Weird Internet Ideas: The “Free” Speech of the Bully

It has been interesting watching the right struggle with their concept of free speech recently. Over the past few years “free speech” had been a rallying cry for far-right trolls demanding sufficient latitude on online platforms to lie, bully and harass others. As such trolls navigate willingly and unwillingly to their own bespoke platforms, they discovered that they also needed rules and restrictions on how they interacted. I discussed some specifics in this post but I wanted to revise some things that I said then.

Meanwhile, in the arena of American professional sport, players are kneeling during the playing of their national anthem in a very dignified and respectful protest against killings by the police. Donald Trump (who strange as it may seem is President of the USA) has called for players protesting in this way to be fired. The right is piling on in support of Donald Trump despite this being clearly a case of the US government (in the form of its highest officer) attempting to stifle the speech of citizens. It is notable how rarely the right even mentions what these players are protesting and instead claiming they are protesting against “the flag” or the “national anthem” rather than “the state murdering citizens”. It as if circumstances have conspired to create the easiest ethical test for anybody claiming to support freedom (a short, non-violent, respectful protest against state-sanctioned killings) and the right consistently failing that test and siding with the suppression of freedom.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s Department of Justice is attempting to access identifying information from internet providers on subscribers to an anti-Donald Trump website – a move that should alarm everybody, indeed a move that should alarm everybody on the right if they stopped for a moment and considered that the POTUS won’t be a far-right Republican forever.

And for an extra topping of ironic-juxtaposition sauce, Jess Sessions is unhappy at the idea of people protesting him when he gives a lecture on free-speech: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/09/26/jeff_sessions_speech_condemned_by_georgetown_law_professors_who_kneeled.html

Ethicists and political scientist often struggle with making sense of the apparent contradictions on the far right or within fascism. In part, this is because there is a tendency both within logic and within ethical reasoning to assume a degree of universality within principles. When the alt-right et al says “free speech” it has only the appearance of an appeal to a general principle whereas the principle they are appealing to is more akin to this:

“I (the specific rightwing individual) or my kind (flexibility defined) should be able to say what we like, when we like without any restriction and without any criticism or protest or consequences as a result.”

The “free-speech” they crave is not a universal for everybody but rather a specific lack of restriction on them which in turns implies restrictions on the speech of others. Understanding this resolves the apparent contradictions in somebody like Vox Day demanding the right to call innocent people ‘pedophiles’ on the internet while also demanding that social media platforms do their utmost to prevent others calling him a ‘pedophile’ for similar political motives. Or, take Andrew Torba the CEO of Gab praising Donald Trump’s call for protestors to be sacked while claiming his site is a champion of free speech. Torba has rationalised this publicly by saying that the protests are protected speech only “from the government” and not from “fans/biz owners” even though he doesn’t make this distinction when it comes to the “biz owners” of Twitter.

The logic knots come not from their underlying concept of free speech (see above) – which is nasty & evil but not logically inconsistent – but rather from their need to appear to be appealing to some kind of universal principle. Universal principles despite their abstract nature are more rhetorically appealing because they offer something to everybody. Torba, in particular, can’t sell a business on the principle of “free speech for specifically Andrew Torba,” as that offers his consumers nothing. Vox Day is more clear that his comment sections are only ‘free speech’ for his own in-crowd but still tries to claim that he is following some kind of less solipsistic principle because of his flawed cosplay as an intellectual.

Yet this flim-flam around “free speech” works for them. It draws in libertarians and some liberal defenders. It also appeals on a more intuitive level. Having to be careful about what you say is stressful – it taxes your working memory. Yet in any sane society, we all have to navigate how we talk to people around us just out of basic manners. Which takes us to the idea that marries the faux free-speech narrative, the alt-right, trump and trolls. The principle they want is not free speech but bullies speech – the principle of all bullies that they get to say what they want and everybody else doesn’t.

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26 thoughts on “Weird Internet Ideas: The “Free” Speech of the Bully”

  1. I think the lion’s share of the problem on the Internet is anonymous speech. If there were an easy way for a site to decide to ban all anonymous posting, I think the lion’s share of the bullying would go away. Not all of it, but 90% of it. There are a few places that really do need to enable anonymous posting (e.g. a site offering advice to closeted gay people), but for the vast majority of us, anonymous speech on the Internet has been a big negative.

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    1. Maybe – I’m pseudonymous obviously whereas there is no shortage of unpleasant people who use their real names. I’m also seeing more corporate policing of employees social media which imposes risk-averse restrictions on what people might say (e.g. Don’t be controversial). So a lack of anonymity would not be a level playing field. On the other hand it might lead to less thoughtless sharing/repetition of toxic content.

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      1. camestrosfelapton: a lack of anonymity would not be a level playing field. On the other hand it might lead to less thoughtless sharing/repetition of toxic content.

        Elimination of anonymity would also have a huge muzzling and intimidation effect, as people who dared to express their opinions online became the targets of harassment, rape and death threats, home “visits”, and physical assault by people like CUL who think that these are appropriate responses to someone saying something they don’t like.

        If anonymity was no longer possible, we would pretty much see women disappear from the online conversation because of this.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. I’m not sure anonymity matters so much as the sheer geographical distance. So what if some guy 5 hours drive away/on another continent/across the ocean knows my name & hates me because I’ve bullied him? What are the real consequences to me?
      Until there are some (courts taking words on the net seriously, communities & families shunning outed net trolls, account bans that can’t be circumvented), forget it.

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      1. The harassment thing cuts both ways. The people posting online abuse are equally visible, and likely to face retaliation from their employers. Or criticism from their friends and relatives. The fact that we care what people think has a substantial effect on the things we say and do in real life. The online world is so harsh precisely because anonymity strips those controls away.

        I’m sure there would be a number of people who would decline to comment in public forums–they’d only use anonymous ones. And I think people would be a lot more careful what they said in non-anonymous forums. The result would be that the quality of the non-anonymous forums would be much, much higher. Or so I think.

        Note that I’m not proposing we eliminate anonymous ones–just that we make it possible to have forums that are not anonymous.

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      2. And Facebook has a much higher quality of discussion than the average comment section on a blog or new site. You do see trolls there, but if you block them, they’re gone. They can’t easily come back under a different name.

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      3. greghullender: And I think it disproves the claim that no women would ever use it.

        No, it doesn’t. On Facebook, women have the ability to keep non-Friends from seeing and/or commenting on their own walls, and they have the ability to block people who harass them from seeing their posts anywhere on Facebook.

        In most online forums, that ability doesn’t exist, and the abusers would quickly intimidate most women into shutting up and/or going away.

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      4. You’re definitely right that more controls than simply anonymous/not-anonymous are necessary. However, there are plenty of women on Facebook who do make comments that are public.

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      5. I’ve had someone on a different continent soliciting people who lived in my country to beat me up for being an Internet loud mouth. So I prefer anonymity.

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      6. RD F: I’ve had someone on a different continent soliciting people who lived in my country to beat me up for being an Internet loud mouth. So I prefer anonymity.

        I’ve had 3 stalkers; 2 before the internet age. The most recent knew my real identity, and contacted a bunch of people with whom I am friends or acquaintances on Facebook, trying to find out where I worked so that they could contact my employer and tell them what a horrible person I am. My crime? Voicing my opinion on the Internet. According to this person, I needed to be taught a lesson.

        Fortunately, the harassment stopped when they entered residency in a mental health facility in another city and presumably had bigger things to worry about.

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    3. The studies that have been made on internet forums shows that making people use their own names is not enough by itself. The key word is accountability. The reason anonymity is bad idea in some cases is mostly because it makes it harder to hold people accountable.

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      1. I agree. More is required than simply using real names. Facebook gets some of this because people feel some pressure from their friends and relatives, but something more comprehensive would be ideal.

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      2. yeah, there are plenty of awful people who are more than happy to express horrific views in public under their real name — and plenty of others who will defend them from even the mildest of consequences cos something something Voltaire.

        my feeling is that this is an issue of moderation more than anonymity. there’s an inability/refusal of most of the larger platforms to even uphold their own terms of service; they’re often wildly inconsistent even when they do, presumably because their moderation processes are over-automated and understaffed. many of them seem to roll out new features without the slightest consideration for how they might be used for harassment.

        and there’s this more general attitude that toxic people and communities should be protected and given a platform, regardless of the harm that will inflict on others ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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  2. It’s not even a matter of just wanting to be a bully and swagger around doing as they like. They don’t really care about winning the battles they fight; they care about being able to force the conversation to occur, over and over, making it part of the culture, and they care about control in the society and the law by constantly arguing for forms of destined feudalism. It’s political action on a long campaign towards political and military power and it’s going to happen whether people are “anonymous” or not. These folks don’t want democracies; they don’t care about free speech. They want hierarchical autocracies with aristocrat classes based on whatever they see themselves as that would then place/keep them in power as the right and the just rulers. When they have fights among themselves, it’s about not being given enough deference and power in that long campaign (and often then not getting the financial benefit out of it they feel owed.)

    Free speech is just a handy, liberal idea that is in the U.S. Constitution and elsewhere that they wield as an excuse for forcing conversations — and threats — about autocracy. They don’t care if they themselves even have free speech or civil rights under the existing laws; the important thing is to declare equal civil rights invalid and a threat, one way or another. The leaders of these suppression movements are not anonymous — they are quite out in the open. Many of them have built fortunes and/or political careers out of it. The Internet is simply for them a large megaphone that lets them continually force people to justify and prove their humanity and equality — their worthiness to exist and have any rights. Even if those targeted people successfully do this, their having to do it supports and reinforces the anti-democracy social and legal hierarchies we have — people have to petition for their civil rights to the “rulers.”

    These people search for any conversation on civil rights — and then demand that the conversation justify its existence and prove itself not a threat — those who want equal rights petition the rulers, which is not equality or free speech. They go for targeted people who might simply be discussing knitting or sports and attack them, demanding conversation and justification of their existence, their views, their rights to talk unharrassed by their “betters.” They regard all of this as reinforcing and building the autocratic hierarchies they want.

    Ignoring them, however, does not work either, since that means they just double down on their efforts to provoke conversation and to intimidate and prove their legal and cultural power. We have to keep having the conversation about civil rights to get anywhere with civil rights; we can’t cede our free speech. When there are more of us supporting civil rights, civil rights progress. The Internet opens up great means of communication for that — but it also allows those who have greatly benefited from hierarchies to organize an army of disaffected autocracy lovers of various stripes to be able to scream very loudly and be heard and be part of the media. And to be violent and often get away with it. But basically they aren’t just trying to bully — they are trying to keep the picture of society from changing by throwing an awful lot of rocks.

    Some of those rocks are literally physical. Some have killed people. You can’t say let’s just strip off anonymous options and expose people to further threats of death. That will silence an awful lot of voices and it won’t silence most of the autocrats. It creates fewer rights and more autocracy, just as telling women that they can’t walk alone at night because they might be seen and raped represses them trapped in their homes. The big sites have perfectly effective ways to deal with violent hate speech/mob harassment — they just don’t want to have to spend money and time implementing them. And the reality is that most of them — Facebook, Twitter, Google, Reddit, etc. are run by autocrats themselves who are okay with the status quo that brings them so much money and power. They’ll ignore the problem most of the time and proclaim themselves helpless to solve it — “just the way it is.”

    The way it is can change — that’s why they have to bother to pretend to care about free speech in making their arguments. That’s why they don’t want to be called racists or misogynists, that’s why white people invoke Martin Luther King Jr. to support prejudice against POC, when their ancestors reviled him, etc. But they are trying to slow it down so that they can grab/keep power and feel still in control and righteous, still have a hierarchy.

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    1. When I was a gay activist, I always used me real name, and over a 20-year period I had four credible death threats. (Credible means the police took them seriously.) I didn’t let that stop me because I believed in my cause. In that fight, we have made incredible gains, and those gains have come entirely though the actions of people like me–not people who cowered in the closet.

      Anonymity on the Internet only protects our oppressors. It lets them make threats and evade detection. You need anonymity when you’re ashamed of what you’re saying or doing. Yes, there is a cost in being visible. People who are willing to pay that cost are the ones who deserve to win.

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      1. I’ve become increasingly anonymous. Two areas of debate in particular have been particularly fraught: gun rights and Israel/Palestine both of which have led to threats of violence and incitement sufficient to cause me concern.

        A different side of that. Since 2015 and this specific identity – being on the net with a not-obviously-masculine name has meant far, far more sexualised insults and comments.

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      2. I haven’t gotten hurt yet so all the other people have to go risk their families is not a good argument. It’s especially not a really good argument for men to make towards women, for whom threats are far more frequent with little provocation (existing online is enough,) and far more often very credible. We’ve had women had to flee their homes. We’ve had bomb threats. And we’ve had women die as open activists because they weren’t anonymous or got doxxed. We’ve had trans activists murdered, gay people murdered. They just found the body of a trans teen, a trans woman was killed in my daughter’s college town. If people want to participate in online life — not activism, just simply online life, or talking about a sexual assault or mental health problem and getting help, etc. — insisting that they all risk their necks to do it, trying to control how they get to participate, just reinforces those autocratic hierarchies we already have. If we’re all equal, we all get to equally decide how we’ll participate. Cowardness has nothing to do with it, especially for people protecting their kids. A number of authors use pseudonyms/pen names and participate in limited ways online because of life and publishing circumstances — you gonna restrict their careers? How are you going to handle the lawsuits to the big companies when someone gets killed for participating on their site and couldn’t do so anonymously?

        And it’s also unnecessary. The big sites are fully capable of using programs and algorithms to curb toxic trolls, criminal scams and bots that don’t require a lack of anonymity — they sporadically do so now. The tech folk have outlined all sorts of things they can further do to fix it — they just don’t want to do them because effort, money and/or worry that they’ll lose revenue doing it. (It’s the same reason all the game companies were cowardly about denouncing Gamergaters.) Facebook did not have to sell ads to the Russians for Trump, Stein and Sanders. They could easily have had in place safeguards — which they are now putting into place because they got caught selling the ads. That doesn’t mean that people can’t have anonymity on Facebook. It means Facebook needs to do a better job. The folks at Reddit knew full well they had entire sub-forums full of pedophilia and teen stalking — they never did anything about it except when there was a threat of lawsuits. Then they would get rid of some stuff — which they could have done at any time, thanks to their Terms of Service. They just don’t enforce their terms of service because they are libertarian autocrats.

        It’s not going to eliminate all of it, if the big western sites do better diligence — the Web is too big, servers can be anywhere. There are crypto-currencies being used by human traffickers and arms dealers on the Web. Asia has a giant slice of the web and we don’t even bother to know what’s going on there, most of the time. Teenagers in Macedonia trying to make some cash helped Trump win the U.S. election. But if the main sites would follow their own stated procedures and use some actual protection programs, that would make harassment a lot harder to do and cut out a lot of the sock puppets. It would create more public spaces for more people to freely speak, anonymous or not. But so far, they don’t find it worth it.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Back in the 1990s, the local paper had published lots of heated letters from me and from opponents on various gay-related issues over the previous year or so. (It was like Facebook, but slower.) One day I came home to find a message on my answering machine telling me to stop writing letters to the editor about homosexuality or else “I’ll put a bullet in your brain.” It was a really long rant–much of it was incoherent screaming–and there was a lot in there about “God’s will.”

    I should add that screaming and yelling messages weren’t uncommon; I’d usually get two or three of those after each letter. It was the explicit death threat that made this one unusual, and so I reported it to the police.

    Caller ID was just a year or two away, so the only way to catch him was for the police to set up a “phone trap” and for met to get him to call again. The police wanted to pursue it as a hate crime, so I wrote another letter to the editor, saying this just showed what Christians really meant by “love the sinner but hate the sin.”

    And he was dumb enough to call again. Turned out he just lived two miles away.

    What I like to remember about the episode, however, is that the four or five people who’d been arguing bitterly with me all that time abruptly became supportive. I actually met some of them in person for the first time, and although we didn’t change our minds, we had pleasant conversations and even agreed on some things.

    After that, all the fizz went out of our letters. It was a lot harder to be quite so angry with people you’d shared a laugh with over coffee. But I like to think I ultimately did a lot of good for my cause by standing up, being seen, and putting a human face on homosexuality for them.

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    1. Perhaps; it is your right to stand up and be visible, and

      It is not your right to insist that others must stand up and be visible when they have valid worries about being attacked for standing up, often with the support of their own families or the apparatus of the state.

      People have been having this argument for a while. Yes, anonymity allows people to feel free to spew hatred, but a lot of them seem willing to spew hatred anyway. Removing anonymity will mean that, for example, questioning teenagers won’t feel free to ask about GLBT issues if they have reason to fear being thrown out of the house by their own parents for being ‘sinners’.

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      1. But I did not insist that others stand up. I just want to be able to have forums where anonymous people cannot participate. I never said that all forums should be that way. Put a different way, I resent being forced to include anonymous people in every discussion.

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    2. Sorry, got distracted. The first line should have read:
      ‘Perhaps; it is your right to stand up and be visible, and it is a very good thing that some people do so in order to make progress’.

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