It was reported by The New York Times that the term, “non-playable character (NPC),” was first popularized several months ago on Reddit message boards. The term comes from video games, referring to characters who are controlled by the computer. Right-wing accounts recently began using the term to mock anti-Trump culture in Hollywood and news media, aiming to say that those who oppose Trump do so, not because of independent thought, but because they have been conditioned to repeat the media. Memes display NPCs programmed by “groupthink,” who are unable to handle views, that stray from those of their own. Recently the term NPC has prompted Twitter to suspend roughly 1,500 accounts. Soon after, the social media giant announced a new policy that will prohibit “dehumanizing others.” That might sound nice, but it should be a wake-up call.
I am not a Trump supporter, and I do not support hate speech. I may not agree with everything I see on the internet, but I know enough to take a stance against the subtly increasing censorship coming from big tech companies, something that our country seems to be open to allowing.
About a week ago, I was scrolling through Instagram and came across a screenshot featuring NPC accounts. The accounts had meme-like cartoons and gray emotionless avatars as profile icons and ridiculous names such as NPC #80085 and AKCHUAL HUMAN. Upon seeing their ridiculous posts, I was confused. But for the most part, I simply found a bit of humor in their absolute absurdity and wrote them off as but another political meme. It was the abrupt backlash and shutdown of anything NPC related and seeing memes called “harmful misinformation” by most news platforms that gave this trend the most impact. The New York Times called it an attempt at swaying midterms elections.
Understand that any political statement made anywhere is someone’s attempt to somehow influence another person’s political view and therefore their vote. So, it’s hard to make the argument that we should give internet platforms the ability to remove anything they deem an influence on elections. Somewhere down the line, we stopped taking on the responsibility of considering the source. Instead, we handed the job over to Silicon Valley, trusting in all our ignorance that the tech giants will always have our best interest in mind.
To say that the NPC memes were “dehumanizing” to those who resonate with the mentioned liberal ideals is rather ridiculous. Especially considering those who disapproved of the memes immediately called those promoting the memes “bots.” Not to mention accounts who express approval of NPC memes are highly likely to be called supporters of hate speech which is definitely dehumanizing and also inaccurate.
There is an expectation when you go on the web that you see everything, not just what the platform wants you to see. Social media should show the full mirror image of society, not the nicer-looking, photoshopped edition. This means including all kinds of humor as well as anger, aggression and all types of expression. Think of what it means to remove these things. Think about what it means to tell someone, “You can’t express that opinion here.” Is that not the very definition of fascism?
Curating content creates a false depiction of society, one that conceals alternative ideals and radical thought – the definition of censorship. If this happens, it is more than likely to be in pursuit of further exploiting users for advertising and marketing purposes. This is something we know these platforms do. As we’ve seen in the past, Silicon Valley tends to exploit now and apologize later.
Recognize this as an objective and firm stance against mass censorship of any kind, not support for pro-Trump rhetoric. Memes today are a modern form of satire, so carefully consider what it means to start ambiguously prohibiting certain content. Consider a world where anything that is comically exaggerated can be considered slanderous, hateful “misinformation.” Consider a world where we trust the CEOs and snakes of Silicon Valley to ultimately decide which opinions can be seen and which are banned for “misleading the public.” Then tell me how that sounds like a safe environment for free individual thought?