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Ejo #82 – Censorship

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark;
the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
Plato

The Guardian recently published an article in which a Norwegian newspaper editor blasted Mark Zuckerberg for deleting a Facebook post featuring an iconic photo taken more than 40 years ago.  The social media behemoth deleted the post of a journalist who had used the photo in a story about war – and then followed up by punitively suspending the writer’s Facebook account. A media storm ensued after editor Espen Egil Hansen skewered Mark Zuckerberg, accusing him of “limiting freedom” in an “authoritarian way”.

Facebook has since reversed its initial decision to censor the photo, allowing users to freely share the image without fear of being blocked or having their account suspended.  The back down is welcome, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem of Facebook’s power in controlling what its 1.23 billion users see.  Especially when you take into account the fact that more than 40% of people (in America, anyway) use Facebook as their primary source of news.

Did you know that the news stories Facebook promotes are decided by computers?  An algorithm dictates what news we get to see.  And what’s scary is that it also dictates what news we don’t see.  But what’s scarier than that, to me, is that some people actually welcome this kind of regulation.  Or let’s call it what it really is: censorship.  When I posted the Guardian’s story of the napalm photo (with the caption, “WTF, Facebook”) one of my FB friends responded that she thought the picture should actually be censored by pixelating the image of the naked girl, and that if people wanted to see it, they could click through to the website.  I respect that people have different opinions than me about things but to welcome censorship seems small-minded and a huge step in the wrong direction.  Especially when information is a freedom that has been bloodily fought for throughout history.  And I choose to exert my right to oppose it.

I live in a country where the media does not have the right to publish the truth.  It’s a place where the news is censored as a matter of course.  In a Muslim autocracy, perhaps this is to be expected.  But the western world doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) operate in this way.  We already get a very filtered version of what’s going on around us.  As well as Facebook’s algorithms, we also have news agencies cherry-picking what stories to broadcast or publish, meaning we do not get the full picture.  I was watching the six o’clock news in Melbourne a couple of days ago and was appalled that the top two stories of the day were about football.  Not just one story, but two.  In the meantime, on the same day five people were murdered in Washington, USA after a 20 year old gunman shot them in a rampage in a shopping mall, and 85 innocent people were killed in Aleppo in Russian airstrikes supported by the Syrian government.  The mass shooting was mentioned, briefly, after even more features about football, including six minutes of airtime in which Footscray Bulldogs fans gushed about how their team making the finals was the best thing that had ever happened to them.  I mean, for fuck’s sake.  I am totally on board with the Doggies and really hope they win the grand final next weekend.  But this is not news.  This is a feel good story.  It’s human interest.  It belongs at the end of the program, as a snippet.  When did Australian news become so watered down?  And why aren’t people pissed off about it.

I’m pissed off about it.  The Aleppo story didn’t even rank a spot in that day’s news.  I’m posting a photo here of a man who died trying to protect his child during the attack, not because I want to shock people but because it happened, and we need to know that it happened.  And to those of you who would rather go on Facebook to just look at pictures of cats and post inspirational memes, I am not sorry.  If you don’t like it, you can unfriend me.

160923203919-heartbreaking-syria-photo-cleared-for-platforms-super-169_0

Awful, yes. But we need to see this, not hide from it.

I can’t help going back to that picture of Kim Phúc as a nine year old girl running away from her home after being bombed with napalm.  The photo, titled “The Terror of War” is so confronting because of its stark depiction of a horrible event.  It simply would not have the same impact if the little girl was Photoshopped to be wearing clothes (and if you ask me, pixelating her is the same as putting clothes on her – you might as well dress her up as Santa Claus).  If the photo is censored, it loses its power.  The reason the little girl is naked is because napalm burned the clothes right off her body, melting her skin in the process.  Phúc herself has spoken out about the outcry, saying “I’m saddened by those who would focus on the nudity in the historic picture rather than the powerful message it conveys.  I fully support the documentary image taken by Nick Ut as a moment of truth that capture the horror of war and its effects on innocent victims.”

napalm-girl

The iconic photo Facebook initially deemed offensive.

I’m saddened too.  Are people calling for censorship of the photo because they think that the image is sexual??  If so, they’re stupid.  Initially, Facebook claimed they removed the photo because “it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others”.  But if people can’t tell the difference between child pornography and journalistic fact reporting, then the problem lies with them.  Let’s not pander to the lowest common denominator.

The person that told me Facebook should have pixelated the photo, went on to argue that she also hadn’t enjoyed her feed being filled with images and videos of two black men being killed by police officers in routine traffic stops in the US a couple of months ago.  She thought that these images in Facebook should also have been pixelated, and that if people were interested in the headline, they could click the link to read the full article.  She was worried that allowing the pictures of these atrocities to be so readily available, would de-sensitise people to violent death by normalising it.

I disagree.  I think that when people are able to see incidents like police brutality against African-Americans themselves, they become more aware of the problem than if they were to just read a report about it.  I believe that when we see photos of dead children washed up on the beach after trying to escape war-torn countries, we are more likely to have empathy for refugees.  I personally do not like to see death.  I baulk at photos of dead bodies.  But I would rather be uncomfortable than be in the dark.  War is hell.  Burying your head in the sand might make you feel better in the short term, but the fact is that this shit is going on out there in the world and just because you can’t see it does not mean that you are immune to it.  Choosing to live in a bubble might feel safe, but it is not safe.  When information is withheld from us, we are being controlled.  And that’s dangerous.  We must insist on a free flow of information.  Plato knew this, so why are we still debating it?

It might not seem like such a big deal to agree to censor a photo in which a young girl is depicted naked.  But I see it as the beginning of a slippery slope of suppression which is difficult to control.  If we pixelate the napalm girl, why don’t we also start banning books again.  There are some pretty offensive things written in books.  Vile, nasty things that perhaps we’d be better off not reading.  Right?  But who gets to decide which books are offensive, and which books are acceptable for public consumption?  Did you know that “Winnie-The-Pooh” was once banned for “dubious sexuality” and “inappropriate dress”?  Some idiot decided that.  When you court the “protection” of censorship, you actively relinquish control and you give away your power and your freedom of choice to somebody else.  Somebody that might not have your best interests at heart.  Why would you allow that?  My Facebook friend said, “I really didn’t want to see it.  I think I still have a choice as in to what I see on Facebook”.  But the problem is that if she is happy for her Facebook news to be censored, she’s actually not the one making the choice at all.

Ejo #76 – An Open Letter To Facebook (c/o – MySpace)

Dear MySpace, I hope this letter finds you well. I know it’s been ages (ten years???) but I’m hoping that it’s been long enough for you to forgive me. I feel bad for what I did. No excuses. I treated you badly. All I can say now is that I’m sorry and that I hope we can move past all that and maybe even be friends.

I guess the real reason I’m writing to you now is to tell you that you were right. About Facebook, I mean. You told me to be careful, and I didn’t listen. You told me Facebook would betray my trust, and it has (over and over again). You said it would change the way I connect to people, and I laughed right in your face. But you were right. In fact, it’s even worse than you said it would be.

Sure, things were all shiny and happy in the beginning. Things were simple. They were… uncomplicated. Casual, even. To be brutally honest, if you’d asked me where I thought it was going, those first couple of years, I’d have said, “Same as MySpace”. I’m not saying that to be cruel. I just didn’t see a future with it. It was just a new-tech game. A novelty.

But then something happened, a game changer. I moved to Dubai and suddenly any platform which allowed me to easily and effortlessly stay involved in my friends’ and family’s lives became indispensable. Facebook went from a meaningless flirtation to a serious relationship, overnight.

Most of my friends, from what I can tell, use Facebook to check in from time to time, but it isn’t their primary friendship medium. They get the face-to-face time that I’m missing by living overseas. So I admit I became dependent on it. Just like you said I would. I’d wake up every morning and gorge on a plethora of interesting and witty, well thought-out statuses (stati???). Things like this (actual status updates used without permission. If one of these belongs to you, you should be proud, but if you want me to remove it just let me know):

Mrs X “is wondering how the child she just gave birth to yesterday is all of a sudden one! That’s one year closer to being a teenager – yuck!” (August 2009)

and

Mr Y: “The chillies were so hot I cried like a little baby.” (December 2010)

also

Miss Z “spent five whole minutes looking for lamb backstraps in the beef section. I’m not only beautiful, but I’m wise to boot”. (December 2012)

You know! Fun, silly, inane stuff that made me feel like I was hanging with my gang chewing the fat and shootin’ the shit.

More? How about these pearlers:

Mr A: ” “All flights in & out of Melbourne cancelled due to ash from Chilean volcano” – but how will I get home from Paris? 🙂 (June 2011)

Mr B “made an inane quip about himself in the third person.” (November 2008)

Mrs C “went to bed fine and woke up with a groin injury. Musta been some dream!” (December 2012)

Stupid fun stuff. No-one was trying to save the world. We were just connecting on that “little kid” level that makes friendships interesting and keeps them alive. Dumb stuff that only you and your group of buddies find funny. Facebook was good for that. I know you know what I’m talking about MySpace – I have a feeling it’s what you set out to do and didn’t quite manage. I know you’re mature enough to give credit where it’s due.

I will admit that I kind of got a little bit carried away with the whole Facebook thing there for a while. Obsessed? Perhaps. A smidge. I would “cultivate” my statuses. Something funny would happen or I’d think of something witty (in my opinion, anyway) and then I’d spend time polishing and honing those words until they were just right for posting. I like to think that it was inspiration for the writer in me. And that’s cool. Each to their own, I say.

But things changed, MySpace. They changed slowly at first, but lately it’s turned into an avalanche. At least for me.

My timeline (or feed, or whatever the hell you want to call it) became less about what my friends were doing or thinking or feeling, and more about reposted news items or “interesting articles”. And you know what? I actually caught that train. I figured I was learning something by reading long, obscure New Yorker articles. I was educating myself. But what was happening was that I was spending HOURS catching up on every article which headline caught my fancy. I was going down the hole. So I became more selective. I evolved.

But then there were the petitions. I started off signing everything that seemed like a good cause (Kony 2012 anyone?), and there were a lot of them. But then I’d get spammed by the charities for months on end, plus I started doubting the effectiveness of online petitions, so I just stopped signing them.

I’m proud to say I completely bypassed the Buzzfeed quizzes. What kind of farm animal am I? Fuck off, I don’t have time for this.

Then came the memes. Some of them were funny. Then the funny ones ran out and a cascade of unfunny, uninteresting, irrelevant memes took their place.

Lately it’s the inspirational quotes. How this for inspirational? “My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations.” Are you for real with this shit?? Same with the “copy and paste if you care about cancer” crap? I mean come on! And yes MySpace, I hear you, maybe the crappiness of my feed has something to do with the people I’ve chosen to “befriend” on FB. I get that. But lately I’ve taken the lead of a mate and created a custom list of friends whose updates I see (leaving those crapspirational posts lurking behind the scenes where they can’t irritate me with their uselessness). But even then MySpace, even then, Facebook (the one I picked over YOU) has decided that what I need to see is those custom friends’ likes and comments of shit that has nothing to do with me. WHY????????????

OK, I know I’m ranting now. Yes, I might have had half a bottle of sake (of course you know I’m in Japan, it’s all over Facebook – you guys still talk, I know you do). I guess what I wanted to say was that I miss you. I miss your simple algorithms that didn’t try to get into my head. I miss your easy going ways. I miss your privacy policies. I miss the good old days. Don’t tell Facebook this but I’m seriously thinking of breaking up with it. I’m over its controlling ways. I’m tired of always having to change my newsfeed from Top Stories to Most Recent. I’m sick of playing Facebook politics. I’m done with “liking” shit just to be polite. I want to be real again. And when I said that you and I could be friends again, I was lying. I don’t know what I want but you’re not it. Sorry. I probably won’t even send this lette

Ejo #71 – Friendship

Lately I’ve been unfriending people on Facebook.  It started with this email that I received a few months ago from someone I’ve known for many years:

I’ve got you on Facebook.  Confession: I don’t read the ejo’s these days, but I don’t read anyone’s blogs, sites and posts – so no hard feelings! Hope you are great. Message me on FB anytime.

Now, I know I can’t interest all of you every single time. I tend to write about a pretty large range of topics. I also know that my ejo’s tend to be long (and, OK, sometimes long-winded) and of course sometimes you’re just too busy. That’s cool.  I wasn’t in the least upset by the fact that she doesn’t read my ejo’s.  But the message still struck me as weird.  And then I realised that the reason the email was weird is because it was from someone I don’t even consider a friend.  Sure I’ve known her for about sixteen years, but only because for the majority of that time she was married to someone that I do consider a friend.  When they broke up she just kind of lingered in the background of my Facebook feed.  Her email reminded me that I would never have chosen to be her friend.  I silently wished her well, removed her from my ejo list, and chose to unfriend her from Facebook.  And just like that she was gone.  And I haven’t missed her since.  That was in February.

I have a policy of only being Facebook friends with people that I would have coffee or a beer with.  But the thing about people you would have a drink with is that they don’t always stay that way.  In real life, friends that naturally slough away do so quietly.  You lose interest and then you lose touch.  The problem with Facebook is that those people stick around a lot longer than they otherwise would.  And that’s what happened to the “friend” that confessed to me that she wasn’t reading my ejo’s.  Since then, I’ve been carefully and selectively culling people from my friend list.  I used to be worried about offending people by unfriending them.  But the fact is, if we haven’t interacted in any way for over a year, chances are you don’t really give a shit if you’re my Facebook friend or not.  Right?  Also: you’re probably not reading this ejo anyway!  😉

Obviously the whole online social media phenomenon has changed the way friendships are defined.  I know some people who collect friends on Facebook, numbering in the thousands, most of whom they’ve never even met.  I actually like to only befriend people on social media that I consider to be my friends in real life, the reason being that I live so far away from my real friends that Facebook is the easiest way to keep in touch with them.  I want Facebook to be a true representation of my friendship situation.

It’s no secret that I haven’t made many friends in Dubai.  My inability to connect with people here upset me for a long time.  I beat myself up about it and my self-esteem plummeted.  I regressed to my 14 year old self.  At high school I was an outsider.  I never felt like I belonged to any group and as a result my formative years were spent feeling rejected and socially isolated.  And when we first moved to Dubai, there I was, 38 years of age, feeling the same way.

But before you start feeling sorry for me, let’s talk about what happened between high school and moving to Dubai.  Magic, is what happened.  I discovered “my people”.  I went to university and I instantly started making friends.  People who I am still close to today.  Friendship became easy.  It was natural and extremely fulfilling.  My twenties were spent with a group of people that formed at uni but which evolved into living, eating, holidaying, sleeping and working together.  We became a huge, nebulous, loving family.  It was intense, it was wonderful, it was safe and fun and crazy and my people ended up defining who I was.

My people: One friend and I drove to the shops one scorching hot day and turned the heater on in the car to full blast with all the windows up until we almost passed out.  Why?  Why not? And one friend jumped off St. Kilda pier with me in the middle of the night fully clothed because our other mates dared us to do it for twenty bucks.  We split the money.  One wonderful friend drove to a hospital emergency room and persuasively begged the nurse for painkillers when I’d torn the ligaments in my knee skiing (and yes, the nurse gave him some, while I waited in the car writhing in pain).  I played the card game Hearts with a group of friends when we moved in together to determine who did the chores.  Another friend called in sick for me when I was too hungover to go to work (and I did the same for her).  My friends helped me make an (outrageously bad) audition tape when I applied to get into the Victorian College of the Arts film department.  They comforted me when I wasn’t accepted.  And then they stormed into my darkened room on day three of my self-indulgent pity party and told me to get the hell out of bed and stop feeling sorry for myself.  They cared for me.  They were my world.  They still are.

Over the years, of course, the intensity has faded as people got married, moved away and had children.  But the ease with which we interact has never faded.  We see each other less but the love is still there.  And the experiences we share now are more important than ever, because of their scarcity.  The night in Spain a few of us got drunk on Cocksucking Cowboys and went skinny dipping in the freezing pool while the children slept soundly inside.  Spending time with my newest friends in London, dressing up in each other’s clothes competing for the most ridiculous outfit.  Stripping off my clothes and riding a bicycle around the Nevada desert completely naked with another friend (yes, there is a theme emerging here, I see it).  Hanging out with my sisters, drinking red wine and watching blaxploitation films.  Laughing and savouring the moment because I only get to do it once a year.

After moving to Dubai I naïvely assumed I’d continue to be able to make friends easily.  I was wrong.  But now I’m OK with not having a social group here.  I wish I did, but I’m at peace with the fact that I don’t and I compensate for it by enjoying the hell out of the friends that I do have when I see them.  And I’m lucky enough to have mates all over the world – old friends and new (see, I’ve still got it!!).  The value of these friendships has skyrocketed because of my situation.  My appreciation of them, and my gratitude for them is infinite.  My friends, who defined me in my youth, define me now from a distance.  I love them more than ever.  More than they probably know.

Like everyone else, I have a friendship sphere, with my closest friends in the middle and acquaintances at the outer edge.  It’s a dynamic sphere and over time you might find yourself moving between the layers.  My closest friend right now (the one who used to call my boss to say I had a migraine while she held my hair back as I vomited last night’s booze into the toilet) went from the centre of the circle to about three or four layers out for a few years.  There was no big drama that caused that to happen, we just drifted apart for a while.  Somehow over the last decade or so, she’s managed to wriggle her way back into the middle (of the sphere, and my heart).  And the funny thing is that she probably doesn’t even know it.  I see her once a year, when we visit Melbourne.  We never call or skype each other.  We send occasional texts and hang out on Facebook a little.  But she means more to me than anyone right now because she’s been there for twenty long, glorious years and I still hang off every word she says.  She’s still the most interesting person in the room to me.  And it fills me with so much joy that after all these years, after all these ups and downs, after all these life events and separations (emotional and geographical), she still likes me back.