Provocateur Alex Jones’ ongoing rampage across social media recently encountered at least a speed bump and perhaps a cliff as Spotify, Apple, Google, Facebook and – when he tried to use it as a last-ditch refuge, Vimeo – purged the bulk of his content from their sites (in addition, as I was writing this, Twitter levied a seven day ban after he linked a video that urged his supporters to get their “battle rifles” ready for the media and others). This has created something of a fractious debate among both conservatives and liberals, splitting along what have become some very familiar seams. What are the limits on free speech, if any? Who gets to decide those limits? Is banning someone for harassment and hate speech the first step down a slippery slope of censorship? Isn’t it deeply wrong for Our Corporate Overlords to be the adjudicators of appropriate discourse? But if someone, somewhere, doesn’t start setting some limits, will there be anything left of our so-called civil society? And so we go, chasing our tails.
The Two-Pronged Problem
It’s perhaps no great insight to suggest that this is a two-pronged problem, encompassing both truthfulness and civility. A casual perusal of the Facebook page of a conservative-leaning acquaintance particularly prone to a lack of both provides a glimpse into what I’m talking about.
“If you can get arrested for hunting or fishing without a license, but not for entering and remaining in the country illegally — you might live in a nation that was founded by geniuses but is run by idiots.” (Part of a long post that runs in this vein, falsely attributed to comedian Jeff Foxworthy.)
A long list of ways that LIBERALS [sic] “ruined” Social Security. (So full of misinformation that the official Social Security Administration web site contains two pages of corrections specifically addressing its claims.)
“In San Francisco, you can be jailed for using a plastic straw. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the city hands out MILLIONS of free syringes. About 1,680,000 of them end up littering the sidewalks evry [sic] year. This is your brain on Marxism.” (Santa Barbara, not San Francisco, proposed jail time for providing, not using, plastic straws, and there was such a furious response from all quarters that they changed their minds. And what any of this has to do with class conflict in capitalist societies…I’m not sure.)
Of course liberals aren’t immune to this phenomenon – such as arguably puerile antics like posting (obviously Photoshopped) unflattering pictures of President Trump accompanied by the caption, “I bet he’d hate to see this shared widely!” It’s a species of behavior that gets them painted as condescending, not entirely without reason. And misrepresentation certainly occurs – false attribution to George Carlin of biting commentary about conservatives seems to be a particular favorite (and both sides love to pull out random quotes pasted over images of assorted Founding Fathers), as well as taking remarks out of context and abusing statistics.
But if in my experience the liberal end of the spectrum is often more susceptible to truth-shaming via PolitiFact, Snopes, Wikipedia, or just good old-fashioned primary research, civility is still in short supply.
Free Speech and Censorship
Alex Jones is a poster child for someone who lives in a truth and civility-free zone far beyond any of the relatively tame examples listed above. His InfoWars site is notorious for propagating lies such as an innocuous pizzeria being the center of a Democratic party child-sex ring, or the Sandy Hook shooting that killed twenty elementary school children and six adults being a hoax perpetrated by some shadowy force bent on curtailing our freedoms. He has an audience who takes his every word as gospel, his protestations that it is all “entertainment” notwithstanding, and who are not shy about using social media – or in the case of the pizzeria, walking into the restaurant with a gun – to harass the victims of his lies.
Then Jones turns around and cloaks his malice in “free speech,” telling everyone to back off. And for the most part people do, because freedom of speech is a sacred principle woven into the very fabric of our nation. But here’s the thing: Alex Jones being banned from social media isn’t precisely about free speech, though he would like us to think so. It’s about censorship. And these concepts are not precisely the same.
Earlier this year, USA Today published a useful article on what is and isn’t protected by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees. Under is we have the usual suspects: public protests, public speaking, compelled speech (which a Colorado baker used to deny service to a same-sex couple in a case that floated all the way to the Supreme Court), and as a subset of free speech guarantees, censorship.
See! you might exclaim, censorship isn’t allowed! But censorship is a particular flavor of speech limitation, with a little more wiggle room than some others. As discussed in an ACLU article on the subject, it is unconstitutional for the government to engage in censorship. But private individuals and groups may legally wield their own right to free speech to pressure organizations to restrict content that they find offensive (the ACLU regards this as often dangerous, but it is permissible). Those organizations in turn have the right to acquiesce or to decline to take action. Complaints and cancellations from users, for example, are what motivated Spotify to remove podcasts by both Alex Jones and InfoWars.
So the waters are muddied when individuals such as Alex Jones decry violations of free speech when what they are actually being subjected to is censorship. And this is compounded further by the muddy place social media occupies in the sphere of public discourse.
Restaurants, Publishers, and County Supervisors
I don’t attend county supervisor meetings very often, but when I do there is inevitably someone (I’m looking at you, neighbors down the street), who reserves public speaking time in order to rant at the supervisors about their ill-considered political principles, their unwillingness to enact much-needed change (generally regarding things that they don’t have any control over anyway), and their overall laziness, cupidity, and stupidity. And through it all the supervisors hunch in their chairs like sad turtles while the rest of us in the audience roll our eyes and wait for it to be over so we can go back to discussing zoning for increased population density or whether we want to triple the number of oil-bearing trains rolling past our properties.
And why do we have to endure this when the vast majority of the public and I imagine all of the county supervisors wish we could frogmarch them back to their seats or even out of city hall? Because this is a fully public space, this is democracy in action. Spaces like these are where the fewest restrictions on free speech are acceptable.
Contrast this with a restaurant, which has extensive control over what patrons it will tolerate within its walls. While there are some universal prohibitions on denying service due to a customer’s race, religion, or nationality, beyond that restaurants are generally only required to be consistent in the application of their rules. (Political affiliation is protected in some localities but not others, which is why the Virginia-based Red Hen was allowed to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, whereas a restaurant in Washington D.C. could not have done so.)
For further contrast, consider a publisher, who has total control over what they will and won’t accept. You can send a manuscript but they can deny it for any reason they like, including not wanting to deal with the consequences of censorship (for a classic example, see the struggle that Random House had back in the early 1900s with the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which involved what would now likely be considered illegal government intervention).
Social media occupies an uncomfortably vague space between a restaurant and a publisher. There are people that just want to sit at their virtual table, sharing photos of grandchildren and vacations that they know are of little interest beyond their immediate friends and family. There are groups who share special interests such as video games or gardening or pizza making, who often wall themselves off in the social media equivalent of banquet rooms in order to limit who can access their content.
There are individuals who for all intents and purposes run businesses on social media, publishing videos and class schedules, offering tips on products and “share this for a chance to win!” promotions, and just generally taking advantage of free publicity that they would otherwise have to pay for in ad buys in more traditional publishing venues such as newspapers, magazines, or television.
And there are individuals with agendas to push, who use social media to inform and fire up allies, and to seek out new ones who they encourage to share their agenda in turn (the above excerpts from Facebook were all reposts, not my acquaintance’s original thoughts). Again these are people who ordinarily would have had to pay for the privilege of disseminating their messages, and who might have faced rejection by a publisher before their words ever hit print or video: either for being untruthful or because they crossed a line of decorum.
So how does this map onto restaurants and publishers and county supervisor meetings? On the one hand inappropriate, counterfactual, or scurrilous conversation in a restaurant is transitory and private (unless you have the misfortune of being recorded, but this is generally frowned on unless all parties are aware of it), but on YouTube or Facebook can linger indefinitely unless the poster decides to take it down. Speech emanating from a traditional publishing venue is more long-lasting, but vetted prior to dissemination. So social media outlets have to juggle spontaneity and persistence, across a user population that runs the gamut from highly private, to self-interested, to outright nefarious.
What We Want Out of Social Media, What Social Media Wants Out of Us
But if they can, why do they wield them so seldom, and why is there such vehement opposition when they do? With regard to the latter, some may just be mistrust of the Corporate Overlords. A study on denial of service to same-sex and interracial couples found that respondents’ attitudes toward refusal of service varied according to who was doing the rejecting, with 61% endorsing refusal by a self-employed individual versus 31% when a corporation was involved. And this certainly tallies with what I was reading on Facebook in the aftermath of the Alex Jones ban and in the endless media analyses of its propriety: there was a feeling in some quarters that decisions on appropriate speech shouldn’t be left up to corporations because they were too likely to abuse that power, or use it capriciously.
We err on the side of allowing content, even when some find it objectionable, unless removing that content can prevent a specific harm. Moreover, at times we will allow content that might otherwise violate our standards if we feel that it is newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest.
Erring on the side of allowing content is, of course, how Russian bots are made. So I confess I worry less about corporate capriciousness in policing content for correctness and civility and more about their desire to not police their content at all. Since these sites make the bulk of their money from advertising and data collection it is, after all, in their financial interest not to ban users casually. And the cynic in me wonders if that was why Facebook was willing to take such quick action on Russian bots: they weren’t going to be part of their advertising base anyway. This is why boycotts can be effective tools of legal censorship, and were in this instance with Alex Jones and Spotify: if the cost of keeping offensive content outweighs offending the purveyors of said content, then consequences are likely to accrue.
But does it have to be this way? There are community oriented sites that are far stricter in their enforcement of standards, and nary a peep of dissent is heard from their users. How do they pull it off, and why does it work?
Wikipedia, contrary to the claim in some quarters that “anyone can post anything they want,” is a tightly regulated site. Their list of policies and guidelines, as perhaps befits an encyclopedia, is extensive, although in general all rules flow from what they refer to as the Five Pillars:
- Wikipedia is an encyclopedia
- Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view
- Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit and distribute
- Wikipedia’s editors should treat each other with respect and civility
- Wikipedia has no firm rules
This last might seem like a recipe for trouble. But there is a page dedicated to clarification, referred to as a beginner’s guide to ignoring all rules, which includes caveats such as Don’t cite Ignore All Rules for acting like an idiot, Don’t use it to try to create rifts in the community, and Don’t use it in an attempt to get around WP:CONSENSUS (deleting stuff that people disagree with in an article, for example).
The article concludes by saying, Think of it like “free speech”. It exists, but there are limitations, and then helpfully links to an additional article about restrictions on speech on Wikipedia, adding, “Wikipedia is not censored, but it does not provide a platform for all forms of human expression. Wikipedia is not a soapbox, not an anarchy, and not a personal blog or webhost.”
While there may be some built-in vagueness in specific rules, there is no vagueness of purpose: content providers are either Here to Build an Encyclopedia or not, and if the community decides the answer is “not,” the would-be contributors are likely to find themselves banned or blocked. Wikipedia makes it abundantly clear what they expect of contributors, both intellectually and behaviorally. Being “here to build an encyclopedia” is what allows Wikipedia to claim that censorship – the banning of material that is obscene, politically unacceptable or threatening – is not what they’re about when they revise or delete content. Material isn’t banned because it’s morally or politically inappropriate, but because it doesn’t contribute to Wikipedia’s overarching goal of being a neutral, reliable source of information.
Stack Overflow, a website where software developers congregate to ask questions and provide answers in their various areas of expertise, has such a narrowly limited scope that it doesn’t generally have to deal with the content side of censorship. It does, however, have to come to grips with civility in a user base that is not known for its humility and patience, and has one of the clearest codes of conduct I’ve seen, even going so far as to provide examples of how to correct inappropriate posts: gently suggesting, for example, that in place of “You could Google this in 5 seconds” it would be more helpful to say, “This is called Invariance and Covariance. If you Google it, you’ll find tutorials that can explain it much better than we can in an answer here.”
They also employ the concepts of reputation and badges to distinguish between more and less helpful users. Reputation is earned by posting questions and answers that the community deems helpful via a system of upvotes (and lost via downvotes for inappropriate or unhelpful content). High reputation unlocks additional privileges on the site, such as the ability to comment, or edit other’s posts. It has been such a successful model that The Stack Exchange Network sells the template on which it is based for groups and corporations to build custom communities.
Of course neither Wikipedia nor Stack Overflow are completely free of conflict. On Wikipedia editorial arguments break out that sometimes devolve into acrimony (and humor – fights over what image to use for the article on bathrobes, anyone?), but at least a detailed framework is in place to resolve the more damaging of these disputes (and a long discussion of whether an article on arachnophobia should have an accompanying image of a spider is rather a fascinating glimpse into the minds of editors).
At least one IEEE paper has attacked the usefulness of some of Stack Overflow’s information, claiming that developers in the Android ecosystem who consulted it wrote significantly less secure code than programmers who used the official Android documentation or books on the subject. And on the civility front, the original Stack Overflow has been criticized for an overemphasis on flame wars and down voting, as well as encouraging peculiar gender dynamics such as women masquerading as men to avoid misogynistic remarks and men impersonating women in the belief that they’ll be judged less harshly.
But Facebook saw something sufficiently promising in the concept of reputation in particular that they have been testing implementing a similar system themselves. Facebook being Facebook, the methodology by which they calculate reputation is highly opaque, which disturbs some individuals even while others come to the corporation’s defense, claiming with some justification that transparency just results in bad faith attempts to game the system.
In the final analysis though, it’s an open question how well any of these strategies would translate to social media, where as we’ve seen the range of discourse is far wider than Wikipedia or Stack Overflow, the corporate gatekeepers of civility far less trusted, and the user population prone to wielding up and downvotes like middle fingers. So what do we have left to us?
I’m going to divert for a moment to an unlikely place, video games. I play an MMO called Guild Wars 2. It has the “create and level a character through a variety of activities” common to the genre, and in particular new abilities are unlocked through the accumulation of currencies known in-game as hero and mastery points. These are not always easy to obtain, often either located in difficult to reach places or gated behind enemies that take more than a handful of players to bring down. It can be frustrating, and especially in the later stages of the game feel nearly impossible to advance any further.
Enter the Commanders. I was playing the other weekend when a bright pink chevron showed up on my map, and shortly after a message popped up in global chat: “HP run Maguuma, gliders required, mounts encouraged, meet at Northwatch Descent.” My husband and I immediately warped over to Northwatch Descent and began an hourlong, whirlwind run through the region with so many other players that it was sometimes difficult to figure out which character was yours. We netted 120 hero points in that hour, and the run was still going strong when we dropped off to eat dinner.
This feat was possible because of that little pink chevron, which heralded the presence of a Commander: an individual who has played the game long enough and skillfully enough to meet the requirements necessary to earn the title (and the collection of colored chevrons that they can turn on to advertise their presence in game). Commanders who display their chevron are frequently announcing their intent to engage in some activity of benefit to the community, and other players will often flock to their location even if they haven’t spoken up in global chat just to see what might be going on.
That evening’s hero point run got me to thinking about the idea of “earned attention.” Raw hours played won’t net you a Commander title in Guild Wars 2, and neither will mere popularity. You have to have not only played the game, but played it well, and only then have you earned the right to freely and conspicuously advertise to others, “Hey, I’m out here, and I have something of value to offer!” Might there be a way to apply this lesson to social media?
And that led me to the notion of influencers. People who use social media to share video of their latest Yosemite trip, or to chat about bad movies they’ve seen, or even to engage in poor taste discussions, rightfully resent the specter of censorship: because they are doing the online equivalent of dining in a restaurant, conversing in a quasi-public venue but not with the intent of broadcasting their content to everyone online. People who are running businesses fit fairly closely into that same space: they have opened up a virtual store front to market goods, but they aren’t trying to sway public opinion.
But what about people who use it as a publishing platform, to evade the vetting to which their content might ordinarily be subjected? People who are uninterested in truth or civility, and who attempt to wield their influence on social media to foster distrust, to promote conspiracy theories, to spread propaganda, or just for the cynical laughs? Okay, maybe it’s fair to be uncomfortable with bans on their speech, but it strikes me as equally fair to be uncomfortable with promoting it either, as all too frequently occurs by side effect in popularity-based systems like Facebook and YouTube.
Of course there would be complaints that the panel is biased, or that truth is subjective, or just whining about the whole system not being fair. But if the Alex Jones’ of the world stormed off of Facebook and YouTube in a huff to found their own sites, I think I’d call that a win.
Slopes that Aren’t Slippery
Leaving all that aside, I still think the companies who chose to remove Alex Jones’ content did not do a bad thing. Yes, having a reflexive opposition to censorship is not a terrible starting point. As the American Library’s Banned Books Week and its lists of banned and challenged books reveal, we would be the poorer as a society if everything that offended anyone were removed from public view.
But if it were my child who died at Sandy Hook and I had to go into hiding because crazed followers were threatening me, or if I were eating in a pizzeria when someone walked in with a gun to expose a non-existent ring of child slavers, I think I’d be pouring a toast to Spotify and YouTube. It’s worth keeping in mind that slippery slope arguments are often fallacious, and not infrequently rooted in fear-mongering (“If we allow gays to marry, next thing people will be marrying their dogs!”). And it serves individuals like Alex Jones to threaten us with freedom of speech as a slippery slope, because it allows them to keep spewing their toxic lies.
But it doesn’t serve his victims nor, I think, a civil society.