Friday, January 26, 2018

The Golden Age of Free Speech. Is That The Online World?

When we argue with someone on Twitter or Facebook, are we engaging in a public debate?  Or a private one?  Is the online world in the public sphere or in the private sphere?  What speech is public and what is private?  Are we now living in the utopia where freedom of speech applies to everyone, where objective markets exist to weigh each idea, then let them box against each other while neutral judges decide the winner?

Zeynep Tufekci has written an important article about some of these questions: "It's (the Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age Of Free Speech."  I strongly recommend the whole article.  Here are a few snippets to get your appetite whetted:

For most of modern history, the easiest way to block the spread of an idea was to keep it from being mechanically disseminated. Shutter the news­paper, pressure the broad­cast chief, install an official censor at the publishing house. Or, if push came to shove, hold a loaded gun to the announcer’s head.
Variations on this general playbook for censorship—find the right choke point, then squeeze—were once the norm all around the world. That’s because, until recently, broadcasting and publishing were difficult and expensive affairs, their infrastructures riddled with bottlenecks and concentrated in a few hands.
But today that playbook is all but obsolete. Whose throat do you squeeze when anyone can set up a Twitter account in seconds, and when almost any event is recorded by smartphone-­wielding mem­­bers of the public.

The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself. As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns, which harness the dynamics of viral outrage to impose an unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out. They look like epidemics of disinformation, meant to undercut the credibility of valid information sources. They look like bot-fueled campaigns of trolling and distraction, or piecemeal leaks of hacked materials, meant to swamp the attention of traditional media.

The emphasis is mine.  The questions about censorship she raises are important to think about.

But so are some other odd features of online communication, and Tufekci addresses a few of them, too.  In a perverse sense, what we may think of as participation in a public debate may, in fact, be narrowly tailored to our demographic characteristics and to our political views.  The messages we receive may not be sent to our neighbors or to anyone with different views or demographic characteristics, and the messages we receive might be tailor-made to incite us to particular actions.

In yet another perverse sense (though Tufekci doesn't mention this aspect in the article), the public political spheres we participate in are also tailored by ourselves:  The people we befriend on Facebook, the people we choose to follow on Twitter, the sites we choose to read or comment on; all those are choices which narrow the doorway to an actual public debate.

Yet our participation feels public to us.  It's hard not to scroll down one's twitter feed and interpret what one sees as "what everyone is talking about."  But, in fact, all that feed reveals is what those we have already decided to listen to are talking about.  It tells us nothing about what others might find interesting on that day.

All that is about the well-known information bubbles in politics. The American right and the American left receive not only different interpretations of the day's events but are also trained to focus on quite different news items, and sometimes those include lies.  We no longer have something comparable to a town hall meeting where all residents come and meet in one room to debate shared concerns.  Rather, there are several town halls, and they have utterly different agendas.

I spend much time visiting the information bubbles of the right, but even so I am often struck how different the two information worlds are, how seamless the bubbles which surround them,  how little interaction there is through the bubble walls, and how uninformed I tend to be about issues (whether real or made up) that the right fumes over.

People have always disagreed about the most salient political issues, and people have always had the tendency to pay more attention to those who share their beliefs.  But in the past the left and the right shared many news sources.  For example, during the Network Era  most Americans watched the three large networks and their nightly news.  That provided a certain amount of basic understanding about the reported events (whether based on truth or not).

This is no longer the case.

What I have written about, so far, is the various ways that our feelings about participating in the public sphere are not actually proof that we are participating in the public sphere.

But the Internet has also created the reverse problem:  What used to be seen as private speech can now become public speech overnight, with potentially truly harmful consequences.  Or at least the distinction between private speech and public speech on Facebook or on Twitter is rapidly disappearing.

One careless and stupid comment, sent to a few hundred friends and acquaintances, can become viral, can reach hundreds of thousands of strangers, can become "public" speech and, finally, can result in coordinated harassment campaigns, real-world hounding and even the loss of one's livelihood or threats at one's life or the lives of one's family members.

In other words, the form of new censorship Tufekci mentions in the last quote above is now also applied to little people, to messages that were meant to be private or at least semi-private.  It's a little bit like killing mosquitoes with a cannon.

We could argue, of course, that a Twitter account not set private is not private speech.  But I doubt that most of us think about the fact that we are shouting at the world every time we make a comment in social media or at some blog or news site.

So what is public speech today and what is private speech?  Are coordinated harassment campaigns simply more free speech or are they really a form of censorship?  How can we recreate a truly public sphere for speech, one which has all stripes of political views participating, without those nasty revenge attacks?

And what is it about anonymity that so often brings out the evil side of people?  Is that how many online trolls really are, constrained in real space by only the social disapproval of others?  Or are they playing a computer game, not realizing that what they are shooting at are real people? 


I have had this post baking for a while, but reading this story today made me decide that it had baked long enough:

At 16 years old, Australian explorer Jade Hameister is the youngest person to ever complete the polar hat-trick by reaching the North and South Poles and crossing Greenland, but even she has to deal with loudmouth critics who have opined that her place is in the kitchen. In 2016, after the then-14-year-old become the youngest person to ski to the North Pole from outside the last degree of latitude (a distance of about 60 miles), she gave a TEDx talk in Melbourne in which she encouraged young women to embrace an adventurous mindset, and to resist societal pressures that discourage them from their ambitions. Male YouTube commenters took offense to Hameister’s message, as users flooded the page with the phrase, 'Make me a sandwich,' an internet meme that mocks women for having ambitions aside from making food for a man.

You can click the link (or go here) to find out how Hameister dealt with those comments.

In the past we would not have had instant access to the "free speech" of those who decided that a motivational speech by a young girl, aimed at other girls,  would be a good place to tell women that their proper role is to serve men.

Is having that access beneficial?  What did those trolls try to achieve?  To piss on her parade, yes, to tell girls and women that their proper role is a subordinate one, yes, that they should not have uppity dreams, yes.  But what else? Attempting to censor voices like hers?  Is that free speech or its reverse?

And why are YouTube comments such misogynist cesspits?