Free Speech and Fuckery
Unpacking An Online Conundrum
This post has been (re)written multiple times over the course of the last 18 or so months. Sadly, it’s all still relevant even some of the anecdotes now feel stale. This is tricky stuff and I can’t pretend like it’s a settled issue. Hell, this is called 99% Derisible for a reason.
Here’s a fact about me: I’m a (recently joined) ACLU member and am opposed to anything that even appears like a restriction on free speech.
Now that I’ve checked my priors…
Any tool that we create today to restrict speech will inevitably be used in a way that we (I) don’t like. We can’t hope to completely eradicate the possibly of some later flirtation with anti-free speech autocracy. So the best way to guard against such abuse is to prevent the use and creation of such tools in the first place.
However, there is a good argument to be made that by using certain ugly or distasteful tools - in this case by limiting the appalling speech that might precipitate and catalyze violence - we can stop the rise anti-democratic forces preemptively. If bad actors use speech to animate violence, we must cut off their access to speech. Clutching impotently at the hem of clean-cut civil libertarian ideals only hastens the rise of those forces we want to disempower (Yascha Mounk and Sammy Koppelman discuss it early in this podcast).
On the other, other hand, this line of thinking might just misunderstand what the internet is.
The most enduring quality of the internet since its inception has been its propensity to foster subcultures and niche groups. Online, we have everything from bronies to DSA video game reviewers to people who watch baby shark on repeat. And these are the tame ones. Online, the total addressable market for any product and the total possible community for any group is the whole world (h/t Ben Thompson). Everyone and every idea has a place and audience online. No one is alone. This is incredible! We’ve broken the 3 channel oligopoly on news media to tell the stories that would have never been covered (or never been given a fair shake) 30 years ago. We’ve enabled the creation of infinite channels across infinite spectrum, blazing a trail for unprecedented access to expression and validation. Every niche and every need can be served online without the constraints of shelf space and limited spectrum.
But the internet’s power to bring together otherwise marginalized groups is a double-edged sword by nature (much like the one Mickey Rourke tried to kill me with). The internet brings together disparate people to validate their otherwise underserved needs and views. The exact same tools that empower the trans black kid in the South who finally knows she isn’t alone gives the neo-confederate white supremacist a sympathetic ear for his bigotry. The signal-boosting power of the internet doesn’t care about whether or not *I* think something is noble. If an idea can attract attention, it will. And if an idea does attract attention it will find an audience.
We have to accept that there is no easy mechanism to allow only those people who we want to have a voice to express it. In an abstract sense, the tools and platforms themselves may be neutral but those that wield and build them are not. If it becomes acceptable to use censorship tools against people, they will eventually be used in ways you don’t like.
We’ve let individual judgement become the sole arbiter of free speech.
Last year (when I did my first draft of this post), the internet collectively decided that Neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer would be no more. It was de-listed from Google, kicked off its cloud provider, and blocked from most of the conventional/consumer internet. That time was easy. We all agreed that the Daily Stormer was awful and best erased from the world. It won’t always be this simple. Late last year, Twitter banned Kremlin propaganda outlet Russia Today from advertising, and things go murkier. Twitter banned a media company from advertising (e.i. expressing itself), because of its politics. But maybe that’s easy when it’s Russia, so whatever. When Twitter suspended Roger Stone for using excessive profanity and making threats at journalists, we all cheered. But conservatives rightly demanded to know why Keith Olberman, who regularly does the same but is liberal, didn’t suffer the same fate. When a rogue twitter employee temporarily suspended Trump’s account as an act of protest on his or final day, it brought this brewing problem into sharp relief once again. This was an aberration caused by poor internal controls but it nevertheless illustrates a point: single private actor (be it an individual employee or the company itself) could silence the President’s primary method of communication with a keystroke. We’ve let individual judgement become the sole arbiter of free speech. We’re betting a lot that we’re making the right call and we haven’t done much to prove it.
The problem isn’t Twitter or Facebook or Google on their own.
The problem is that we have functionally ceded the public square to a few private companies. And make no mistake, the internet is speech and there is no speech without the internet (reasonable people can disagree about this). The bell cannot be un-rung. That you can still print a pamphlet is fairly worthless if you can’t post it online. This leaves us with a set of impossible choices: we can accept that certain private actors have unilateral power to restrict speech entirely (as Cloudfare did when it took down the Daily Stormer), we can restrict their ability to do so and so thrust government into a role policing speech by limiting the autonomy of those private actors, or we can create a public “cloud provider of last resort” - a government entity that will host any domain/content for anyone - and in doing have the government endorse all manner of vile, dubiously protected speech.
And yet in the face of all that, we already know that unrestricted speech affects access and not indiscriminately. There’s a reason 64% of twitter users are male: women just face too much abuse on the platform. In a deeply unequal society, equality favors the status quo. Moreover, we know that de-platforming actually works. Milo (and alt-right troll) has basically disappeared since being permanently banned from Twitter. This brings us back to the dilemma at the start: what if the only way to protect speech is to restrict it selectively? The tools seem to be effective, making the choice to use them all that much harder.
There don’t appear to be any good options to fixing this. Hell, we don’t even know the scope and scale of the issue because none of these platforms open themselves up for academic study (certainly not after Cambridge Analytica) and have no incentives do run the studies themselves. Facebook doesn’t want to know its affect on radicalization.
There is no real end to this blog post for me. I don’t have an answer or even an inkling of the right idea beyond my instincts towards unfettered free speech. Amidst the issue of fake news and mass shootings and white supremacy, this is the crisis of our time. I hope smarter people are thinking earnestly and honestly about this.
Anyone who tells you its easy is either stupid, lying, or lying to themselves.