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CMCS: Following a mass shooting, Apple removes all games containing Confederate flags

Following a racially-motivated mass shooting in South Carolina, Apple removes apps that utilize the Confederate flag even if displayed in a historical context as permitted by Apple's policies.

Summary: On June 17, 2015, South Carolina native Dylann Roof entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine Black attendees. Roof was an avowed white supremacist as his consequent convictions on hate crime charges attest. Roof also published a racist manifesto to his website prior to the attack, along with photos of white supremacy emblems and the Confederate flag.

Shortly after this tragic act of racially-motivated violence, app developers noticed their apps had been removed by Apple. One of the first to notice was Hexwar Games, which noticed its Civil War strategy game was no longer available in the App Store.

More developers reported the same thing happening to their titles -- all of which were strategy/simulation games that dealt with the Civil War. This action followed Apple CEO Tim Cook's public statements against the display of the Confederate flag, widely-viewed as a symbol of white supremacy.

Cook's words became the App Store's actions. Games containing Confederate flags began disappearing, even if they didn't appear to violate Apple's ban on apps using the Confederate flag in "offensive or mean-spirited ways." Developers sought more clarification on the policy and reinstatement, but Apple continued to purge the store of games and apps, appearing to disregard complaints about the removal of historically-accurate games.

Decisions to be made by Apple:

  • What context should be considered when determining what constitutes an "offensive" use of the Confederate flag?
  • Considering an argument often made for display of the flag (in more offensive settings) is "historical value," does allowing its use in historical representations just create more opportunities for bad faith arguments by the flag's defenders?
  • Should app developers using the flag in a historical context be required to post disclaimers, etc. explaining they're aware of its racist connotations and the use here in apps like these is purely for historical accuracy?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • Does reacting quickly to an issue that was only tangentially-related to the Charleston shooting put Apple in the position of having to react even more quickly (and perhaps more erratically) when the next inevitable tragedy rolls around?
  • Is there a baseline established for determining what content is offensive? Is it objective or left up to App Store moderation to decide what crosses the line on a case-by-case (or, like this one, incident-by-incident) basis?

Resolution: Apple swiftly removed apps containing depictions of the Confederate flag in the wake of the racially-motivated shooting. More clarification from Apple arrived a few days later. The company began working with affected developers to get their apps reinstated. Along with the ban on use of the flag in "offensive" ways, Apple instituted a new rule forbidding the use of the Confederate flag in app icons or any "prominent display" in screenshots.

Written by The Copia Institute, September 2020

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