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The number of people accessing information and communication technologies has reached a critical mass around the world, especially with an emerging media outlet like social media. As a result, governments and social media companies felt the need to enforce more stringent monitoring and suppress the circulation of content among Internet users (Stoycheff, Burgess & Martucci 2018), due to the major role it plays in exerting different influences on public’s attitude and perception (Soon & Tan 2016). Over the years, scholarly studies have been focusing on the content, usage and effects of social media on areas of political influence (Zhang & Lei 2019), hate speech (Anat & Fernadez 2016), terrorism (Melki & Jabado 2016), and many others. These studies tend to reflect that these contents may threaten social stability when circulated online, and thus were often labelled “harmful”.
However, despite knowledge of its danger, the unprecedented reach of social media and its content to audiences have made it largely impossible the governments to impose laws and tinker the sharing these harmful contents (Flew 2015). Thus, there has been a mounting concern for social media companies such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc. to take on the role of a gatekeeper of content, exercising a form of self-regulation on these platforms (DeNardis & Hackl 2015).
While social media censorship seems to be an imperative step to safeguard users from potential threats online, concerns on users’ right to freedom of expression and access to information cannot be ignored as well. With the decentralised structure of the Internet, users are then given the freedom to participate in information sharing and discussion that has long been viewed as an act of democratic advancement (Stoycheff, Burgess & Martucci 2018; Mossberger 2008). Therefore, social media censorship is a violation against the highly valued right to freedom of expression with the restrictions imposed on the content users post, view and share.
Howard, Agarwal & Hussain (2011) also criticised censorship, particularly with shutting one’s post, as an extremely crude form of disturbance to information flow. In this modern-day society, where millions across the world rely heavily on social media platforms on news and information, censorship will affect how well-informed they will be.
Stevenson (2000) argues that the contradiction of censorship will always revolve between having an official guideline set to regulate content versus having audiences to decide themselves on the content they would like to see. Hence, there will be people who supports perspective such as DeNardis’s (2012) who perceives censorship policies as a necessary sacrifice to create a safe and operational platform, while others think that censorship would only compromise their right to speak freely when audiences are clearly able to filter information themselves even without the help of censorship policies (Gibson 2019). This opens an alternative for content regulation on social media by eliminating social media companies as a central control for information and replacing it with self-censorship, which could perhaps offer a balance between content management and free speech on social media platforms.
Facebook, as the largest and most influential social media in the world, was one of the very first to engage content censorship on its platform. Facebook’s increasing popularity over the past decade was largely due to its promise of a new type of communicative environment, where anyone could share their beliefs as and when they wish (Jørgensen 2018), and interact with the online community through sharing or modification of content provided by other users (Trottier & Fuchs 2014). However, this entitlement for users of Facebook could be lost as the Community Standards policies are being applied. This makes Facebook one of “the world’s most powerful editor” (Hasen 2016), “a platform with more power in determining who can speak and who can be heard around the world than any Supreme Court, king or president that existed” (Rosen 2010).
Although Zuckerberg (2018) argues that the Community Standards policies were established to tackle issues of harmful content such as hate speech, nudity, terrorism and others, and not to restrict users’ right to freedom of expression, it is still undeniably a challenge for the platform to determine the line to draw between safeguarding the community and the human rights to free speech (Anat & Fernadez 2016), and how the platform would intervene users’ content (Gilespie 2018).
Overall, extensive studies have been done on the societal effects of social media censorship, either supporting its call for a safer online discussion space or discouraging it for violating one’s right to freedom of expression. However, there is still a lack of empirical studies to explore a balance between content regulation and free speech. Hence, through adopting a content analysis as a methodology on from a Facebook group that was formed by users who were upset about Facebook’s Community Standards, this research aims to identify concerns of freedom of expression with the implementation of social media censorships, while proposing alternatives for content regulation on digital intermediaries without undermining users’ communicative interests.
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