Banned Books Week started this week — it runs September 26–October 2. Each week this month, we will profile one of the many spaces in the United States where books are banned. We’ll examine who is banning and challenging them, the type of material targeted, the key issues faced, and provide links for more information and resources. Week one, we focused on prisons; week two focused on schools. This week we will focus on the internet.
As a society, we are relying on the digital realm more and more. Countless cartoonists and comics creators publish their work online, and in many cases, it is the sole medium to access the work. The ability to post comics digitally has helped shorten the access gap to the public for comics creators. However, appearing exclusively in one medium, the internet, also creates a vulnerability. In one fell swoop, creators can have their work removed.
Who is Banning Books?
There are two types of ban that affect comics creators. One ban is on access to the material, and the other is a ban on the physical or digital production of the book from print-on-demand platforms. What makes the conversation tricky is, the parties responsible for most of these bans are private companies that own the platforms. We as users tend to see these platforms as public space, but arguably, they are not. The private companies that own them have almost complete control over the content.
When it comes down to it, hosting platforms are ultimately the ‘censoring‘ party.
What Books and Why?
Hosting platforms remove material for many reasons. If the material does not follow the community guidelines, that is grounds for removal. Guidelines can include rules such as no harsh language, nudity, hate speech, etc.
Government pressure can be an influence on these guidelines. We have seen several countries, including Russia, India, and China, dictate what is appropriate, often forbidding LGBTQ+ material or political material. We’ve also seen pressure from the United States government to remove misinformation. Public pressure is also a factor. Public outcry toward platforms to remove or reinstate content has proven effective in the past.
In response to the volume of content released daily online, companies rely on algorithms to scan hosted material and weed out any material that doesn’t adhere to the community guidelines. Algorithmic moderators have become the biggest issue with online censorship.
Unchecked and unchallenged, algorithms can become a tricky opponent online. Algorithms have the potential to tank an artist’s presence on high-traffic sites like Instagram or Facebook and pull material they have for sale on sites like Amazon. They do remove the correct material from the site, but it’s managed with a broad brush.
What the algorithms haven’t been able to learn from humans are context and nuance. What they have learned from us are some of our prejudices, intentional or not. Often these automated programs will remove items, and creators will have no transparency why. It can pose a challenge finding what and even how to appeal the decision.
The internet is a topic we will continue to investigate as we move forward. Look out for future articles where we will go into more depth on this topic, looking at algorithms, DMCA Takedowns, search engine bias, and more!
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