Careless Whispers: Social Networking and Censorship

With 11 million people using social networking sites it is clear they are incredibly powerful in marketing terms. But after a number of recent cases Steve Richards of Yomego warns that the industry is already on a knife edge and faces censorship.

Facebook was recently condemned for hosting a virtual game where users could stab each other. Bebo was forced to remove disturbing gang photos of youths brandishing knives and swords.

Last month, too, Facebook was ordered to pay £22,000 in damages to a businessman because it allowed false allegations about his private life to be posted. Even celebrities now feel they have something to fear according to Bad Girls actress, Simone Lahbib, who found that an imposter had set up a profile page in her name. Lawyers already sense that this is just the beginning.

For those of us in the industry striving to maximise the incredible power of social networks for brands and other enterprises, it is a critical time.

Individual sites offer their own rules and regulations and urge people to report inappropriate behaviour, yet this is left to an individual’s discretion. The governmental Culture, Media and Sport Committee has accused social network sites of being irresponsible for not policing such activity. A recent report from the committee criticised sites for not reviewing content and recommended that ‘proactive reviewing’ of all content should be common practice. Yet, the volume of information uploaded alone on a daily basis makes it an unfathomable task.

The culmination of all of this is that digital communities are attracting some high profile enemies, which they can ill afford.

But, in the first instance, an important distinction is being lost. Whilst no one condones virtual stabbing games or wants to be any part in bullying or libellous behaviour, it is clear that it is the sites that are getting the blame, not the very small minority of individuals who perpetrate the crimes.


The second is that the very ideals of freedom on which these networks have thrived and which they celebrate is now under threat. Remember how we all condemned the Chinese for blocking Tibetan sites? Do we really want to deny genuine whistleblowers or freedom fighters the channel that gives them a voice?

Personally, I struggle with the negative reaction to what is an inevitable development of a media which gives people the ability to communicate with each other, even if it is to expose the ‘bad’ things we do.

Social networks have flourished because connecting with other people is a natural part of what we do. Sharing tales, pictures or information is a rich and rewarding part of our lives and social networks can expand our circle of friends, our knowledge and experience by connecting us with new and different people both near and far.

Citizen journalism has become an established part of the traditional media, with many TV networks and press organisations relying on the man in the street with a mobile phone to connect them to the real story. Street reporting is now becoming the norm with a camera on everyone’s mobile phone. Who isn’t paparazzi these days? Often, these ‘street level’ accounts are the ones that bring the real sense of personal drama. And surely there are some stories that are better finding the light of day rather than never surfacing or being swept under the carpet?


There are many things about which I do not know the truth about, but social media sites are bringing an on-the-ground honesty that isn’t dressed up for entertainment and doesn’t look for approval by ratings or sales figures.

As marketers we are just beginning to grasp the opportunities for client brands and businesses that lie in interaction, forging relationships and collaboration through social networks. As a result, new rules of engagement between advertisers and users are evolving. So far early pioneers have included Doritos, who invited online users to create their own Doritos ads and then broadcast the winner, as well as Brylcreem and KitKat, who are building an active relationship between their brands and users, through their social media advertising.

While based in Glasgow we have developed an expertise in digital content creation and distribution, along with patented technologies that enable broadcasters, brand and media owners and their agencies to build communities through virtual worlds, social networks and UGC platforms. Our entertainment platform, launched in 2007, delivers interactive services and content seamlessly across mobile, web and TV channels for the likes of MTV, Viacom, GMTV, Dennis Publishing and Jetix. For each client it is about growing digital communities by providing rich and appropriate content alongside the social networking phenomenon. As a result, we are aware that social media owners can’t risk losing the support of partner brands and advertisers whose funds facilitate new waves of innovation.

The current Open Social initiatives - allowing people to take their profiles with them when they travel between each other’s sites – shows that the major players are willing to play with each other, and self-regulation is a natural next step. Closer partnerships between social media’s leading lights will lead to a code of self-regulation. So while, in many ways, censorship contradicts the ideals of social media, certain lines will need to be drawn to help re-establish the excitement and optimism that characterises this medium.And better self-regulation than having more draconian measures enforced by official authorities.

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