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Censorship, Tea Leaves, and Social Media

by on December 31, 2013

In the July/August 2013 issue of Technology Review (vol 116, no. 4), there is a brief article “Reading the Tea Leaves of Censorship,” by Tom Simonite. The article explains how scientists, monitoring censorship on Chinese social media sites, can predict political events happening (or about to happen) within that country. This article intrigued me.

Censorship is a touchy subject for many librarians.  We often view preventing access to information or removing material from the library, simply because some one wishes it so,  as “bad” censorship. However, as librarians we  engage in censoring decisions daily. When we make choices  about what materials to purchase, what to recommend, what site to refer to, etc.  we also are engaging in censorship to a degree. It is, in effect, the suppression of material, even if our motives are justified and our intentions pure. 

The fact that we are not  not purchasing, not recommending, not referring, may in fact be indicating something just as strongly as what we do reference. Recommendation and censorship are to me two sides of the same coin. Likewise, they each have grand effects.  Recommended books can create author celebrities, while often the un-recommended, un-purchased novel’s author remains obscure.

So my curiosity about the implications of this article linking censorship or, to my mind for libraries, choices of inclusion and exclusion, with social media grew.  I wonder, if what does or does not get published on social media sites in China can predict politics, can what does or does not get published on social media sites of libraries predict anything anywhere?  There must be limits, but surely this kind of predictive quality is not geographically specific, or limited to political actions?  Do posts of material increase circulation?  Do moderated complaints affect policy?

This train of thought has led to a great number of questions swirling around the issues of censorship, social media, and libraries.If a library moderates posts on its social media site, should this be included in discussions of censorship? Can analyzing our social media content help us make policy decisions? And what is our social media content telling the world?

It is now common for employers to review social media sites, checking on potential and existing employees.  Of course, the same is true of the potential employee reviewing the employer. What does your social media content tell people about your library? I recently surprised a potential employer by noting that I knew their library had morale issues.  The potential employer seemed none too happy that this cat had escaped the bag.  However, for me, it was readily apparent based on their social media content.

I am not a big fan of social media.  I, personally, would like to see a lot more self-censorship in this area.  The idea that social media is indexed and mined for data[i] and available for all, represents a lack of privacy that I find disconcerting.  Still, one cannot argue with the possible benefits, uses, and results that may come of tracking trends in social media — it seems even trends in the spread of disease can be tracked via Twitter.[ii] 


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