vis-?-vis its campus newspaper???which, despite it being a frankly immoral and unethical decision, Liberty U has every right to do as a private institution. (Frankly, I’d be tempted to call such people censors outright, but that would kinda go against my whole bit.)

But the example I used gave me pause to reconsider. Jerry Falwell Jr. (the “headmaster” of Liberty U) and free speech have often come to metaphorical blows. I noted this through a link to an article from the blog Friendly Atheist. The article has a quote from a former editor for Liberty U’s school newspaper, who describes how Falwell’s regime ran the paper:

[W]e encountered an “oversight” system ? read: a censorship regime ? that required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review. Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article; they added and deleted whatever they wanted.

That raises the important question: Is that censorship or editorial discretion?

After reading the Washington Post article from which that quote comes, I would refer to this as censorship. I’ll get into the why of my thinking on that soon enough. But suffice to say, “editorial discretion” doesn’t often involve editors threatening writers with lawsuits or violence.

But though I call that censorship, some people might call it “moderation” or “editorial discretion”. Falwell is, after all, exercising his right of association on his private property. What makes that “censorship” are the at-least-veiled threats against “dissenters”.

Censorship Via Threats

Speaking of threats! Another comment took issue with how I defined censorship:

Why should it be “censorship” to threaten someone with a small financial loss (enforced by a court), but not to kick them off the platform they use to make the bulk of their income (independent of the government)? Is “you can speak on some other platform” fundamentally less offensive than “you can speak from another country”, or is that merely a side-effect of the difficulty of physical movement?

To answer this as briefly as I can: A person can find a new platform with relative ease and little-to-no cost. No one can say the same for finding their way out of a lawsuit.

But that raises another important question: Does any kind of threat of personal or financial ruin count as censorship?

As I said above, the Liberty U example counts as censorship. As for the why? The following quotes from that WaPo article should help explain:

Student journalists must now sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbids them from talking publicly about “editorial or managerial direction, oversight decisions or information designated as privileged or confidential.” ? Faculty, staff and students on the Lynchburg, Va., campus have learned that it’s a sin to challenge the sacrosanct status of the school or its leaders, who mete out punishments for dissenting opinions (from stripping people of their positions to banning them from the school).

School leaders don’t have the power of government to back their decisions. But they can still use their power and authority to coerce other people into silence. (“Stop writing stories like this or I’ll kick you out of this school and then what will you do.”) Even if someone can move to another platform and speak, a looming threat could stop them from wanting to do that.

And the threat need not be one of financial or personal ruin. Someone who holds a journalist at knife point and says “shut up about the president or else” is a censor. The violent person doesn’t need government power; their knife and the fear it can cause are all they need.

Money and Speech

A comment I made about companies such as Mastercard and Visa elicited a reply that pointed out how they, too, are complicit in censorship:

I cited Visa and Mastercard specifically because they are at the top of the chain and it’s effectively impossible to create a competitor. If they say something’s not allowed it isn’t unless you want to lose funding. Paypal has been notoriously bad about banning people for innocuous speech over the years, but there are other downstream providers that aren’t Paypal (although if all of them throw someone off, it still erases the speech). I am of the opinion that high-level banks should be held to neutrality standards like ISPs should due to their position of power. Competitors would be preferable, but the lack of either is frightening.

They make a good point. Companies like Visa can legally refuse to do business with, say, an adult film studio. So can banks. This becomes censorship when all such companies cut off access to their services. An artist who creates and sells adult art can end up in a bad place if PayPal cuts the artist off from online payments.

As the comment said, creating a competitor to these services is nigh impossible. Get booted from Twitter and you can open a Mastodon for instance; get booted from PayPal and you’re fucked. That Sword of Damocles?esque threat of financial ruin could be (and often is) enough to keep some artists from creating adult works.

It’s-A Me, Censorship!

Ah, Nintendo and its overzealous need to have a “family-friendly” reputation. Whatever would we do without it~?

Remember when Nintendo of America removed, or otherwise didn’t allow objectionable material in their video games until Mortal Kombat came about and there were Congressional hearings and then the ESRB was formed?

Would you call what Nintendo did censorship or moderation? There’s an argument for moderation in that it was only within their purview and only on their video game systems, but there’s also an argument for censorship in that once the video games went outside of the bounds set by Nintendo of America, they were subpoenaed by the Government with threats of punishment. The ESRB made their censorship/moderations policies moot, but it’s an interesting question. What do you think, Stephen?

This example leads to another good question: Do Nintendo, Sony, etc. engage in censorship when they ask a publisher to remove “problematic” material?

Nintendo can allow or deny any game a spot on the Switch library for any reason. If the company had wanted to deny the publication of Mortal Kombat 11 because of the excessive violence, it could’ve done so without question. To say otherwise would upend the law. But when Nintendo asks publishers to edit out certain content? I’d call that a mix of “editorial discretion” and “moderation”.

Nintendo has the right to have its systems associated with specific speech. Any publisher that wants an association with Nintendo must play by Nintendo’s rules. Enforcing a “right to publication” would be akin to the government compelling speech. We shouldn’t want the law to compel Nintendo into allowing (or refusing!) the publication of Doom Eternal on the Switch. That way lies madness.

Oh, and the ESRB didn’t give Nintendo the “right” to allow a blood-filled Mortal Kombat II on the SNES. Nintendo already had that right. Besides, Mortal Kombat II came out on home consoles one week before the official launch of the ESRB. (The first game to receive the “M” rating was the Sega 32X release of DOOM.) The company allowed blood to stay because the Genesis version of the first game???which had a “blood” code???sold better.

That’s All, Folks!

And thus ends another episode of Playing Semantics! I’d like to thank everyone at home for playing, and if you have any questions or comments, please offer them below. So until next time(?), remember:

Moderation is a platform/service owner or operator saying “we don’t do that here.” Personal discretion is an individual telling themselves “I won’t do that here.” Editorial discretion is an editor saying “we won’t print that here,” either to themselves or to a writer. Censorship is someone saying “you won’t do that anywhere” alongside threats or actions meant to suppress speech.

Filed Under: , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Further Thoughts On Moderation v. Discretion v. Censorship”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
27 Comments

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: I Dont Want You Saying That Anywhere

Suggestion..

RACIST is a word.. its the comment thats the problem.
A rant based on derrogatory CRAP, isnt a reasoning thought or much of a comment.

IF they place a well expressed comment of Why they think That way and why its That important.. Leave it up.

Saying, the ??? did it, isnt a comment.
I dont have a job cause a ??? got it.. ISNT a comment nor an argument.
Also, if we could get your great grandfather and grand father and Father to QUIT telling you that, it could help.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Nope

Not in the slightest, the fact that one particular platform might be more popular does not mean that getting the boot is equivalent to being told ‘you aren’t allowed to post that anywhere‘, it simply means you aren’t allowed to post on that one platform.

That getting the boot from one platform might mean that less people are likely to see your speech when you post it on a smaller platform does not mean that you have been prohibited from posting at all, all you’ve been is banned from the one platform.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

In a day and age of voluntary "follows" and internet corporation monopolies, "we don’t do that here" really breaks down.

No, it doesn’t. Twitter doesn’t have a monopoly on social media services; Facebook, Mastodon, and even that shitpit Gab prove as much. And when Twitter does the equivalent of “we don’t do that here” by warning/suspending accounts, it’s not saying “you can’t do that anywhere”. Donald Trump can go start his own social media service, or become exclusive to Facebook, if he doesn’t like Twitter adding speech to his tweets.

“We don’t do that here” is Twitter saying “we have rules and you broke them”. Like the original Thagomizer article says, it’s an inert statement of fact. Any action that we can equate to Twitter saying that phrase doesn’t count as censorship.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

A quibble:

I quibble with one thing you wrote in regards to something I wrote:

Nintendo has the right to have its systems associated with specific speech. Any publisher that wants an association with Nintendo must play by Nintendo’s rules. Enforcing a "right to publication" would be akin to the government compelling speech. We shouldn’t want the law to compel Nintendo into allowing (or refusing!) the publication of Doom Eternal on the Switch. That way lies madness.

This paragraph ignores that there were actual congressional hearings about violence in video games. Also, whether video games were protected speech was an open constitutional question until Brown v. E.M.A. which upheld that Video Games were indeed protected speech worthy of first amendment protection after decades of threats to legislate against them. So while you’re right that Nintendo had the right to their own purview, the government could have stepped in at any moment should Nintendo of America have let something naughty past their watchful eyes. While the superior sales of the Sega Genesis version of Mortal Kombat was their impetus for letting Akklaim keep the blood in the sequel, I believe the threat of governmental regulation of their industry also led to the ESRB which made Nintendo’s, um, editorial discretion moot.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

Two things.

  1. “Could have” is one thing. “Actually trying to do it” is what got games their First Amendment protections.
  2. If the government had tried to stop Nintendo from allowing Mortal Kombat II to come out on the SNES (or stop stores from selling it), games may have gotten those protections much sooner via lawsuits from Nintendo, Acclaim, and various retailers.
Châu says:

Re: A quibble:

But user buy Switch or other game machine have right run any software they want like Linux, their own games they create, open source games, etc and no need use Nintendo”s store. Because Nintendo try control what software people use in Switch game machine Nintendo become censor and (I think) anti competition too.

Anonymous Coward says:

You say that like it was an inalienable right...

Nintendo can allow or deny any game a spot on the Switch library for any reason.

It’s a small point, but … it isn’t a right of theirs.

Instead, it is the result of careful legal engineering. Patents, on cartridges, to prevent interoperable hardware. Trade Secrets, for the secret handshake between your media and the console (let’s just call it that, alright?); with a DMCA chaser to that cocktail. Trademarks, Trade dress, copyright, to prevent you marketing it with their symbols on it.

And, of course, the threat of a lawsuit, no matter how careful you’ve been.

Rights under law, many of which we here at Techdirt rail against, but not a moral right.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Are you Mike? You sound like Mike.

It’s a small point, and a small question, but when did you become a fanatical revolutionary? When did you lose all moral sense and common decency and then morph into the disgusting anal obsessed shithead Marxist that you are today? When did it happen, Stephen? (Are you actually Mike?)

Anonymous Coward says:

You start by defining a clear objective distinction between (presumably good) "moderation" and (presumably bad) "censorship," then spend the rest of the article poking so many holes in that definition there isn’t much of it left.

A social media company telling a user "we don’t do that here" under threat of being kicked out isn’t censorship, but a school or a bank doing the exact same thing is? Why? Because giving every private entity a blank check to abuse their position of authority over people just because they’re not government would be a disaster.

But then the definition doesn’t work anymore. It’s no longer objective, but rather a subjective list of what counts as enough power to be abused. And not everyone would agree with you on your assertion that giant intenet platforms don’t count.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

You … spend … the article poking so many holes in that definition there isn’t much of it left.

I didn’t poke holes in it. Other people did that. Alls I did was continue the discussion — which, I might add, was the ideal I was hoping for out of both of my columns.

A social media company telling a user "we don’t do that here" under threat of being kicked out isn’t censorship, but a school or a bank doing the exact same thing is? Why?

In the Liberty U example, the school isn’t saying “we don’t do that here” — it’s saying “we don’t do that here, and if you try, we’ll make you wish you hadn’t”. As was said in the Thagomizer article, “we don’t do that here” is an inert statement of fact. Liberty U goes beyond that with threats, implicit or explicit, of expulsion and lawsuits. It’s trying to scare people into staying silent so long as they’re at Liberty U. Twitter is doing no such thing when it warns/suspends a user for violating the TOS.

As for credit card companies and banks and such: If your financial well-being depends on you staying silent on issues or subjects that such institutions find…distasteful, I can’t see how that’s anything but censorship. PayPal nuking accounts over adult content isn’t some vague idea; ask Violet Blue about that sometime.

the definition doesn’t work anymore. It’s no longer objective

Where, dear Coward, did I say that anything in my columns other than statements of fact were objective statements of fact? Of course they’re opinions. The whole point is that I share my opinion, other people comment on it, I discuss the comments (either in the replies or in a column such as this one), and we all reach a better understanding of my opinion. If anyone agrees with me, great. If they disagree, great. If they disagree and can present a good argument for why, even better.

I didn’t write these columns to present The One True Definition of any word, let alone three (censorship, discretion, and moderation). They represent an opinion — one that I hope is reasoned and logical — and a starting point for a discussion of the issues raised by that opinion. Feel free to dissent and say I’m full of shit, but let’s not act like I’m trying to rewrite the Oxford English Dictionary here.

not everyone would agree with you on your assertion that giant intenet platforms don’t count

Someone being booted from Twitter for saying racist bullshit and someone being booted from a My Little Pony fan forum for saying “the original show was the best” are the exact same thing. The only real difference lies in how many people are on the service from which that person got booted.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Rocky says:

Re: Re:

A social media company telling a user "we don’t do that here" under threat of being kicked out isn’t censorship, but a school or a bank doing the exact same thing is? Why? Because giving every private entity a blank check to abuse their position of authority over people just because they’re not government would be a disaster.

I think you missed the context where when social media companies moderates it isn’t censorship but when schools and banks do it, it can be considered to be "censorship". The context is that you most likely are in a financial dependent situation in regards to a school (tuition fees etc) and a bank. If you are moderated on social media and you don’t like it you can always use another service a few clicks away, a situation that is very far removed from the financial consequences that can happen if your school or bank decides they don’t like what you say or do.

Also, I doubt that every private entity will abuse their position of power – because that’s the only scenario that will satisfy your assertion that it will be a disaster.

But then the definition doesn’t work anymore. It’s no longer objective, but rather a subjective list of what counts as enough power to be abused. And not everyone would agree with you on your assertion that giant intenet platforms don’t count.

You can always create your own soap-box which a lot of people actually do since they don’t want to deal with the big social media platforms, which means you can’t be censored from speaking – it’s just that your audience shrinks and an audience isn’t something the 1st amendment guarantees.

Bartonpee (user link) says:

how to know if a chinese girl likes you

Don judge the surviving

BlogsCelebrating LifeComforting WordsSincere CondolencesTools for Tough TimesWidow in the ominous landscape, All BlogsA widowed neighbor finds her friends and family drifting away, She’s aware that her chats focus on her painful loss but she’s missing her husband so much that she’s stuck. It doesn’t help when her loved ones tell her she’s spending to much time wallowing in her grief and it’s time to move on.to team members, A young colleague struggles after her second miscarriage. She can’t seem to find her emotional footing and she continues to feel poorly weeks after her operation. friends don’t seem to "are" That she’s grieving and adrift. before long, Her once bright vision of an extended family seems elusive [url=https://www.bestbrides.net/meet-hot-viet-girl-the-sexiest-influencers-to-follow-in-vietnam/%5Dhot viet girls[/url] and she wonders if she’ll ever feel well again.what can make someone pass judgment on a widow, grieving the death of her spouse? Or a young woman whose body needs to heal while she adjusts to the reality that life doesn’t always work out as planned?Even if we have not personally run into the death of a loved one, Most of us notice grief. We all experience grief when something is taken away from us can never a physical loss, Such as the death of your teenage daughter, Or a a symbol or social loss, Such as personal bankruptcy or a job cancellations. Mourning is our a reaction to grief; It is the process we go through to work through our grief and eventually, conform to our loss.While it’s fairly easy to feel sympathetic dads and moms and early weeks following a loss, many lose patience over time. And yet time is exactly what the bereaved need; A period to adjust to the pain of their loss as well as what is now and will forevermore be missing.It is imperative that we mourn our losses if we are to understand them. If we are to hold and help our friends and loved ones, It’s crucial to understand and accept that everyone grieves in their own time and in their own way. and, Grief takes time and it can be pretty exhausting.So don’t judge anyone whose grief lingers. And don’t give them a time period on their grief. Stay the course and hold back. She has written How to Say It When you do not know What to Say, A guide to help readers communicate pratically when those they care about experience loss, you can buy in e book and print for "malady Death, "suicide" in addition to the "miscarriage" And e instruction books: "Death of your child, "Death of a Stillborn or newborn, "Pet control, "Caregiver tasks, "divorce" along with "Job deficit, All blog titles are in Amazon’s Kindle Store.Image via Flickr fun Commons / Sam HowzitComment by byron leclair on January 5, 2014 by visiting 1:08amThe loss of patience with those in grief seems to be the prevailing theme java judge. I find one funny. i don’t want their patience. i’m not going their judgement. I want to be left alone.judgement is a tool to transfer one’s own feelings, whatever they are, to those people in grief. Its a double whammy with regard to in loss, initially, We still have our grief to live and now we become with regard to making you feel better because we are caught in grief? provides it a break, I simply want to be left alone.
[—-]

mrschaosmanor (profile) says:

so happy to read this

after so many years of explaining to people online that you have freedom of speech, but other people don’t have to amplify it if they don’t want to, or listen to it if they don’t want to…. I’m delighted to see a post outlining it so very well, and pointing out the entitled assumptions of those who imagine their use of platforms and reach to audiences is somehow legally protected.

The other ridiculous misuse commonly made of the First Amendment in America is even worse– the one where people imagine their right to SAY stupid stuff somehow equates to BEING “right” if you are American, and sufficiently stubborn. I can’t count the times I’ve heard someone use his freedom of speech as a last ditch “reason” he’s not absolutely wrong about something….. because if he can say it, and he’s American, how can he be WRONG???

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...