Thursday, October 06, 2016

Freedom of speech in the digital age

I noticed today that the user "Ricky Vaughn" has been kicked off of Twitter. "Ricky" was a key figure in the alt-right on Twitter, which means that he was a proponent of white-nationalism. He thought that nonwhite immigration is ruining America, that it should be stopped, that there are all kinds of natural differences between races, etc. etc. I had a long and pretty civil discussion with Ricky about a year ago, about immigration, etc. I eventually blocked him, not because of anything he did, but because when he replied to or retweeted me it would result in my mentions getting flooded by a hundred screeching Nazis yelling "get in my oven", etc. I just don't have time for that stuff.

Anyway, Ricky has been booted, just as Milo Yiannopolous was booted. The moves echo a general move by conversation platforms to crack down on alt-right harassment - Reddit's banning of the "gas the kikes" subreddit and 4chan's crackdown on GamerGate are other examples.

Obviously this has upset the alt-right a great deal (though with those guys it's hard to tell). The bannings of Ricky and Milo have been met with frantic cries for Twitter and other platforms to uphold "free speech." Many on the left respond that "freedom of speech" only applies to the government, and that private companies can and should do as they please. (This is an interesting reversal of the traditional position, which saw conservatives take a more libertarian stance. It reflects how our culture's dominant values are in the process of switching from traditionalist to modernist.)

In the old days, the liberals would easily win this argument. Newspapers and other traditional media platforms don't just censor, they also edit. They present a very carefully curated set of voices - letters to the editor, op-eds, and articles. No one would argue that the New York Times has a moral obligation to publish op-eds or letters saying "Gas the kikes". The presumption has always been that if you didn't like what the Times was serving up, you could go read a different newspaper, or start your own. In fact, many many people did exactly that. As long as the government didn't send its jack-booted thugs to shut down your paper, freedom of speech was upheld.

However, new media technologies have changed the game. Should our ideal of "freedom of speech" be different in the age of Twitter and Reddit than in the age of the New York Times and the New York Post?

Some say yes. Scott Alexander brings up the important point that many tech platforms are natural monopolies. This applies especially to Twitter and Facebook (though not as much to Reddit). There's only one Twitter, and there's only one Facebook, for a reason - each of these things has a strong global network effect. That's not true of newspapers. Scott sums the dilemma up nicely: 
So instead of “let a thousand nations bloom”, it ended up more like “let five or six big nations bloom that we can never get rid of”.
This argument says Twitter is really more like a public space than a private one. If there can only be one Twitter, then does the company have a moral responsibility to protect unrestricted speech on its platform, above and beyond the responsibility of the New York Times?

I'm naturally sympathetic to this argument. I've always thought that hardcore libertarians take a much too limited view of what constitutes "liberty." Not all power is government power, so local entities like companies do have a moral responsibility to uphold liberty in addition to the government. 

BUT, that's not the end of the story. Remember that in the real world, different freedoms conflict with each other. My freedom to speak my mind on a street corner is compromised if 5 people stand in my face screeching at me at the top of their lungs. But face-screeching is also a form of speech, so if you ban it, those 5 people are having their freedom of speech curbed. 

Traditionally, we usually came down against the face-screechers, with laws against public harassment. Why? I think it's because we recognized that speech that disseminates ideas is more valuable than speech whose purpose is to intimidate others. When forced to choose between two mutually exclusive types of speech, we usually chose to protect the one we deemed less intrinsically harmful to others.

Twitter, as a technology, is unusually conducive to face-screeching. The first reason is that anyone can talk to anyone else. In the real physical world, a mob will find it hard to find you; on Twitter, they always know right where you are. People don't need to get up in your face; they're already there, all the time.

The second reason is that it's very easy to coordinate mobs on Twitter. In the real world, to create a mob, you have to get a bunch of people out of their houses and across town, and you can only recruit the mob from people nearby, and the cops might disperse you while you're forming. On Twitter all you need to create a mob is a hashtag or a call-to-arms by a well-followed leader - the mob forms instantly and can't be dispersed. The sheer volume of harassment on Twitter comes from the fact that there are roving mobs of harassers who spend all day going from target to target. One minute you're talking to your friends and colleagues, the next minute there are a hundred pseudonymous accounts screeching at you. Two hours later they're screeching at someone else, but now you know, if you say the wrong thing, the mob will be back in a heartbeat. 

If you're a really unlucky high-profile person like Leslie Jones (who committed the unpardonable sin of being a black woman and being alive), you become a perennial target, and the mob never goes away until you quit Twitter.

So Twitter, by the nature of its technology, facilitates the kind of speech whose main purpose is the shutting down of other people's speech. It automatically empowers a very small number of harassers - I'm guessing the Twitter Nazis' total population, for example, to be only a couple thousand or so - to intimidate and silence enormous numbers of people who only wanted to say their ideas out loud (or, in Jones' case, just wanted to be there, period).

Twitter knows it has these problems - user growth has flatlined and a number of high-profile users are leaving - and it is finally starting to address them. Human moderation and banning is obviously their first approach. Future strategies might include algorithmic blocking, which Google is already working hard on. But it's possible none of these will work, and the screechers will simply always overpower the non-screechers. That could lead to Twitter becoming a ghost-town, inhabited only by 4chan types, unable to make much money off of advertising. It might be that a technology like Twitter, fun and useful as it is, might not be something that works out in the long run.

But more broadly, internet technologies are forcing us to face a sharper conflict between freedom of idea-expression and freedom of targeted disapproval. The tradeoff faced by Twitter is just an acute version of the tradeoffs faced by Facebook, Google, and any other communication technology with a global network effect. The nature of "speech" changes with the advent of new technology, and our intuitive notion of "freedom of speech" will eventually have to change along with it.  

So what do I think about the banning of Milo, Ricky, and other prominent alt-righters? I'm not at all upset about it. I think it's arbitrary and unfair, and unlikely to bring an end to harassment. But I also think it's probably inevitable. Technologically, banning and corporate censorship seem to be the only way (so far) to create an online world where people who mainly value freedom of idea-expression can coexist with people who mainly value the freedom to yell mean things at other people. That's probably going to lead to a "two-tiered" internet, as Scott Alexander calls it - a "top layer" where everyone plays nice, and a "bottom layer" where genocide jokes and death threats are the order of the day. But maybe that's the only possible long-term equilibrium.


  1. There already is a two tired internet. 4chan and other places where alt-right folks and others hang out and then the normal internet. ISIL, Spartacus folks and whatnot all have their own message boards as well.

    Twitter is just very loose on policing these things. The block is useful but it doesn't recognise or handle well some of the harassment that goes on there. Reddit is similar. It's mostly part of the clean, topside internet.

    Twitter is still great for some things. It isn't going to be Facebook. It's fast for news. It has good opinions and things technical stuff can be really good on twitter for instance and lots of interesting folks as well.

  2. Netizens try to obstruct my free speech on the 'Net, but I have ways to get my message across in spite of bashers. For instance, on Reddit I have "AiHasBeenSolved" as an account. I get downvoted a lot so that my Comments become invisible next to my user name -- which is so intriguing that people read my Comments anyway.

  3. Anonymous5:44 AM

    Every society has a religion. The West's current religion is The Church of Universal Equality (obviously, some are more equal than others).

    All dissenters will be crushed. By the private sector, of course.

    1. Anonymous1:50 PM

      Best comment here

  4. The "social media as natural monopoly" argument is silly, if only because despite being supposed natural monopolies, we've seen plenty of entry in these domains. Myspace could have been called a natural monopoly in 2005, but it obviously is not a monopoly in 2016. The ability to easily multi-home and switch across social media platforms makes it a very different beast in terms of potential market power as opposed to other classic goods that gain from scale (like electricity).

    The ability to create alternative spaces is not especially difficult, as well, and hasn't been for a while, as anyone who browsed the plethora of message boards out there should know. The argument that Twitter has some moral obligation to allow these trolls to remain on their platform is virtually equivalent to arguing that Walmart is obligated to sell Nazi flags.

  5. Being alt right gets you kicked off twitter.
    Being left gets you kicked off your jobs.

  6. Anonymous2:08 PM

    Good analysis of the situation and I agree with your conclusion. Also, keep on doing the Cowen debates on Bloomberg; they are insightful and entertaining

  7. Anonymous3:42 AM

    The alt-right does (and should) have total freedom to use the internet to express its political views, radical and noxious as they may be, without censorship, which is why Counter Currents, The Right Stuff, Radix, etc. are allowed to publish their content. What it doesn't, and shouldn't, have total freedom to do (though it certainly has quite a bit) is to use the internet to systematically harass and personally insult people in order to try to make them feel bad and not enjoy using the internet. I don't agree with twitter's decision to ban Milo and Ricky, but I don't think they were banned because of edgy political views they expressed that twitter decided to censor. Rather, the extremely annoying to >90% of everyone trolling tactics of their followers were making twitter much less enjoyable to use as it was intended. I think you'll see evidence of this in that people like Richard Spencer, Kevin MacDonald, Steve Sailer, etc., who have very controversial opinions but use a basic modicum of civility in expressing them, won't get banned from twitter.

    Incidentally, can you write some more posts on the substance of white nationalism/anti-Semitism/racism/the alt-right? It just annoys me that there's a tendency by everyone else to "Wow. Just wow." the alt-right, and not actually debate the truth or justice of those views. To take a comparatively moderate case, look at Trump's proposals to limit Muslim immigration. I not infrequently heard, and still hear, smart progressive people like Matt Yglesias and Brian Beutler talk about what a nasty and bigoted and stupid and hateful [sic] idea it is. What I rarely hear(d) them argue was that Trump was wrong to suggest Islamic terrorism and Islamic immigration are connected and that countries with Trumpian immigration policies like Japan, South Korea and Poland don't suffer from Islamic terrorism for a reason besides their Islamophobic immigration policies. I still don't think a Muslim ban is a good idea, but I wish liberals would respond to racism/bigotry by explaining why it's factually /incorrect/ more often rather than shrieking "you're a racist/bigot!"

    1. jroll6:17 AM

      Google should delist those sites and ICANN should revoke their names.

      As John Siracusa said, "Reddit is not the internet." Bye-bye, CoonTown. And so the internet is not the world wide web, either. And free speech is not the internet.

    2. It was ideological banning, nothing to do with harassment. Spencer banned because he's pro-white or whatever. Transparent.

    3. Anonymous1:53 PM

      I really like your second paragraph. I would also be interested in reading posts on that.

  8. Bill Ellis12:13 PM

    Noah...did I miss your piece on this ? ... "It reflects how our culture's dominant values are in the process of switching from traditionalist to modernist."....

    sounds like it would make an interesting one if you haven't done one.

  9. Bill Ellis12:20 PM

    maybe we need roving bands of liberals who follow the wing nut harassers around and harass them...

    1. liberals have better, more interesting, things to do.

    2. You have that, dummy.

  10. Bill Ellis12:24 PM

    when we only had three networks using the public commons we did not feel the need to let hate groups have equal time...

  11. Bill Ellis12:39 PM

    anon 3;42 am..

    I disagree...I think a lot of people talk about WHY it is stupid to ban entire groups of refugees based on religion or national origin... And all of the non bigoted arguments for turning away refugees don't hold up well... especially if you pulled the same objections to more palatable refugee populations...

    if say the UK or Israel had millions of refugees fleeing for their lives...I pretty sure we would take them all. Yet we won't take in brown muslims because of a fear that is statically insignificant...

    this may sound like shrieking "your a bigot" But it is just reducing a problem to it's base...

    "Bowl of skittles"...

    1. There are massive cultural differences in the hypothetical UK and Israeli refugee populations you've proposed and those of the current largely Muslim refugee populations that are the topic de jour. Specifically - the former embrace democracy and are converging toward something close to egalitarianism while the same cannot be said for the latter.

      We certainly shouldn't ban refugees or immigration of any kind, but cultural assimilation is a very real concern that at the very least shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

    2. jroll6:50 AM

      While we took in more Jews than any other country before World War II. And any other country, excluding Palestine, after. I don't believe we took them all.

      There was a boat or something a quota system or something and a depression or something.

      (We also weren't willing to sacrifice any unnecessary American pilots to bomb train tracks or more accurately bomb Japanese. Rude. "Take these people, or I'll kill them." "Bomb these tracks, or I'll kill them." Reasonable.)

      Also, who would Israelis ever need to flee from? Does not compute. What kind of place will they be fleeing too? Will *it* be safe? I don't know, too complicated.

  12. (A) You are probably right.

    (B) It's depressing.

    (C) It's one reason I have never bothered with twitter.

    (D) It's why my FB account is highly limited in who sees my posts and whose posts I see.

  13. Bill Ellis9:42 PM

    I hope there will always be sewers and cesspools on the internet...

    when I first started reading and posting on threads back just after Bush lied us into Iraq... ( The orwellian capitulation of our media had me kinda freaked out and looking for some sanity )... I was shocked to find "a basket of deplorables " on every thread..

    but I was also excited... I was operating under the illusion that if others knew what I knew... then they would come to the same conclusions... (HAHA... I was so dumb.)

    so I went about trolling the cesspools thinking I could help save the internet with my logic... (so embarrassing )

    Well of course I never changed a single mind... But I did have long term "relationships" with Real Nazis, and Real militia members...posse comitatus nuts..and other assorted people that I detested deeply.. And they hated me as well...

    If we had met in the real world and said the awful things we said to each other...Things that we had to say if were were honest...I'm sure we would have come to violence...We would never have been able to tolerate each other and we could have never gotten to know each other in the way we did..

    my "conversations" with the deplorables humanized them for me... And I think that I was humanized a bit in their eyes too..

    anyway I found my experiences with them illuminating... And I hope the internet always has a place where people who find each other repugnant can get to know eachother a bit...

  14. Twitter should provide the equivalent of a two mouse-click "block the followers of X".

  15. Excuse me if I'm not getting it, but just what the hell is "online harassment" anyway? Five people screeching in my face on a corner is a real, non-ignorable, human interaction. People sending me nasty tweets is just words floating in the aether, easily ignored. Moreover, I can follow or unfollow whomever I want, allowing me to hear you with perfect clarity; your words are not drowned out by the nazis screaming in the background. Letting them play on 4chan and reddit is even easier: no one has to visit if they don't want.

    The intimidation factor is even less compelling. Unless someone (a) knows how to find me and (b) threatens to do me real, physical harm, I remain singularly unimpressed.

    Am I missing something?

    1. These are good points. Having 50 door-to-door salesmen pounding on your door every week is much different than your mailbox getting stuffed with junkmail. This stuff is easy to dismiss.

      I think Twitter would be much better served by providing users more filtering tools than continuing with the purges. For instance, allowing users to block all incoming images from non-followers.

      Easier to wear slippers than to carpet the interweb.

  16. Anonymous8:50 PM

    Israel sentences astrophysics Professor Imad Al Bargouthi to 7 month prison sentence for social media "incitement":
    The ongoing attempts by the Israeli government to silence Palestinian freedom of speech are at a level unthinkable in North America.

  17. Here in Australia there are various state and federal laws against harassment and hate speech on the basis of race, color, nationality, or ethnic origin. It doesn't seem to have interfered with political free speech, but it does put a lower bar on what can be said. It hasn't been used a lot. A lot of what is OK - well, legal - in the US would not happen in Australia.

  18. I don't get how people are confused by the fact that the "internet" is the platform and twitter, facebook, etc are applications. If you want to run an alt right blog/news feed go for it. If you want to run a business you need to pick your space.

  19. Anonymous9:01 PM

    This is not a new question. When I was online 30 years ago, open forums embraced free speech, censored only for obscenity. But over time, users have more and more asked for protection against personal attacks. Just as, in law, freedom of speech is not unqualified, internet norms are evolving towards setting certain boundaries on speech, while retaining the ideal of free speech.

  20. jroll5:55 AM

    Leslie Jones: "Hey, hate speech and freedom of speech: two different things."

    Seth Meyers: "Two different things."

    I haven't used Twitter, yet. Is there some reason you have to read random messages?

    I thought the premise is you follow who you want?

    If there is a problem I think it would be spam/bots/socks, not "face shrieking."

    A Twitter account is like a phone number.

    People tweeting about your tweets doesn't to my knowledge "silence" you. You can still tweet, yes?

    Example: Leslie Jones, "Gas jroll, now."

    jroll, "Oh, no, I've been silenced."

    "Also, Leslie Jones's tweet may look silent, but I assure you, I now have hearing damaged."

    "@jack Help!"

  21. Anonymous11:36 PM

    Twitter is a toy. Facebook is a scourge on society.

    I would put $100 on a bet that the recent SpaceX test explosion was an inside job by a Russian or Chinese spy at SpaceX, and the the target was not SpaceX, rather it was Facebook's satellite.

    Freedom of speech is a very, very serious matter! The USA values freedom of speech more than any other country. This is probably the most important freedom we have, and it is being destroyed by the likes of Facebook. It is really strange irony if it is true, that foreign spies would like to extinguish Facebook, and that it is also a scourge on the freedom of speech that would otherwise permeate the web.

    What do I mean by this? Simply that increasingly you are not allowed to talk on the web unless you use your true identity AND allow Facebook to profit off of you. It is a disgusting scourge on the world.

    I like much of what you said here, Noah. I have small differences such as that the NYT has never printed anything that is white nationalist in nature. If you think that Douthat is so, you are wrong. He's pretty moderate compared to white nationalists. He's just a religious, ignorant but skilled writer. He's not right wing.

    We have no lexicon that allows us to discuss modern politics. Humans seem fundamentally incapable of seeing the details of large group movements. By definition our 2-party system is based upon large group movements, and so humans are not equipped to understand it. The best they can do is use it to manipulate others using a flawed, binary system.

    They can't manipulate me. Don't let them manipulate you either, please.

    1. Anonymous1:28 PM

      Actually I amend this. I think the explosive was probably placed on the Facebook satellite while it was still in Israel. I believe the explosive was on the satellite, and so I don't want to spark a witch hunt at SpaceX. It probably didn't happen there.

      It makes sense that an explosion within on the payload would have a delayed effect in breaching the external shell of the rocket. Such an explosive would probably not be very powerful in itself, but it probably breached some gas-containing tank in the second stage with then set off a cascade of explosions.

      So the mystery explosion that Musk is investigating was probably the initial explosion contained on the payload. The second and visible explosion was the breach of the rocket shell and the interaction of the gasses with the heat from the small explosion on the payload.

  22. Seems like banning Condoleeza Rice from giving a commencement speech is related to this. It would be interesting to see that worked into this thesis. [And hopefully I don't think Ms. Rice is a black woman who has committed the unpardonable sin of being alive...]

  23. I liked this post Noah.