I must confess that I am unable to reach any firm conclusions on the issue of freedom of expression on the Internet. As hard as I try to analyze and interpret years of news related to the topic, I am still unable to embrace any single idea with a minimum of conviction.
This post is the result of reading two articles, neither perfect, and much less beyond argument, but they do make a good case on two interesting issues: first, the dilemma, featured on the cover of Time magazine, about the problem of trolls, hate speech, and how harassment and abuse work, a problem that Twitter has been suffering for many years.
The second is about the closure and subsequent auction of Gawker Media, one of the first native Internet media companies, thanks to billionaire Peter Thiel, who decided to dig into his very deep pockets to finance any campaign that could damage financially the company, as part of a personal crusade after Gawker published an article about him in 2007. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
In a sense, that a company with so many brilliant minds as Twitter’s has spent almost a decade struggling with the same kind of dilemma makes me feel a little better: clearly, this is not a simple issue. In the disquisitions of Twitter I have been judge and plaintiff: in 2008, Twitter showed that harassment and bullying would be an important problem for it, and one that it has clearly shown it has no idea how to solve. I saw exactly how an account clearly set up to harass others was cheered on by hundreds of people along the lines of schoolyard bullying, and how the solutions proposed by the company only made matters worse. Twitter has known for many years that doing nothing to curtail harassment and bullying is not a solution, and in fact worsens the problem by generating a culture of impunity, which has led some to consider leaving Twitter and some to predict that it could bring about the end point of a company that has shown itself unable to deal with the issue, and that seems just to be applying band-aid solutions. Simply removing insults from the sight of the person being insulted does not make them disappear.
As a society, we decided many years ago that bullying is a bad thing. When I was at school, harassment and bullying were something normal, everyday, and the attitude of teachers, the school or parents was part of life and very rarely any action was taken. Things have changed a lot since then: as a society, we have seen people commit suicide over harassment and bullying and although much remains to be done, there has been progress. But on the internet, harassment and bullying continue to operate exactly as then: the bullies are very similar, as are the people who cheer them on, and the damage done is very, very similar … but the measures to try to fix seem to me to based on mistaken interpretations of freedom of expression.
In the case of Gawker, my feelings are even more uncertain. No, it does not seem appropriate that the world has become a place where, if you anger a billionaire you run the risk of losing your company, your job or your website. Peter Thiel being able to close down Gawker thanks to near-unlimited financial resources does not give any legitimacy to the outcome. But as much as we might not sympathize with Peter Thiel … we should also ask what right Gawker had to publish an article about his sexuality against his wishes.
Should freedom of expression protect a publication that clearly exceeds the limits of any right under the supposed aim of “afflicting the comfortable”? If your editorial policy is to make as much money as possible by publishing whatever you want, protected by an unlimited interpretation of freedom of expression, and regardless of the possible damage you might cause … is not it better for society as a whole to shut you down?
Yes, I know: my happiness at the closure of Gawker Media automatically makes me a bad person, somebody who rejects incisive journalism. But are we sure that this kind of journalism is sustainable? And worse, are we sure we want it to be? If we do not censor those who insult, I fear, we will, de facto, be censoring the insulted: by defending the freedom of expression of those who insult, we impair the free speech of have no voice for fear of being insulted.
I’m no angel. Sometimes I have published things I knew would be painful for some people. And when I did, I did so because I felt that the position or responsibilities of these people justified someone like me calling them to account. On occasion, because someone with a lot of money did not like what I said I have even been taken to court, costing me money, something that is often described — not just by me — as SLAPP, Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. But in all honesty, I do not think this is a matter of perception, I still think we’re talking about different things.
Are we talking here perhaps about shades of gray? Do we tend to think it is harmless to insult the powerful, either because we support them or because we don’t like them? Is it even possible to legislate about something like freedom of expression, a profoundly subjective topic? What about gallows humor, jokes in bad taste? Are there limits? Who decides them? The law? Morality, education and good manners? Common sense? All of the previous or none of them? I have never believed in censorship, but neither does it seem right for people to go around saying what they like without suffering any consequences for it. Is that so strange?
I believe deeply in freedom of expression, I consider it something worth defending at all costs. I would not want to live in a country without it. But “defending it to the death” does not mean defending those who prostitute that freedom of expression whenever they want. Freedom of expression is not the same as “freedom to publish whatever we damn well please.” I think if you use freedom of expression as “freedom to be a jerk” or “freedom to say what comes into my head” or “freedom to hurt others”, you deserve to be kicked off sites, socially isolated, fined or censored. In short I believe — deeply — in freedom of expression as much as I do not believe at all in “anything goes”.
In many ways, Twitter’s problem is that it has given a voice to many people who simply shouldn’t have one: they lack any of the qualities society requires if you are to speak in public. I completely agree with Buzzfeed: thanks to its passive attitude, Twitter has become a “honeypot for assholes” who should never have access to a tool like this, and who should lose the right to use it while they think things through. I know very well that many people I know and who like what I write will not retweet this post because the easy thing to do is to speak of freedom of expression as something unconditional, universal, as a concept “without names” as an absolute truth. But honestly, I do not believe it is, nor should it be.
And in the case of Gawker Media, I do not sympathize with Peter Thiel and I don’t like the idea that money can buy everything, but sorry, neither can I sympathize with Nick Denton and his “anything goes”.
And with that, having no doubt garnered any number of enemies, I’ll sign off.
(En español, aquí)