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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 1

The age of ‘censureship’

Social media has a large menagerie of critics: politicians on the Left and Right, journalists, and ordinary people who despair over the anger and noise often so prevalent on these platforms. Their concerns are as diverse as those who express them, and some are made on firmer grounds than others.

Politicians of the Left have criticized firms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google (owner of YouTube) for exercising “monopoly power” and demand that they be broken up. These are obviously not monopolies, as the rise of Snapchat and TikTok prove; the slippery notion of “monopoly” seems merely a menacing way to characterize their success with consumers. While nearly three quarters of Americans say they enjoy YouTube, the remaining quarter does not seem at any distinct disadvantage, or under any compulsion to watch. All the other myriad social media platforms (except Facebook) enjoy dramatically less usage, and none of them charge for the core functions they make available to users.

Politicians on the Right have different concerns. One has declared social media to be “addictive.” Addiction is a terrible and tragic evil. Addiction to drugs and alcohol often ruins lives and tears families and communities apart. I know this well from my own pastoral experience. However, the word itself is abused and often trivialized by those applying it to things people do freely but feel guilty about later, e.g., “chocoholics.” Enjoying things, even good things, out of their right measure is wrong, but I am not so sure this is addiction so much as vice. 

Others on the Right have accused major social media firms of censorship. To the extent that what is meant here is that the owners of these platforms suppress or delete content they deem objectionable, I would prefer to call this “censureship.” The notion that owners of these platforms are obligated to transmit and host whatever their users upload, over legal or moral objections, is untenable. The distinction between censorship and censureship might be a useful one to distinguish what the government does as an act of legal (and thus coercive) prohibition, and what private owners do to indicate moral, cultural, or political disagreement on their own property. Proposed “solutions” only add another layer of government-appointed censors to oversee the censures.

Journalists decry social media while being among technology’s most prolific users. Social media represent a threat to the mainstream media as they compete for advertisers and readers. The decentralized nature of social media offers a forum for giving and receiving news and information. This give-and-take – often messy, and increasingly offensive – results in a transparency and accountability so often absent in the entrenched and established media.

There is much in social media deserving of objection. Lies, distortions, vulgarity, and half-truths abound. Bullying, rudeness, and callousness proliferate when people hide or are hidden behind screens. But the solutions to these problems do not lie in breaking up these companies or regulating them. What value they have created would be lost in dividing already diverse and competitive platforms along arbitrary lines drawn by bureaucrats. What censureship exists would be compounded by the whims of ever-changing political committees. Efforts to shore up legacy media will come at the expense of the transparency and accountability which comes with the more inclusive process of sharing information, which has been revitalized by social media.

The solution to the problems generated by social media are not to be found in government intervention to reshape or control it, but by our own free choice to refuse to be shaped by it. This involves logging off from our virtual communities to be shaped by, serve, and live in our real communities. Some wise words were penned long ago: “Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

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Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.