Monday, 28 August 2017

Freedom Of Speech: When The Chickens Come Home To Roost

Neo-Nazi The shocking events that took place in Charlottesville last week have been interpreted in a number of ways. For some, it's a case of the chickens coming home to roost. If we ban hate speech, they reason, it'll go away. If we punch Nazis, they will go away, right? Oh, dear.

If you're easily offended, hit the back button. I won't be pulling my punches.

I've written about free speech (and my struggles with it) any number of times but today I think I really need to nail a few things down. These are:

  • Free speech absolutism
  • Cause and consequence
  • Legal implications
  • Search engines
  • Reputation

Free speech absolutism

Any time I see the phrase "free speech absolutism" I roll my eyes. Nobody wants that, it's dangerous. Imagine plotting or encouraging murder, then, when caught and brought to justice, the perpetrator cites freedom of expression as a defence; "Let me off, I was exercising my rights. Johnny killed that man, which in itself is a form of political expression because we espouse a particular cause."

Before you object, every terrorism apologist ever subscribes to that belief.*

It's a strawman

"Absolutism" is a strawman. The truth is, there are laws against inciting crime and the best arguments I've seen against maximising personal freedom is that people are either getting all violent and stuff because they heard, read, or saw something offensive, or they might get all violent and stuff because they heard, read, or saw something offensive. The truth is, like it or not, if the offensive ideas are gaining traction, we reasonable people aren't doing enough to counter it. Where there's a border there is somebody trying to cross it.

Offence is in the eye of the beholder

The trouble with attempting to limit speech is that you create two classes of speech: approved and unapproved. I can understand wanting to block ISIS and assorted bigot groups from posting propaganda online, etc., but what if you're a reporter reporting on terrorism? In a world where violent law enforcement officers are a protected class, reporting on their misdeeds is unapproved speech and can get you arrested.

Shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre

Popehat's Ken White has written a brilliant blog post about this. Basically, it's legal to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre unless you're doing so to cause a panic. That trope is all about suppressing political speech during WWI when certain left-wingers opposed the draft, so the whole thing is disingenuous to say the least.

Cause and consequence

Speech, whether protected or not, has consequences. When Gawker posted an article outing Peter Thiel, he went after them with a vengeance that closed them down using Hulk Hogan's privacy as a lever.

Speech and counter-speech

Counter-speech is often touted as a remedy for hateful speech but that presupposes that each party has equal reach. What if one has a firehose and the other a Nerf gun? I talked about that in my post, Can Speech Ever Really Be Free? Five Factors To Consider:

Actually getting a discussion going about this is hard; what you end up with is people trebuchet-ing talking points at each other instead of having an honest discussion. Yes, censorship bad, but speech can be used to censor. What do we do about that without resorting to censorship? And why should anyone be obliged to take a barrage of abuse for daring to put their head above the parapet? For counter-speech to be a viable solution there has to be enough of it to get the job done. More often than not, that doesn't happen and the liberals and libertarians have no answer to that. Why not?

In Freedom Of Speech: Where Your Rights End And Mine Begin I talked about my own experience of being censored by other people's speech:

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.

Whether you consider my experiences petty or not the cumulative effect of repeated acts of nastiness pushed me offline, thereby silencing me. I totally get that people behaving badly online should be dealt with, is what I'm saying, but jerking a knee isn't thinking. Any response should be reasonable and proportionate.

Legal implications

As I have already pointed out, the absolute right to free speech doesn't actually exist; there are laws against incitement to commit crime, for example. You can also be sued for libel, i.e. telling lies about people, particularly if it causes problems for them. The use of lawsuits (or threat thereof) to silence bloggers, etc., for unflattering opinions is commonplace but not all libel lawsuits have merit per the letter of the law; truth is a defence. However, the threat of being sued can and does chill perfectly legitimate speech. Free speech can cost you, but libel lawsuits are a rich man's game; few of us can afford to litigate over it.

Mean speech

It's important to note that there's a difference between mean speech and libel or slander, or in the UK, racism. Basically, mean speech, e.g. "Wendy Cockcroft is a fat cow" isn't generally actionable while "Wendy Cockcroft killed a kitten, roasted it, then ate it right in front of me" is. Whether the comment about the kitten is generally believed to the point where I end up losing my job and can't show my face anywhere because people are hounding me over it determines the merit of the case; if it's some troll on 4Chan or whatever and nobody else takes it seriously, there's no point in litigating over it.

DMCA abuse

I've seen a plethora of reports of DMCA abuse, where people abuse copyright laws to get unflattering posts removed from the search results. This is basically perjury (since the purpose is to combat copyright infringement), but alas the only consequence tends to be either pushback from the ISPs involved, pillory in an internet shaming post, or the Streisand Effect when people find out about it. Some reputation management companies abuse the DMCA as part of their search engine cleansing programme. It's a con, don't fall for it.

Search engines

There are still negative comments about me that appear in the search results on my name. Their position changes as people who search my name click on the various results; it's not possible to place any individual or group at the top of the Google search results unless a) their name is unique, b) they've been referenced a number of times on a number of platforms, or c) they've attracted attention and people are looking them up. While Google et al have certain algorithms that affect the way the results appear, they themselves are not responsible for what appears in their search results because they don't generate the content themselves.

Search results

To comply with local laws, search engine companies each have a team of dedicated workers whose job it is to remove links to illegal and hateful content. However, to say that Google (or any other company) puts them there in the first place or that Google itself (or any other company) influences their placement is bogus; the most popular results of other people's searches affects placement. That links exist in the first place is nothing to do with Google, it's people like me setting up blogs like On t'Internet and publishing blog posts, thereby creating links. And unless those links are shared by other people on other e-spaces and clicked on again and again, no amount of cleverness on my part (not even keyword stuffing!) can lift that link any higher in the search results than other internet users allow them to be; it's the ultimate community moderation.

How individuals searching affects results

On t'Internet is on the first page of Google (but not at the top!) on my usual browser, Firefox, because I occasionally look it up to see how it's placing. However, what I see is where it places for me on this browser on this PC. On Chrome, which I rarely use, it's on the second page, about halfway down. Other users might find my blog on the third or even fourth pages depending on whether or not they've ever read one of my posts. So, are we satisfied that Google is not responsible for search results or the placement thereupon? That it removes illegal or hateful links from its search engine does not remove the content; all that does is create a never-ending game of whack-a-mole as users sharing the links effectively re-index them. To blame Google (or anyone else) for users' behaviour is as unreasonable as it is absurd.

ISP responsibilities

To say that ISPs should ignore user behaviour, how ever egregious it is, does no good to anyone, not even them. Each ISP has the responsibility of responding to complaints in a timely manner. However, "ISP" is everything from Google to MySpace to On t'Internet. While they are not responsible for the content posted on their e-spaces they do need to deal firmly with abuse in order to maintain a healthy online environment, otherwise they'll end up ceding it to the noisiest, most obnoxious users. At some point that means making the call on the difference between opinion, e.g. "Wendy Cockcroft is a stupid cow" and outright abuse, e.g. "Irish Protestant women like Wendy Cockcroft are stupid cows." Both are mean speech but in the UK singling me out as an Irish Protestant woman could be classed as discriminatory language — enjoy prison. This is all dependent on the laws of the land where the ISP is hosted; in America the second example is perfectly legal protected opinion. ISPs have different options available to them, e.g. Techdirt allows its community to flag those posts they don't like so they get hidden behind a grey link. Given the financial outlay required to hire a full-time abusive post remover, this is a reasonable response to the problem. Basically, unless there's a legal compliance issue at stake, ISPs differ in their responses to abuse from laissez-faire to community moderation to outright control freakery to banning comments altogether. This is all dependent on the ISP's ethos, on the scale of the abuse problem, and on their resources for tackling it. Abuse is, after all, not the ISP's fault, it's the users'.


Mere SEO trickery can't and won't put any particular result at the top of the search engine results. I say again: the search results on your name are affected by people checking you out. Since Google tailors the search results to each individual, what you find on your PC screen when you search your own name is not what others will find when they search it. I say again: have something positive waiting for them when they search your name — be sure to keep blog posts and tweets on-message and for the love of the internet Do Not Whinge unless you want people to think of you as perpetually being out of control of your own life.

Placement packing

Posts in popular websites can and do affect the search results but trolls (and merely critical people) aren't the only ones who can leverage them — so can you. I post on Techdirt using my real name to push positive results about me. While there are some abusive comments about me there, too (my friend the troll is unwilling to concede that one's own conduct is the primary influence of reputation), the community has evidently decided that I'm the goodie and he's the baddie because I don't run around making wild accusations, slagging people off, and trying to get others to join in; that's what he does. For the record, I occasionally argue with Mike over issues such as Basic Income and the use of the term "intellectual property." These comments don't get hidden by the community because I'm not rude to Mike when I argue, I just state my case. Placement packing is a very effective way of affecting search results on your name if you're a) willing to put the work in and b) you abide by the norms of the community.


The advent of the internet has made it easier than ever before for people to express themselves in public. This is both a good and a bad thing; while an aspiring writer or artist can get the attention required to launch a stellar career, a troll (or group thereof) can drive people offline by sending unwanted messages to their victims. There's also the matter of reputation.

Owning the narrative

Your reputation is based on the narrative, which is created in tandem with your audience. It's where your story and message meet your audience's perception of you. Your reputation, then, is not what you think about yourself, it's what others think about you. When people are critical, use it as a tool to adjust your story and message.

Your story

In my post, Find Clarity Within — Get Your Story Straight, I discussed the problems my friend Ama Okoro faced in getting the right kind of attention on her business. Getting her story straight required getting her to be honest with herself about what she wanted; hiding from potential clients by not posting photos of herself on her blog and social media accounts contradicted her stated aim of providing a personal service.

You see, our perceptions of ourselves can be warped by social expectations, by our own desires, and by being unwilling to face up to truths we don't like.

This is why criticism isn't necessarily a bad thing. If someone complains about us online, even if they're greatly exaggerating, there may well be a grain of inconvenient truth to deal with, like that time I went to rant on Reddit about a former client and got schooled in customer relations. Do you learn from criticism or shrink back and get defensive? The next time I was screwed by a client I just quietly put the website and social media accounts package up for sale on the grounds that criticising clients online is an own goal that might put others off doing business with me.

Your message

In my Linked In post, The Story And The Message, I explained that your message is your mission statement:

Your message is your mission statement. My friend's message is that her services are primarily for women who need help with their personal and professional relationships. I've been encouraging her to include information that illustrates that in her promotional literature as well as on her website and social media accounts.
My message is that I'm hard-working, a fast learner, I'm creative, I think for myself, and I'm willing to go against the grain. Everything in my profile, from the sublime (my web design projects) to the ridiculous (Zombie Santa), is there to illustrate that.
What's your message? That you're in employment now but looking for something more challenging? That you're happy where you are but are seeking people with similar interests? That you want to keep in touch with professional acquaintances? That you want to keep your options open? Think about it. Now look again at your profile. Does it illustrate your message? Get rid of anything that contradicts your message so that what you say and what's on display match up.

This applies as much to your personal conduct as it does to your social media profiles. Put it this way: if you're trying to promote an image of yourself as a reasonable centrist, tweeting in support of the KKK isn't going to convince your audience of this. Be careful to ensure that all your tweets and blog posts are on message; on no account do you want your audience to think you're basically this:

unless you actually want people to think you're emotionally needy and overly clingy. Your story and message need to match. If you want people to share your perception of who you are then your behaviour and attitude ought to present you as that person. Want to be seen as a calm, controlled, reasonable person? Don't get involved in slanging matches online whatever the provocation, otherwise the audience will see Lena Hyena, not the person you believe yourself to be. I know, I've been there. It's not pretty and it did me no good until I saw the error of my ways and learned the lesson.

Taking ownership of the narrative

If you find yourself, as I did, in a situation where your reputation is shot to hell online and you can't just come back later under a new pseudonym, the only way to take ownership of the narrative is to present yourself the way you want to be seen on a range of different platforms in the hope of burying the negative items. Making comments on popular blogs, etc., can and does help to raise your profile in the right way. A thoughtful comment here and a wise observation there can bring you the positive attention you desire, particularly if other readers comment on your comment, which has happened to me. You really want people to talk about you online, but in the most positive way.

Disaster recovery

There is nothing wrong with attention-seeking on the internet as long as you do it with a view to contribute. Attention-seeking for a pity party (I've done that!) tends to backfire. Remember that you are not the only one who talks about yourself online and that you have no control over what other people think or say about you, but you can influence them by how you respond to what they say; when a reputation-wrecker troll came after me last year he wasn't content with posting lies about me on business review sites, he actually tweeted my employers and tried to get me sacked. I had a fire to put out, which I did by

  • posting rebuttals to each accusation
  • contacting the websites involved to advise them that these were troll posts
  • discussing the matter with my employer, explaining that I was the victim of troll activity
  • getting an official email and tweet from the police advising that I'm not under investigation (extortion is a criminal offence) and sending them to my employer

I was successful in getting the accusatory posts down on most of the review sites; the one that doesn't remove reviews whether they're troll posts or not left it up. That'll do more harm to their reputation than to mine — who takes a review site that accepts troll posts seriously?

Effective reputation management

When I did discuss the matter online I adopted a tone of one swatting a fly when I wasn't joking about it. When the troll's take on my joke was posted online, I screencapped it and used it to get the negative posts on most of the review sites taken down; I could write smack about myself were I so inclined. Why would I pay anyone else to do it? In any case, my message isn't "Pity me, poor Wendy the victim," it's "I'm smart, funny, and occasionally snarky." This is why I never whinge online — I want people to see me as capable and competent. Whingeing would undermine that. While whingeing is in the eye of the beholder it's important to keep an eye on the beholders; if they're seeing you as Whinger in Chief, stop commenting about your situation where they can see it. If they're saying it, others are thinking it.

So, I hear you asking, what is all this really about? We've seen posts like this before. Where does it all come from?

My story

I have never gone into particular detail over the incidents that shaped my views about free speech, search engines, and the responsibilities of online platforms. Suffice it to say that back in the day I went on an ill-advised conservative rant on a liberal website and got hammered for it by trolls who were more interested in stirring up drama than in winning me over to their point of view. They persecuted me for several years before I finally quit, nuking my bridges behind me. During that time I was subject to their speech on my own e-spaces as well as on theirs. They trashed my name the length and breadth of that website and also on the other websites that made up the community I had joined.

Mean speech and libel

I had both mean speech and libel to deal with and believe me, the libel did me harm in the community because a lot of people believed it. I didn't help my case by whingeing — or having done some of the things they accused me of (although they greatly exaggerated them). My sympathy-seeking as I tried to present myself as a Brave Little Trooper Whose Colours Don't Run did me more harm than good as it a) provided fuel for the trolls and b) lost me a temp job when one of my co-workers, who had taken against me, showed the boss a post I'd written about my attempts to survive being bullied at work by her. Honestly, I should have kept my head down instead of publicly trying to move closer to the more influential members and I should never have taken part in any discussions after the initial fiasco; I should have made a new account and started again under another pen name so I couldn't be connected to that ill-advised post. As it happened, pride goes before a fall and I have only myself to blame for a series of bad decisions that led to my ignominious exit from the community. The trolls' speech is now gone; all that remains is my self-piteous whingeing about it. I looked at my old account while writing up this post and honestly, I wanted to slap me. While I'm not responsible for what the trolls did, painting three concentric circles on myself then whingeing about being shot is not the way forward.

My struggle

My (ill-advised) attempts at fighting back include ratting to the website owners (none of them would do anything despite the actual defamation), legal threats (I couldn't afford to litigate), and efforts at counter-speech which were basically "Look at what they're saying about me. Just look at it. Horrifying, innit? What awful people! How come they have any friends, I ask you?" This is one of the reasons why people I was friendly with abandoned me; they didn't want to have to pick a side, and when they did it wasn't mine. Eventually I was completely worn down by having to deal with this crap and I quit the community for good, saying, "Well, I'm going now. Are you sorry? You should be. I'm leaving, they're staying. I am the goodie, they are the baddies. Enjoy!"

The lessons

Well, years later, the smarts have faded away to a dull ache; my emotional investment in the community cost me a great deal more than I've been able to quantify due to my having joined it at a time when I was suffering due to a traumatic personal event. That, in itself, was bloody stupid, as was spilling my guts online. Trolls are attracted to emotional pain like sharks to blood — with similar results. Well, I've learned my lesson, and it can be summarised thus:

  • You can't control what other people think, say, or do, but you can (and should) control yourself. 
  • As counter-intuitive as it sounds, you're better off getting out of an online fight than slugging it out.
  • Ignore trolls, don't engage them.
  • Present yourself as you would like to be perceived; if you whinge or make threats that's how people will see you.
  • Speech about you online, whether positive or negative, makes people check you out. Make sure there's something positive for them to find when they do.
  • Make positive posts in which you demonstrate the things you want people to believe about you in order to push negative results down. Don't say, "I'm friendly and knowledgeable," BE friendly and knowledgeable.
  • If you screw up, admit it, try to put it right, then move on. 
  • Do NOT attempt to make people change their minds about you, let them come to their own conclusions.
  • If people say mean things about you, check those comments out. Is there even a grain of truth in there? Take the hint and change your attitude.
  • No one will believe negative comments about you if you don't display the behaviour and attitudes you're accused of.

Applying these lessons doesn't guarantee immediate relief from any problems you may be experiencing but it should stop things getting any worse.

Social limits

There's not an easy answer to the freedom of speech debate. I've been on the receiving end of horrible speech and know how much it can hurt. Failure to deal with horrible speech can and does bring the chickens home to roost. If ISPs won't deal with it, someone else will try to make them. What will happen to free speech then? This is so subjective that even expressing an opinion that's out of step with the mainstream can get you into trouble; the threat of repercussions of expressing our views limits our speech. If my speech is limited to what other people deem acceptable, so is yours. How much of a limit are you willing to accept? If the answer is "None," you may find yourself dealing with the consequences of your speech for years. Can you afford to?

Freedom of speech is a right, not a privilege

I had a debate tonight with an Antifa sympathiser who advocates violence against Nazis. He can't or won't accept that they're the logical endgame of right wing thought: they're the symptom, not the disease, so getting into altercations with them isn't going to make them go away, it'll merely drive them underground. Yes I'm saying they have a right to free speech, but the social limits I mentioned earlier apply: those Nazis who marched in Charlottesville are already losing their jobs as a consequence of being seen to be Nazis. It's the social limits, not legal ones, that keep them in check. Nazism took off in Germany because anti-semitism was socially acceptable at the time. It's not acceptable now. Are they a threat? Only if their views become mainstream, so it's up to the reasonable, decent people to ensure they do not by providing alternatives to scapegoating and exceptionalism as solutions to economic and social anxieties. The funny thing is, due to partisanship the alternatives (e.g. socialism, which I have some sympathy with but am not fully on board with) are often shouted down as unacceptable speech. The burgeoning echo chamber culture does little to help matters but again, the solution is more speech, not limits on it. If the counter-speech isn't working, it's because there's either not enough of it or the message is the wrong one. Banning speech is lazy and counter-productive since it only feeds echo chamber cultures. The unapproved speech just gets repackaged and repeated anyway. Better to have it out in the open than hidden where it can fester and pop back up later on.

Permitted and illicit speech

Freedom of speech will continue to be a contentious issue for as long as we consider some speech to be "permitted" and others "illicit." The trouble with legislating this is that sooner or later we may find our own speech being chilled in order to ensure it is permitted. In any case, it's a mirage; social limits are always in play so we have to be careful about what we say in case it causes problems for us, as some of us have discovered. ISPs can only be asked to take responsibilty for so much; sooner or later we have to accept that feeding trolls, etc., keeps them coming back for more.

Rights and responsibilities

Freedom of speech, then, is as much of a responsibility as it is a right since we have to own what we say and be willing to accept the consequences thereof. There's not an easy, pat answer to the problems created by people expressing themselves in horrible ways; even when their speech is unacceptable in principle it will continue in practice if the people who ought to do something about it won't. Ultimately, it's where the "ought" falls that I have the problem with: I slag people such as Prime Minister Theresa May off all the time. Should I be banned from Blogger for making mean speech? She's a human being, after all. Okay, what if I made a habit of slagging off a private individual? Is that permitted, whether I'm exaggerating or not? I've been on the receiving end of that. It's horrible. What's the difference between having a go at Our Glorious Leader and Joe Bloggs? On t'Internet is a small blog but what if my blog was popular and Joe doesn't really "do" internet? Why is it Joe's responsibility to counter horrible speech about him so that it's not the only speech about him on the internet? It's exhausting to have to do that when you're up against a horde of trolls and bots, believe me. Sooner or later you just give up because you can't fight back and have a life.


My personal experience has solidified my belief that despite the fact that horrible people exist and that they say and do horrible things, we need to maintain freedom of speech. However, to ensure maximum freedom we need to accept that some speech can and does chill other speech and that social limits exist — cause, meet consequence. I don't think we should oblige targets of horrible speech to take one for the team, we ought to support them. That said, we need to be reasonable about where the line lies between a bit of snark and outright abuse, even though that's really subjective. And we need to be honest about our own speech lest we discover that it falls into the "illicit" category we use for speech that we don't like. Freedom of speech is only as free as we, as a society, are willing to allow. For this reason, it needs to be as free as possible lest we fall foul of the limits we cheer on down the line.

*Where bombing and killing to achieve a political goal one can't achieve by peaceful campaigning = terrorism. Basically, the public isn't interested so you're trying to force the issue. I don't care who does the bombing and killing or what the stated aim is, I do not approve of violence. If the public's not on side, accept it.

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