Saturday, 17 January 2015

Freedom Of Speech: Where Your Rights End And Mine Begin

Me in discussion with a man
The attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the March of the Hypocrites In Alleged Support Of Free Speech (don't get me started!) has sparked a raging debate about the freedom of speech; what it means for the speakers and their audiences, and for society as a whole. I've got my own opinions about this, though I don't have any real answers, only more questions. As usual, I won't pull my punches so if you're easily offended, don't click the "Read more" link.

We live in a world in which some people push their perceived right to offend as far as they can in search of a limit, only to push for an extension where they find it, while others seek to punish offenders to protect our delicate sensibilities. The question being asked is, can you force us to be nice when we want to be rude? The trouble with this is Ye Olde Slypperie Slope: I've had people freak the hell out because I questioned or outright challenged their beliefs.

Everyone's a critic

Should beliefs be protected from critical speech so that their adherents may not be persecuted or otherwise mistreated? Okay, which ones? How about the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Scientologists? Catholics? Atheists?

Okay, what if your beliefs are not merely opinions you think are correct and the best if not the only way to do things, but they emphatically oppose those of a particular individual or groups? Should supremacist and hate groups' beliefs be protected?

When your faith is attacked and your Deity characterised as your invisible friend it is easy to become defensive. And when it goes real world because the person attacking you has a big appreciative audience and you're on your own, what do you do then? If it becomes a common-sense notion (because everyone is saying it so it must be true) that Christians are stupid, prone to ranting and causing disruption because they're over-sensitive to criticism, would you be willing to employ one?

Our right to slag people off is being eroded

The thing is, many of us have an opinion of religious and political belief systems that differ from our own in which we actively oppose them. I bash Libertarians all the time. I also pick on Tories, Labour, and Lib Dems. Why, only today a Labour party canvasser came to my door to convince me to vote for his party. I reminded him about Labour's role in mass surveillance and in robbing the public domain by doing nothing to oppose the recent extension of copyright by another 20 years, and sent him packing. I've blasphemed copyright, a sacred tenet for many of us. Should I go to prison if I tweet those comments? This is what the judge said at the trial of Robert Riley, who made horrible comments about the murder of teacher Ann Maguire:

"The offensive messages outraged the public," she said. "You had complete disregard for the tragic death of Ann Maguire. Besides this, countless other vile messages were made by you. The bench finds these were racially and religiously aggravated. The offences are so serious that only a period of immediate custody can be justified."

Erm, nobody was harmed by these tweets, though family members and friends may have been upset by them if they were brought to their attention. Sorry, but I don't recall any mass demonstrations or riots over this. Meanwhile, other things that outrage the public are routinely dismissed, e.g. sneaky FTAs, abuse of RIPA, and mass surveillance. Reminds me of a filthy joke with the punchline, "...but **** one sheep...!" Sorry, I can't think of this in any other terms.

Now if he had tweeted @ the family or tagged them on FB, fair enough, he's actively chasing them down to demand his speech be heard by them but my understanding is that he pretty much bared his mean and shrivelled soul on t'internet and his 500 followers saw what he'd said. Sorry, I see nastiness there but no need for a jail sentence.

Wait... a RIGHT to slag people off??!

It's no fun being the target of a campaign of slander, abuse, and harassment. I've been there, as has Kathy Sierra, an award-winning programmer and blogger. When someone like Andrew "weev" Aurenheimer, who many activists take seriously, takes a pop at her, belittling her achievements and writing her off as "mentally ill," others join in. Where is the counter-speech? There is precious little of it. To be a target is to be alone; to be the lone voice of reason in the midst of a baying mob is to be profoundly alone. Even the EFF admits,

Platforms bear a responsibility to work on such features, but we expect—as ever—that the best solutions will come from users themselves.

Which is all well and good, but what if the operators refuse to engage with the abusers and the community either joins in or looks the other way? That is HOW people end up being chased offline. People tend to join in when there's a quorum of peers doing the same thing, particularly when a hot button is pressed.

My story

I'm basically conservative. In some communities, particularly in the one I was driven out of, you need to be basically liberal/left or keep your viewpoints to yourself. I didn't realise that, fell foul of some pretentious weirdos and was hounded out of every website/forum in that community because they used to talk to the other members about me behind my back. Result: these people believed my abusers and either stopped associating with me or joined in the abuse, repeating all sorts of horrible accusations about me and if I dared to complain they would question my mental state and claim I was looking for attention. So much for counter-speech.

I joined various online anti-harassment groups, to no avail. They were friendly and meant well, but even when the harassment went real world by locking me out of my email account for three days, nobody did anything to stop them. I reported the matter to the moderators of all the forums and websites I was on but none of them did anything about it. In the wider community smaller websites and forums, the abusers were part of the top tier membership, a fact I wasn't aware of, and the owners and moderators turned a blind eye as long as the abuse was kept off their comments and forums, where it could not be seen.

My own forum (on a bigger community website) was flooded with obscene spam — copy-pasta 4chan /b/ board threats along the lines of, "I will rip your guts out through your dirty *******..." which were unlikely to be acted upon but which disrupted our conversations and put new people off joining us — the object of the exercise. We could only block the posters and delete their posts. Don't get me started on their avatars. That said, the instigator wasn't pleased when, in a counter-speech effort on my own blog I pointed out that it was fitting that they'd used Goatse to represent him. I'll let you work that one out for yourselves. Warning: it's gross.

They weren't always successful in misrepresenting me but it was always a game of whack-a-mole. I was pretty much obliged to find out what they were saying about me at any one time, then counter it by behaving in an opposite manner. When they attempted to characterise me as being socially pretentious I began to call people "mate" when interacting with them and generally being all "girl-next-door" in conversations. This didn't stick so they took to complaining about imaginary slights and blaming me for things that other people did and said.

They were most adept at getting people onside, and worked very hard to get my friends on board. They turned my own mods against me by befriending them, getting all cozy with them, then complaining about me. They then encouraged people I'd been friendly with for three years to make negative comments about me. Game over: I shut my forum down and left the community altogether, then set up a forum elsewhere with those members I thought were still my friends. Then the last of them went Judas on me, brought the others in with her, and started up my abusers' drama on my forum. It wasn't even her problem but she had joined in. Turned out she was in cahoots with them for a few months at least. Had she had a problem with me she could have brought it up and we could have dealt with it but I'd made her a mod, suspecting nothing till it all blew up in my face.

Damn it, I had already left the wider community and gone elsewhere, but the people behind all this just wouldn't be satisfied till I was off the internet altogether. One of their chief beefs was that I had banned them for making unsuitable posts on my community forum, then complaining about it on my blog. Driving me out of the community wasn't good enough for them, they had to drive me off the internet as well. I had to cut contact with all of the people I had been friendly with in my former community to keep my abusers and their drama out of my life. I stayed off the internet altogether for three months, then slowly started using it again, but was very wary of joining new communities.

I got rid of my old FB and Twitter accounts, and when I set up as a web designer three years later, I was careful to do nothing to draw attention to myself by talking about the community interests I used to be so keen on. I'm still quite leery of any engagement in it, and such as there is I keep low-key. The funny thing is, I can talk about politics all I like and get no grief for expressing myself as I see fit. Mind you, the people I associate with these days are mostly harmless.

Chilling effects

The chilling effect of being a target is mainly in the way you have to watch what you say so you don't come up in the search results if they decide they're not finished with you. Though they know my real name I'm not the only person who's called Wendy Cockcroft so sorry for your troubles, other Wendy Cockcrofts, that was meant for me. As long as I don't talk about my former community interests and activities, the websites and forums I used to post on, or opine about trends in those areas, they will not come after me because they won't know where to look. They may well have lost interest, but you never know.

It's a chore to clean up forums befouled by vile posts, to block the posters again and again, and to get them out of your inbox. It's no fun seeing your inbox fill up with announcements that you've successfully subscribed to niche porn sites and other things that make you uncomfortable, and cleaning them up.

It's even worse to see people you know making horrible comments about you in public instead of bringing their concerns to you personally, or behaving uncomfortably around you because they don't want to be associated with you any more in case that nonsense comes their way. That last one is really quite traumatic, particularly if you've met up with them in real life and suddenly even chatting online is a chore they're reluctant to carry out. It really is the most horrible feeling to know that you are totally alone online and have no friends in your community — and never really did. The pain — I can't begin to describe it. I'd invested a lot in those relationships and it was all for nothing.

Although I am active online these days, I don't get too involved in communities and don't invest much in online relationships. Yes I occasionally troll, but even those liberal socialists, right-wingers, and libertarians I argue with are generally reasonable and civilised. I've muted and blocked a few people on Twitter but it was less than ten at the last count.

So what can we do?

There is very little that we can do. The idea that victims are obliged to shut up and take it as stoically as they can if they want to stay online because this guarantees freedom of speech for everyone else is bogus. Nobody wants to be treated like that, especially the ones dishing it out. It's also bogus to say that people should stay strong and stay online. Why? It stops if you get offline, stay offline, then start again somewhere else doing something else. Oh, you want to remain a part of your community online? Well without support, why? Good luck with that, by the way.

If you opt to remain an active member of your community and are receiving no support you will eventually be worn down by the continuous negativity. Garbage in, garbage out. Programmers understand this. It starts to have a cumulative effect on your health as you respond to people you know either asking you about the wild accusations and flood of complaints about you, telling you about the mess in your comments section or on your forum, or just walking out because they either don't want this stuff happening to them or they've already been targeted themselves. If you go away for any length of time, there's a backlog of admin and drama to deal with on your return. Coping with the physical effects of the abuse (RSI from all the typing/mouse work while hunched over your PC late at night because your mods have quit or joined the abusers, high blood pressure from the stress) can actually cause a form of PTSD in which you get very jumpy because certain images, words, or phrases trigger horrible memories and you can't talk about it because everybody thinks it's trivial. It's not.

Legal remedies

Laws that target this kind of behaviour are often ill-conceived and do little to deal effectively with it. Catfishing to find out who is behind the abuse and bring them out into the open may cause other problems. One Redditor who was outed for moderating a subreddit for posting creepy pictures of women to humiliate them was fired from his job. But as Techdirt's Mike Masnick has wisely pointed out, freedom of speech should not mean freedom of consequences for your speech. Why should these craven cowards be cut any slack when their slips are clearly showing?

When asked if he thinks about the people he's hurting online he responds, "Yeah, I think **** 'em." Then he goes on to talk about how it's nothing illegal, and that Facebook is an open forum so he can say whatever he wants.

Well double that on you, mate. People should be held to account for their behaviour, they shouldn't get special treatment because it's on the internet. Mind you, the punishment should fit the crime; merely being rude about someone on the internet is not the same thing as going after them for months or even years with the object of driving them offline — or to suicide.

My advice and proposals

  • If unwelcome comments are made, warn the commenter. Block or mute that person as required if they don't respect the warning.
  • If they come after you for blocking or muting you, take screenshots of their comments, etc., then copy them onto Paint or whatever graphics program you have. Now email those to the website moderator as evidence and ask them to ban them.
  • Do not say or do anything to provoke your abusers. Try to ignore them so people can see who the good guy is. It is important to avoid retaliation. Never go to their online haunts to counter their comments, you'll be mobbed by their supporters.
  • Do not make threats of legal action, etc., unless you can carry them out.
  • If a horrible comment is made on social media, either argue with the tweeter (counter speech) or report it to the Twitter mods. If it violates their policies they will ban that user. That is sufficient for tweets where the target is not being continually tagged or harassed.
  • A citation/warning should be sufficient for a first offence if no lasting harm to person or property has occurred. Please note, continual harassment is very stressful and this can affect a person's health
  • If the attacks go RW (real world), an assessment should be made as to the actual damage done and the perpetrator should be obliged to pay compensation according to the amount of damage done
  • Getting others involved should be considered an aggravated factor. Being mobbed is horrible

I do not believe that we should accept being abused as a condition of being active online. People who misbehave should be held to account for their actions. If anyone doesn't like the idea of them being exposed for their actions, I would ask that they spend time reading through the abusive posts received by victims of harassment and imagining having that in their inboxes all the time. If that doesn't move them I advise forwarding the abuse to them to see how they like being on the receiving end of it. It's hard to be sympathetic to abusive trolls when you've been hassled by them yourself and honestly I can't abide apologists who can't and won't see things from both sides.

Erm, I troll

That said, I myself engage in the odd bit of trolling. My targets are generally political and my tactic is to argue from a logical, market-inclusive position in which I promote the Twofold Principle, "The individual must be free to act and the will of the people must be respected." This is my latest target:

You can see our rather civilised argument here. She has either muted me or run out of arguments. I'm not going to go after her; I've made my point and that's enough. Besides, this is scraptivism; I can't change her mind but I can reach her audience, and as long as the conversation starter tweet remains up, I can continue to do so. That is as trollish as I get, but strictly speaking it is trolling. I get away with it because I'm not abusive.

Yeah, but what are the limits?

Charlie Hebdo cover, January 2016, featuring a crying man in Muslim garb who may be Mohammed. Translation: (text) "All is forgiven" (sign held by the man) "I am Charlie"So back we go to Charlie Hebdo, which is basically trolling in print. The latest edition's cover translates as "All is forgiven," and shows a picture of a Muslim (who may be a depiction of Mohammed or not) crying and holding up a "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) sign. Now while everyone is bemoaning the violent murders of some cartoonists who had made it their business to be deeply offensive to pretty much everyone, the words of the judge at the Robert Riley trial come screaming back to mind:

"The offensive messages outraged the public," she said. "You had complete disregard for the tragic death of Ann Maguire. Besides this, countless other vile messages were made by you. The bench finds these were racially and religiously aggravated. The offences are so serious that only a period of immediate custody can be justified."

Well I'm sure I'm not the only person to have thought, "They'd never get away with it over here." Indeed, they've been discussing it over at Mancunian Matters. This comment from the article stands out:

“A lot of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were very offensive. For example when the 300 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the magazine called them ‘Welfare Queens’ and made fun of them. It’s just really nasty.” - Sabarah Islam, an 18-year-old sixth form student, in 'Charlie Hebdo satire is trolling': Is freedom of speech a defence to mock religion? - Mancunian Matters

That is nasty. And as I've pointed out before, when negative statements are repeated and there's little in the way of counter speech, it becomes a common sense notion that they're true and the results can be horrible. Besides, no one wants to be seen standing with a pariah. This makes me wonder whether or not people can see a difference between the right to free expression and the right to be abusive.

Sometimes the line between them is very thin. It's hard to work out where to draw it because it's so subjective, and because I'm so opinionated I would rather err on the side of caution. As I said, there's not an easy answer to this, all I've got is more questions.

What do you think?

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