Saturday, September 13, 2014

What does censorship say about the power structures?

Increasingly as we have witnessed across the US and in spaces around the globe, communication on new and social media has been targeted by power structures as an object of censorship.

Through various human resource decisions, organizational policies, as well as national level policies, those in positions of power have sought to silence discourse on social and new media. Censorship in most of these instances is performed through top-down human resource decisions which are framed as personnel decisions. In almost all these instances, the decision is not informed by the social scientific study of communication. Instead, the decisions are mostly guided by donor pressure, foundation staff, human resource staff, and people who have been hired to perform management functions within these organizations.

Rather, in most of these instances, the attempt to silence discourse is justified by an apparent commitment on behalf of these power structures to some invisible standard of civility. I say invisible as in almost all the gibberish on incivility issued by these structures, the powerful leaders don't really care to offer a definition, a well thought out principle, or a set of operational markers of what would count as incivility.

All we are offered are broad statements in an apparent effort of these structures to foster open climates. Apparently, fostering an open and harmonious climate calls for censorship for certain  forms of speech on new and social media that are considered unpalatable by the managers and leaders that occupy these power structures within organizations and public spheres. In the last one month, a number of universities across the US for instance have issued directives and/or organizational frameworks for civility on social media. The recent decision of the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, to de-hire Professor Steven Salaita is justified on the principle of civility.

Beyond the questions of mainstream biases and power-laden decision-making reflected in the efforts to censor specific forms of speech that are considered unpalatable by the dominant power structures, what do these efforts at censorship suggest about these actors in positions of power?

What can we infer about the organizations, policymakers, and nation states that justify censorship by appealing to opaque standards of civility?

First, if we are to read the publicly offered reasons for censorship as indeed the underlying reasons for the decision, we are led to the conclusion that these managers/leaders have very little confidence in the ability of new and social media users to engage in debates, even if the tone and the form of communication in such debates can at points get pretty heated or impolite. How often have I heard the power elite lament about the good old days when communication used to be civil. How often have I heard someone in the power structure talk about what she/he considers to be irrational communication on social and new media. These lamentations are nostalgic reflections on the good ol' days when the power elite had top-down control of the messages, paid for and disseminated through one-way mainstream media.

There is also an implicit assumption that is made by the leaders/decision-makers that heated debates that don't fit certain normative ideas held by those in power close further conversation. The problem here however is that the claim made by these leaders/managers is not borne out by evidence from the social scientific study of communication on social and new media. Yet another problem lies in the very definition of norms. In the absence of clear definitions of normative principles that work across cultures in defining civility, we are asked to simply trust the criteria that are used by these powerful actors in making the judgment call.

This brings me to my second point. That powerful actors in organizations and other social systems start believing their ability to make the judgment for the rest of us regarding what is appropriate communication  reflects the sort of condescending attitude that social and new media as emerging forms of communication fundamentally challenge. The paternalism of these powerful actors itself needs to be questioned as a topic of debate on social and new media. The principle "Trust us, we know better" simply does not work within the communicative context of social and new media where the participatory opportunities for engagement call for accountability and transparency with these very modes of decision-making. I would argue that Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees are being questioned by students, citizens and academics across the globe precisely because the social and new media offer new opportunities for holding our leaders/managers accountable. What rights do the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign have in policing the twitter and Facebook feeds of faculty and students ought to be and has been the subject of vigorous debate.

Third, the efforts at censorship by powerful actors usually suggest that these actors have something to hide/erase/make invisible from the public sphere. There is one side of the story that the power structure does not want you to witness. There is one side of the frame that the powerful actors want to erase. In response to such efforts to hide/erase/render invisible, members of the public usually respond by asking for transparency, not easily buying into an autocratic decision. Thus in the social media age, attempts to censor are more likely to boomerang than productively serve the purposes of the power elite. Communicative articulations draw more attention to them when they are censored, this fostering additional opportunities for dialogue and debate. In this sense then, social media fundamentally defy the authoritarian logics of top-down censorship in holding accountable the decision-makers.

Fourth, efforts of censorship in social and new media contexts also usually suggest that power structures fear the power of alternative articulations in disrupting their carefully crafted narrative created by PR agencies and communication management firms. You see, part of the power of social and new media emerges precisely from the horizontal structures of communication that can cut through the persuasive frames and manipulative messaging strategies devised by top-down structures. That communication is not simply limited to these top-down frameworks of messaging rooted in million dollar public relations budgets is precisely the cause of concern for dominant structures. Censorship in such instances is a natural response toward carefully manipulating a specific storyline. Once again however, social and new media foster spaces where these efforts at censorship produce the precise effects that the power elite fear: raising the very questions and drawing attention to those very frames that the elite so carefully seek to crop out.

In sum, the traditional structures of power are redefined within the contexts of new and social media. Within these realms, traditional managers and leaders that are used to operating in top-down modes of communication have a number of new lessons to learn.

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