Columns, Opinion

Modern Musings: Censorship is nail in the coffin of Tumblr

On Tuesday, social media website Tumblr announced that it will eliminate all adult content from its site starting Dec. 17. This announcement came just weeks after the app was deleted from the Apple App Store for child pornography on the site (the app has yet to be added back to the store since the announcement).

In their statement, the Tumblr staff explained that they will be filtering out “adult content” electronically, only resorting to manually doing so if a user requests a review of a post that they do not think violates Tumblr’s rules. They also explained that they are “removing content, not people,” so blogs will not be deleted or suspended in the process.  

It is completely unacceptable that Tumblr’s filter system failed to pick up on child pornography, and that they relied on an imperfect system to do so, putting many people at risk. But there are several problems with the way Tumblr is choosing to address this problem, and implementing a sitewide ban on what they deem “adult content” is no solution.

For one, Tumblr should not be censoring content. Their staff should be going after the users who post sexually explicit, harmful content, just as they should have done in the case of the child pornography. If they just purge the site of adult content, they will not be getting at the root of the problem. It is also not helpful to tackle this issue by using computers — technology similar to the kind that failed to detect child pornography in the first place — to filter the content.

Tumblr’s staff even admitted in their announcement that “[computers are] not as good at making nuanced, contextual decisions [as humans],” so it’s silly that they should entrust them with a task that will have massive effects on the site, and it’s clear it’s only being done for convenience sake. Using such imperfect technology has already begun to take its toll on Tumblr, flagging, as their staff anticipated, content that is not sexually explicit.

This ban is harmful to several communities on Tumblr that have used it as a place to express their creativity and freely discuss issues of gender and sex for years. Many artists use the platform to share their artwork, some of which includes nudity, which they are now struggling to post due to Tumblr’s poor “explicit content” detection system. Though the site’s staff explained that nudity in artwork would not be censored, it is unclear when artists can expect their work to stop getting flagged as adult content.

In addition, Tumblr has already made it impossible for sex educators on the site to discuss anything related to sex by flagging many terms related to such issues, and several posts tagged “LGBTQ,” “gay” or “lesbian” have been removed in the process, rightly frustrating members of the site’s LGBTQ community. This ban has led to inadvertent censorship of content that does not fall under what Tumblr’s staff considers “adult content.” Though many of these instances may be caused by the initial errors of Tumblr’s ban, they raise many questions about who decides what should be censored and who is allowed to censor it, and it is unclear when or if these errors will be remedied or if users will continue to face struggles when posting harmless content.

The way Tumblr is currently handling the problem of pedophilia by banning all “adult content” illustrates a fundamental problem in the way social media platforms deal with harmful content. Similar to the way in which Twitter ignores the rampant neo-Nazism that fills the site by refusing to ban white supremacists and trolls who spread fake news, Tumblr is refusing to deal with the root of the problem. Instead of banning the blogs that have been reported for harmful content, they are choosing to punish all of the site’s users, affecting those whose work has nothing to do with the problem.

It is also sketchy that, despite users’ consistent complaints about pedophilic, pro-anorexia and white supremacist content that has filled the site for years, Tumblr has refused to handle such content in a meaningful way. Now, when the company is suffering from the removal of their app from the App Store, suddenly protecting children is of utmost concern to them.

The most effective way Tumblr could avoid resorting to complete censorship while still allowing “adult content” on their site is by incorporating a fully functioning filter for explicit content. Tumblr previously had such a function, allowing users to decide whether they would allow sexually explicit content to appear on their dashboard, but it was faulty, and adult content slipped through the cracks.

Though it would undoubtedly take some time to perfect, it would be more effective if an improved version of this function made a return, allowing people to use and experience the site as they wish while still ensuring that minors do not see explicit content. Along with this, Tumblr needs to improve their report function, as, until now, dangerous content on the site has not been combated aggressively enough.

These measures would be much more useful in ridding the site of actually harmful content and would not alienate users in the process. It would ensure that Tumblr remains a free forum for people to openly discuss and post about a wide variety of issues while still keeping its users safe. It is extremely important that Tumblr remains one of the most open and inclusive social media sites on the internet. If they continue to go forward with such widespread censorship, this reputation will be no more.

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