An Awful Week on the Internet for Free Speech vs. Hate

Dark Side

Reading the papers this morning, I was struck at how much the Internet has evolved from what I used to call “digital democracy” – a utopian place where people could express opinions and debate each other, into a machine that now also breeds way too much hatred, violence and trolling.

Hell, I have been trolled myself, from the Chairman Emeritus of Publicis, a global public relations firm, comparing me to a “right wing radio show host” for one of my blog posts that he did not agree with.  I’ve been taken on my one of the most popular bloggers online because I had the nerve to call out a “Cewebrity” for being a gas bag.   This other blogger was not content only criticize my post, he dedicated his own post to it – on his own blog (and I had met this guy in person before).  This is all to say that I get being trolled.

Trolls and Reddit

In an article in this morning’s Washington Post, former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao proclaimed that “the trolls are winning the battle for the Internet.”  As someone who has been on the front lines of the battle of one of the busier platforms for information exchange, believe me:  she knows what she is saying.  Among her quotes:

  • “Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open-content platforms on the Internet. But that balancing act is getting harder. The trolls are winning.”
  • “Fully 40 percent of online users have experienced bullying, harassment and intimidation, according to Pew Research. Some 70 percent of users between age 18 and 24 say they’ve been the target of harassers. Not surprisingly, women and minorities have it worst.”

And what I think is the most compelling statement of all in the article, Ms. Pao states:

The foundations of the Internet were laid on free expression, but the founders just did not understand how effective their creation would be for the coordination and amplification of harassing behavior.

Ellen Pao should know.  During her tenure at Reddit, she recognized the rise of hate speech and trolling and committed to removing revenge porn from their site, banned harassment of individuals, took down sections of the site that drew repeat harassers.

After doing what was right, guess what?  Reddit’s employees were personally targeted:

“Then, after making these policy changes to prevent and ban harassment, I, along with several colleagues, was targeted with harassing messages, attempts to post my private information online and death threats. These were attempts to demean, shame and scare us into silence.”

It’s not news that there are trolls and haters on the Internet.  I have fallen victim on this very blog, ironically, for writing about trolls.  But it ‘s not just that, this week.

The problem is the physical and psychological bloodlust and the social media platforms that cannot keep up with it.

Terrorism and their free dissemination platform

I have written about this very topic recently as well, but again, in another Washington Post article this morning, “Why the Islamic State leaves tech companies torn between free speech and security,” the authors discuss how social media platforms try to walk the line between free speech and removing what has become propaganda for groups like ISIS, particularly their gruesome videos and tweets, which then get shared widely and are nothing more than a PR machine for a groups of animals.  Among their recent social media activities:

  • An ISIS terrorist slaughtered 38 tourists at a Tunisian resort on June 26, 2015.  They took to Twitter to gloat, stating “It was a painful strike and a message stained with blood,” and also posted a warning “Let them wait for the glad tidings of what will harm them in the coming days, Allah permitting.”
  • On June 23, 2015, ISIS hopped on to YouTube and posted a video of men accused of cooperating with U.S.-coordinated airstrikes in Iraq and Syria – who were then incinerated in a car, drowned in a cage lowered into a swimming pool and decapitated by explosive necklaces looped around their necks.

What’s ironic is that the nation whose brilliant engineers invented the Internet is being cannibalized by the very democratic platforms that we have constructed:

As the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, continues to hold large parts of Iraq and Syria and inspire terrorist attacks in more and more countries, it has come to rely upon U.S. social-media companies to summon fresh recruits to its cause, spread its propaganda and call for attacks, according to counterterrorism analysts.

My take

I have already gone on record as stating that social media companies, although while not perfect, can do a much better job of quickly identifying and eliminating hate-filled and evil propaganda.  I get that there are millions of tweets and YouTube posts each day, but as someone who used to work in communist China where all mentions of Tienanmen Square (June 6th) are automatically banned, the technology is there.

I am not suggesting that Reddit, YouTube nor Twitter become Stalinist states themselves when it comes to online freedom of speech.  But this just in, guys:  the online democratic utopia that was imagined has come to pass – and then it passed.  Now it provides a haven for online harassment, death threats, bullying and terrorism.  And apparently, the technology exists if a country of 1.3 billion people can pull it off.

Step up, Silicon Valley. If your lawyers can write 20 page Terms and Conditions documents that no one reads in which we give up many privacy aspects, Google can change its algorithm almost every day, and you employ some of the greatest minds in tech, you damn well can do something about online hatred.

The time to start is now. Stop the “coordination and amplification of harassing behavior.”

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