free speech

The Truth of Trolls

Ladies, that guy who put his hand on your bum after a few drinks, and then apologizes several days later saying it was the alcohol, is lying.  He wanted to do it while sober.  Only the alcohol made it easier to ignore social norms and repercussions.  In reality, it is when he is sober that he is lying!  He was more truthful when the whiskey sours lowered his inhibitions.

And so it is with the online environment.  Several online media outlets, such as NPR and Huffington Post, have banned anonymous comments because they tend to be vitriolic and disrespectful – especially to women.   But there is truth in these comments because social norms are weakened and inhibitions are lowered.

Trump and the Trolls
Pollsters, politicians, and prognosticators were blindsided by Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.  As was I.  However, I can remember speaking to a colleague about Trump, back when he was one of several candidates vying to be the Republican nominee.  I distinctly remember saying to her that the Trump campaign is more viable than people think.  Trump, in my view, was speaking to a disgruntled electorate.

My views at that time were informed by some research I had done on White Nationalist (now called the alt-right).  I had explored a collection of websites, blogs, and podcasts that had several organizing themes.  First was the idea that America should be a white nation, and that non-whites and non-Christians were inherently antithetical to the values and success of the country. Second, the influx of non-whites had already been detrimental.  Since America began becoming less white, the argument went, the economy and international position of America had deteriorated.  Third, this weakening of white Christian America was organized and led by a band of Marxist elites – primarily Jewish.   I could see at that time that if one removed the distasteful veneer of overt racism from these ideas – for example, removing Jewish and replacing it with Washington – they were very appealing to working class white voters.  These groups were articulating ideas that if expressed in public, would mean they would be excoriated and ostracized.  In this way, they were speaking a truth that could only be expressed online.

I could not (and still can’t) quantify how many different voices were in these spaces, but my idea is that it is much more than mainstream America would like to admit.  I believe this because on every anonymous space where comments are allowed I see these themes.  We have given a name to the people who post these types of comments – trolls.  These trolls are dismissed as being mindless, racist, misogynistic, and nativist.  That may be true.  But their opinions are genuine – not people just trying to get a rise out of someone else.

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And this is why I was a bit more prepared for Donald Trump than most.

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#MoreThanMean Means More Than Being More Than Mean

I have a younger sister who I am very protective of.  We talk sometimes about her challenges as a math teacher, and how kids can be difficult and hard to handle.  Especially teenage boys.  My wife works in customer service, and after she tells me about how her day went, I have on more than one occasion wanted to go to blows with the customer who disrespected her.  There is something that cannot be articulated, almost primal, that makes me feel that somehow they, as women, should be treated differently.  With more respect.  Moreover, I feel like had they been men, the interactions would have gone down a bit differently.

And so, when I saw the video from Just Not Sports, where guys read real online comments about women sports reporters to those reporters, I immediately got it.  The comments were tasteless and ridiculously out of line.  These are professionals who are doing a job they are more than qualified for.  If they had penises and adams apples, they would not be getting lobbed such vulgar words.

 

 

And so my right brain is hoping that the PSA changes hearts and minds.

Meanwhile, my left brain was a little wary of the whole thing.  When I listened to The Trifecta on ESPN this weekend, I understood why.  The Trifecta is a weekend radio show hosted by Sarah Spain, Jane McManus and Kate Fagan.  Bomani Jones, also a host of his own show on ESPN but this time a call-in guest, talked about the PSA with the hosts of The Trifecta.  He suggested that management at Twitter needs to be more mindful of what people post, suggesting that Twitter should censor such comments.

Uh-oh.  I know that Jones is speaking about common decency, but censoring people because we do not like what they are saying bleeds into violations of free speech.  To be sure, as a private company, Twitter is well within their right to tell people what they can and cannot post on their space.  But as a democratic, free society, we have to be brave enough to allow people to say things that are off color or unpopular.  The #MoreThanMean PSA has implications that move beyond simply urging people to not be vulgar and disrespectful towards women.  It is a slippery slope in the direction of chocking off public speech on social media.

We should not censor the public sphere – especially in an age where the public sphere is so accessible and so powerful.  In fact, we need to work extra hard to protect the speech of those who are being so disrespectful to women. That’s right.  I am defending the right of people to call women c—.  Just like I defend the right of whites to call black people n—-.  Just like I defend the right of homophobes to call gays and lesbians p—-.  That’s hard stuff, I know.  But until the comments move into identifiable forms of threat, I feel that it is my duty as an American citizen to defend their right to speak the way they want.

I support the idea that unpopular speech is what a democracy is all about.  In Stalin’s USSR unpopular speech was met with a trip to the Gulag, or death.  Speech – in the form of writing and public protests, is what gave the gay and lesbian movement the free space it needed to articulate its concerns.  Being sympathetic to the social and political concerns of women, racial minorities, and sexual minorities was at one time unpopular speech.  Someone, somewhere, thought it was “more than mean” to say that his or her son was born effeminate and had sexual desires for men.  He or she probably thought it was vulgar, and that person should not be allowed to speak in public forums, write in newspapers, or give lectures on college campuses. 

I agree with the underlying sentiment behind the #MoreThanMean PSA.  But unfortunately, if a listener feels so aggrieved that they wish to send an off color, vulgar tweet to Sarah Spain or any other host that is female (black, Christian fundamentalist, or Muslim as well) it is my responsibility as a lover of liberty to defend that scumbag’s right to tweet it.

 

 

 

A Call for Nonprofit Social Media. Or, How to Maintain Free Speech in the Digital Environment

I am currently trying to  learn a little bit about hate speech laws and how they are applied in the digital environment.  My main reference here is a great introductory book on the laws that govern new media by Ashley Packard, entitled Digital Media Law.

Here is what I (think I) know so far:

  • The First Amendment protects speech, expression, and group assembly from government suppression.  You can say almost anything.  Of course some forms of speech can and will be suppressed by the government.  For example, speech can be restricted if it interferes with military plans, is obscene, or is meant to incite a violent overthrow of the government.  But by and large, restraints on speech are very narrow.  And, as Erik Bleich’s book about free speech The Freedom to be Racist  details, American courts have repeatedly reinforced freedom of speech over the course of the 20th century.  The situation is very much the opposite in Europe.  As an example, since the mid-90’s it is criminal to publish anything that incites racial hatred in the United Kingdom.  Meanwhile you can see a Klan member on Jerry Springer every third Thursday here in the states.
  • Packard writes that, when judging whether or not a government regulation constrains free speech on public property, the Supreme Court adopts a forum analysis.  There are three types of forums, each requiring more or less protection.  A traditional public forum is one that has historically been a venues for free speech.  Picture John Adams holding forth on street corner in Colonial times, sidestepping horse manure, holding forth on the essence of liberty.  These traditional public forums have been given the most free speech protection.  People standing on street corners, assembling in front of town halls, or handing out pamphlets to passersby are generally not bothered by government.   Some forums are not traditionally public, but are forums designated for public use.  These forums, like a school auditorium open for a debate, can be regulated by the government.  However, this regulation cannot be discriminatory – a city government cannot hold a public forum and only allow Republicans to speak.  A third type of public property, nonpublic forums are integral to the maintenance of society, and government has the right to restrict speech there.  These would be bridges, polling places, and subway stations.  Packard writes that although the Internet has been given full First Amendment Protection, the Supreme Court has not recognized it as a public forum.

There are a few things about these basic foundations for free speech that are troubling to me, and lead me to believe that we as a society should consider supporting nonprofit forms of social media.  Let me explain….

 

We have strong protections of free speech in the US.  This is a good thing...even for Klan members who go on Jerry Springer.

We have strong protections of free speech in the US. This is a good thing…even for Klan members who go on Jerry Springer.

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