I made an interesting and alarming discovery a few weeks ago.
Like most authors, I happen to love reading books as well. Between my local library, the occasional purchase, and my Kindle, I go through a good number of them every year. I have my entire life. Sands, in my small-town library, if I happened to be around the librarians would sometimes ask me if I knew a book a patron was asking about. I read a lot.
So, naturally, I gravitate to places online that talk about books. Forums that offer book reviews, or book chats, etc etc.
It was on one of these forums that I discovered an extremely disturbing trend.
Let me catch you up. One of the book places I hung out at quite regularly—or did, before this discovery, which all but killed my interest in it—was a place for book recommendations. It was pretty simple and straightforward: One person posts what they’re looking for, be it a historical romance with specific traits, or just something like what they’d already read and enjoyed, like Dune. Then, participants could post replies listing, detailing, or talking about other books that the poster might be interested in.
Good idea, right? I sure thought so. And so I went to it. It was fun dredging my brain sometimes for lesser-known authors or books that someone might have missed, or thinking “Oh, what was the name of that book!” and digging back several years through my Goodreads list to find it.
It was pretty good … Or so I thought.
See, there were trends I’d noticed from the very beginning on this forum. Some books were always, and I mean always, recommended. Even if the initial poster specifically said something like “and no books by [insert big name author of a genre here], I’ve already read them” there would always be at least one highly recommended comment extolling those very titles.
Well, that’s just popularity, I thought. Those books are big, and people don’t read the actual post, they’re just telling.
That’s what I thought. And then I noticed something else: some of my posts were mysteriously … silent.
See, a lot of forums let you interact with people’s posts. You can reply to them, give a mark of appreciation, etc. This forum was no different. However, I was noticing that some posts I was making seemed … oddly unnoticed, while others had the usual level of interaction.
That’s strange, I noted. What could be causing that? Were the books mentioned in them too esoteric? Not to taste? But no, sometimes they were lists that included some of the more popularly recommended works (the ones that came up every time, associated or not) when fitting. But still, nothing.
I got suspicious. And so I started testing things. I would open the forum pages of the posts in question with my account … and then I would open them again using my browser’s incognito mode.
They’d been shadow-censored. Not all of them. But the ones that were being oddly ignored? That’s because no one else could see them but me.
My posts were being censored based on book titles and authors.
And once I’d seen it, I couldn’t unsee it. See, the process of stealthily censoring people on this forum wasn’t perfect. A forum link still listed the total number of comments made on it. Comparing that to what I actually saw when I would click on one of these posts marked a noted difference in the number of posts that were actually visible. A thread would claim it had six replies from people … but only four would appear when I clicked on it. And so on and so forth.
Concerned, I checked the forum rules. They said nothing about this. All books were welcome, they claimed. There was no mention of this kind of shadowed censorship, where folks posting books were told in full confidence that their recommendation had been shared, when in fact it had not, and was visible only to them.
Worse still, I noticed a trend in the posts of mine that were being “hidden:” All of them involved indie authors. Lesser-known folks. Smaller books.
Hmmmm … There was a clear filter going over everyone’s posts. And worse, nothing anywhere on the forum said anything about it. Not in the rules, not anywhere.
So when someone made a post specifically asking after those kinds of books, I pointed out that I wasn’t sure I’d want to mention them as they’d likely be picked up by some sort of filter preventing books like that from being shared.
People were shocked. But then a moderator stepped in and explained their reasoning, and that just made things sound even worse.
As moderators of the forum, they explained, they had a duty to weed out books that they felt weren’t appropriate, or up to par, or that they felt people shouldn’t be interested in. And so they had filters in place to keep those books or those authors from being mentioned, while approved and appropriate books that they agreed were fine could go up.
Okay, now look, here’s the thing. If this were an approach that the moderators of the forum were open and admitting of, that’d be one thing. If there was a list somewhere of “books and authors that aren’t approved” that was on display so that people could know what they considered “not appropriate” for the forum, that would be one thing. Or sands, if they’d even sent out warning messages to people when the books came up, something to the effect of “please don’t talk about these books, we don’t want them here” that would be one thing. It’d look shady (my guess is that’s why they didn’t) but it would at least be something users of the forum could see.
But they hadn’t. No such list exists. Nor had any messages been sent. Nor even, in fact, did the official forum rules mention rules that the moderator claimed had ‘been rules from the very beginning of the forum’ in their response. They were invisible laws, enforced only at the discretion of the moderators (I immediately noticed that some of the “rules” this moderator pointed out were in fact, violated frequently for extremely popular books).
So invisible laws, and invisible silencing.
Obviously my time in that forum is at an end. I’d rather not hang out in a place that’s clearly read 1984 one too many times and learned all the wrong lessons.
But what really worries me is how easy it was for this system to be in place and no one to be the wiser. Worse, how prevalent and accepted such a system is.
Twitter, for example, was one of the first services to really publicly embrace the idea of “shadow censorship” where you don’t tell anyone that anyone is being censored, not even the one under the censorship (and for a time they claimed to the contrary, until far too much proof of it came forward for them to deny it any longer). You just let them talk as normal, telling them everything is normal, while making sure that no one can hear them, find them, or interact with them, while using computers to sell the opposite image to the one speaking.
The implications here are frankly terrifying. Worse, technology has made it incredibly easy. It’s simple, as that book forum did, to set up an automatic, computer-driven filter that culls all mentions of an author or books from their threads while still telling the person talking about them that they’re being posted (and insinuating along the way by making sure there are no responses that ‘no one cares about this’).
Now again, while creepy, this wouldn’t be as creepy if the people moderating the site were open about it. Offering a list of “books we don’t approve of here” is one thing.
But not offering that? Having zero indication that it’s against their rules, making both the rules and the violators invisible?
That’s troubling. Especially when compared to what’s being silently censored: Indie authors and books.
Right, so that forum stinks. The creators and moderators of it are silently pushing an agenda: No indie, only trad pub. Again, without telling anyone and without being open about it.
But here’s the real kicker: How easy would it be to do this everywhere else?
The answer is: Incredibly easy. It’s not even hard. Any forum or website could engage in this kind of invisible censorship. The same tools are freely available to most sites and creators.
Including, you know, the big traditional publishers, who aren’t shy at all already about “discouraging” other books. And this kind of power, wielded invisibly, has terrifyingly dangerous potential.
For example, let’s talk about MacMillan for a moment. They’re the publisher going on a crusade against libraries at the moment. That’s the facts behind this.
Everything in the following paragraph, between the marks, is a hypothetical example, made up for the purposes of showing how this kind of censorship can be abused, and heavily. It is not, to my knowledge, real at all, but just an example of what kind of thing could happen with this practice. I’m even boxing it to show that. Not happened, just a hypothetical example.
And if this later turns out to have happened, well … Sands and Storms.
Say MacMillan has forums. Now, MacMillan could go through their forums and invisibly censor anyone who post positive things about libraries, and let through anyone who has negative things to say about libraries.
The result would be that people posting comments in favor of libraries would see only themselves taking that stance, and no one else would see their comments at all, while those deriding libraries would find that they all agreed, could band together, etc.
Then later, MacMillan could use those public forums as demonstrations, say, in front of a congressional hearing or lobbyist panel to show that people don’t want libraries anymore, and that the budget for them should be cut. If there were people for them, MacMillan could argue, they would have spoken, but their readers clearly don’t like them.
Library funding is cut.
AGAIN, that was ALL hypothetical. MacMillan has not done this. The whole point here was to show how badly this power of invisible censorship can be abused if a company like MacMillan decided to.
Sands, Twitter already does do this. Twitter openly admits that they filter and direct Twitter conversations on political issues to what Twitter feels is the “correct” conclusion. If that doesn’t worry you, it should.
Obviously this newfound power of censorship worries me because, hey, I’m an indie author, and the idea that people in power on the internet can simply make me disappear because I’m a threat to their profits or whatever is deeply concerning.
But again, it’d be one thing if those people were at least open about it and admitted what they were doing. But they aren’t. This stuff is hidden. Even from those being censored. They carry on with a smile, pretending that “everyone is welcome,” etc etc, when in fact, there are invisible rules only they know of that those who don’t follow are muzzle over.
And no one knows.
Personally? The book market is already halfway there. It was amazing how many places that covered big, important books never covered The Martian, for example, despite it being a phenomenon. It’s mysteriously absent in book form in a lot of places you’d think would talk about it, like NPR’s book reviews.
They sure talked a lot about Artemis though. Before it even came out. Only difference, aside from The Martian being overall better received by readers? Artemis wasn’t indie.
So … why post about this? Well, frankly because I’m a bit alarmed that something like this is slipping its tendrils into the internet so quickly and easily. And that people just seem to roll with it.
Though perhaps it’s just because none of them know. After all, the operative word here is “invisible.”
Now look, had that forum been open with it’s secret rules, I’d have had no issue with it. Had they posted rules on the side that said, for example, “No indie books or authors” I’d have likely avoided the forum, but I’d have at least gone “Okay, I’ll respect that.”
Or had they sent out written warnings to those who violating this invisible rule. It’d be less welcome (as the rule is still invisible), but at least those violating it would know not to do it (and either leave or stop doing it).
But to silently censor them? No warming, no alert, nothing? That’s just outright creepy. And wrong. Sands, it’s false advertising, pretending to be something (a free and open exchange of information) that one isn’t (because that exchange is monitored and “adjusted” by others).
Me? I’m not for it. Be it for books, games, movies, or any other medium.
I’m just shocked to find that for books it’s already begun, and the invisible lines have been drawn in the sand.
10 thoughts on “Invisible Censorship and Books”
And how many other forums as well as books? I’m willing to bet it’s rampant on many websites faintly political, and as for Twitter…
I’ve never been a fan of Twitter, but that is, frankly, disgusting.
Would you be happy for me to reblog on cathy-cade.com?
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Go right ahead! Reblog away! I’m fine with people linking and reblogging as long as it’s not misconstrued plus properly sourced and attributed. 🙂
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This makes me curious. For about a year now, I’ve made it known that I intend to someday start my own blog on my own website so that I can branch my reviews out of fanfiction and into original fiction. And seeing this “book forum” idea abused so horribly, I have to wonder it perhaps I could implement a similar concept as a side-element of that blog. Luckily, I have some coders in my family who may be able to help me achieve that once I finally get around to it.
Reblogged this on Writing Wrinkles and commented:
I came across this worrying post about sneaky censorship on Unusual Things from Max Florschutz.
Why am I not surprised that Twitter is doing it too…?
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1984 writ large.
thanks for such an informative, and frightening/disheartening post. But I’ll try to defend my beloved Twitter a bit. Where should they draw the line between letting everything through, and showing some restraint? Russian hacking comes to mind. Should Twitter let all such tweets through?
Here’s the thing: I’m not arguing against censorship per say. Some things, extreme they may be, I believe should be controlled or regulated. Child pornography, for instance, I believe should be firmly crushed, destroyed, blocked, etc.
But there are two critical difference there. For one, bans on material like that are forms of open censorship: Everyone is told what is and isn’t allowed, and furthermore, when someone violates those standards, the result of such is public (you were banned for this reason).
The other difference is that something like child pornography (understand that I picked this example because it’s one almost everyone can get behind) is a thing, not a concept or idea.
But Twitter is not doing that. Not only are they silently censoring, they’re censoring ideas and concepts that they believe people shouldn’t think about. So for one, they’re not telling people “Hey don’t do this or you’ll be punished” but simply carrying out punishment without warning. Punishment, by the way, isn’t noted either. They don’t alert anyone found in violation of these invisible standards. They simply silence them and remove them from the public sphere and the ones that have been removed don’t know and only find out if people ask where they went.
The problem is that the rules are hidden. They won’t specify what they are or what was done, hiding behind words like “offensive” if pressed (to what or who is never specified) or even outright denial when when pressed.
It’s a form of silent elimination.
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great points, Max. I agree, all firms could afford to be much more transparent with their rules and regualtions, and then be consistent in appying those rules.
Thank you so much for sharing your research. Your findings are disgraceful to say the absolute least. To arbitrarily censor due to some algorithm … algorithms compiled by individuals who probably know more about programming than about literature. Whole thong sucks.
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