Few regions have more obvious examples of the impact censorship can have than Asia. For many, the legacy of historical and media censorship lives on in China, Japan and much of Southeast Asia, whilst government policy on the Asian subcontinent (in countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and most recently India) struggles to keep up with the region’s rapidly maturing digital ecosystem.  

The emergence of the Internet thrust censorship onto a global stage where it could no longer be overlooked. Now, with none of the supporting cast willing to voice a solution to managing data dissemination, the conversation around digital censorship is fast becoming a soliloquy with an audience of none.

Now that Tim Berners Lee’s digital progeny/problem child has entered into its third decade, the truly difficult questions have begun to surface. How can channel owners and publishers work to consistent models and protocols? How much responsibility should this put on end-users and brands? And does this mean the dream of an inclusive, open licence information highway is dead?

Statements made by the aforementioned channel owners in the wake of troubled times for free speech have done little to shore up public confidence. In November 2018, Mark Zuckerberg published a memo on introducing content governance as a form of social responsibility. The document went on to clarify the challenges in governing the Facebook community but the onus was clear: the network seemed to be ceding responsibility of managing and regulating the narrative on the network.

The shortcomings of this new stance were articulated in tragic circumstances during the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attack. Though moving swiftly to delete the perpetrator’s social accounts (as detailed in an open letter written to the NZ Herald by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg), Facebook failed to stop footage streamed by the gunman on Facebook Live from being widely circulated and reposted in the hours after the attack.      

Other attempts to police content have been equally haphazard. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has spoken proudly of deactivating accounts in accordance with a company misgendering policy (when pressured to give specific examples of his work to combat marginalisation in a February 2019 Recode interview). A move that demonstrates surface-level purpose and proactivity, but a move that exposes the network for singing to the tune of Dorsey’s political bias.

Reddit, one of the top 20 most visited sites in the world, has an admirable track record of banning and suspending accounts and communities guilty of promoting illegal activities and inciting hatred/violence. An overview of events from their recent history (a $150m fund injection from China’s TenCent, comment tampering from CEO Steve Huffman a) paints a more controversial story. Whichever way you choose to interpret Reddit’s past, those behind the aggregator site have clearly failed to put a firm set of hands on the wheel and, when pressured to take action against hate speech, have done so very slowly.

Analysing this spectrum of sites/channels for a consistent approach to censorship presents weak results. If not them, then who else can we trust to provide transparency? The answer may lie with brands.

As demonstrated by P&G’s 12 month YouTube boycott, big spending players have become increasingly aware of ad fraud and brand safety. This gives them the power to force terms and negotiate with the likes of Facebook and Google. Corporate social responsibility, pioneered by trailblazers such as the Body Shop and Ben & Jerry’s, has also shifted to front of mind for advertisers in the last decade. This creates an arena where decision makers are financially motivated to push responsible messaging to their consumers. Not the voice of reason we necessarily thought we needed, but one that appears to have more influence in the conversation around censorship than we thought.

There’s also the end-user to consider. New tactics used by brands/marketers are influenced by changing consumer behaviour, and the demographic driving this discourse (yes, everyone’s favourite generation of burnouts that people love to hate) are fundamentally different to their predecessors. Millennials demand more from their places of work, share more about their lives and are ‘famously frank’ (h/t to AdWeek for coining this turn of phrase back in 2015). Unprecedented access to information (and a front row seat to excesses of the 80’s and 90’s) has left its mark on the young consumers of today. Gone are the elite tastemakers and tabloid voices of the free press – in their place, curated newsfeeds and podcasts about adult film scripts.

In short, we’ve created a cultural context that has rejected the censorship of traditional media, replicated this narrative on social media and proceeded to discard both in the pursuit of absolute truth. Consumers know not to trust the mainstream media, but are unsure of where to turn next. Meanwhile, governments and regulatory bodies have been hampered in their attempts to stem the tide of hate speech within the confines of current legislative language – speaking outside of the confines of modern legislative language, we’re wedged right between a rock and a hard place.

Censorship, in some way or form, seems inevitable. Leveraging technology (and in particular AI) will make the process as impartial as possible – and gives us the best chance of preserving the beautiful imperfections of the World Wide Web as we know it.

As marketing professionals, the clean up starts on our aisle. Taking responsibility for the mess is a given. Educating stakeholders on how to respond to issues is crucial. With no playbook to work against, channel owners and publishers must work on cases individually and build a foundation of learning from the ground up. Only by discussing the mistakes of our past (in the form of boards, discussion groups and think tanks) can we reach a position where a precedent is set.

This piece was written by IAB Southeast Asia and India (IAB SEA+India) Member Darcy Mitchell, Business Development Lead at iProspect.