Freedom of Speech != Freedom From Accountability

Photo by Cory Doctorow | Source: Flickr

We believe that freedom of speech can be a positive force, especially when used with a level of care and respect for others. Realistically, we do not live in a world where people will always be sweet and happy like Teletubbies. People are not always going to be kind to each other, and everyone is bound to have a bad day.

Here’s where the true challenge comes in for product owners — what do you do to protect free speech while also protecting your community from hate speech and online harassment? Do you allow users to threaten to rape other users in the name of freedom of expression? How will you discern the difference between someone having a bad day versus repeat offenders in need of correction?

Context is everything

The knee-jerk reaction might be to implement an Orwellian censorship strategy. In some cases, this may be the correct approach. Strict filtration is the right strategy for a child-directed product, where there are topics that are never acceptable from a legal perspective. However, filtering out certain words or phrases may not be the solution for a 17+ gaming community or a social media platform for adults. The context of a conversation between two strangers is much different from a conversation between a group of old friends, or a public chatroom where many voices are ‘shouting’ at each other.

Every community has different rules of engagement — each company has a philosophy about what they deem to be an appropriate conversation within their social product. What Flickr considers acceptable will differ significantly from what’s socially accepted on 4chan, or from within a professional Slack channel. Every product is different and unique, and that is one of the challenges we have in providing a protection service to such a wide variety of social apps and games.

Each product has a set of goals and guidelines that govern what they believe is acceptable or unacceptable within their community. Similarly, online collectives tend to have expectations about what they think is appropriate or inappropriate behaviour within their tribe. A moderator or community manager should act as a facilitator, reconciling any differences of expectation between the product owners and the community.

Respect each other as humans

With anonymity, it is much easier to divorce oneself from the reality that there’s a real human on the receiving end of vitriolic comments or so-called rape ‘jokes’.

Writer Lindy West shared a bit of her story about confronting a ‘troll’ who had been harassing her online in an excellent episode of “This American Life”. The writer and the man engage in a civil conversation, acknowledging the tension directly, eventually coming to somewhat of understanding about each other.

People forget that the victims of these ‘trolls’ are real people, but they also forget that ‘trolls’ are real people, too. As Lindy West describes, “empathy, boldness, and kindness” are some practical ways to bridge differences between two humans.

There is a substantial difference between a virus and a corrupted file, just as there is a difference between a real troll and someone who’s having a bad day. With respect comes an opportunity to see each other as human beings rather than avatars on the other side of a screen.

Freedom of speech does not equal freedom from accountability

Some have described the internet as a haven for freedom of expression, where there is less pressure to be “politically correct”. While this may be partially true, there is still an inherent accountability that comes with our freedom. When someone chooses to exploit their freedom to publish hate speech, he or she will likely face some natural consequences, like the effect on his or her personal reputation (or in some extreme cases, legal repercussions.)

Freedom of speech is not always sweet. It can even be ugly without crossing the line of transforming into toxic behavior. It can also be amazing and transformative. The democratization of thought enabled by modern social platforms have had a profound effect on society, empowering millions to share and exchange ideas and information.

One of our goals with Community Sift is to create “safety without censorship”, empowering product owners to preserve user freedom while also protecting their social apps and games. There are so many issues that plague online communities, including spam, radicalization, and illegal content. Businesses work with us because we use a combination of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and human community professionals to protect their products and services.

Moreover, while we respect the need for freedom of speech, we cannot support any activity that results in someone taking their own life. That is why we do what we do. If we can protect a single life through automated escalations and improved call-for-help workflows, we will have made the world a better place. While this may sound overly altruistic, we believe this is a challenge that is worth tackling head-on, regardless of the perspective about “freedom of speech.”