Digital Myths #19: The Myth of Freedom of Speech

‘Free speech’ is not the same as ‘everything goes’.

So far, I’ve talked about the dark side of freedom of speech online: the conspiracy theories, the propaganda, the hate speech. Some say it’s the price we pay for all the good stuff (like Steven Johnson in Myth #17). Another view is that there can’t be mass distribution without some kind of editorial responsibility and publishing ethic.

No system of free speech is without limits; the trick is to set them up so we can get the good stuff

No system of free speech is without limits; the trick is to set them up so we can get the good stuff – like many different voices heard – and as little as possible of the bad stuff. Classic media solved this with editors, the distinction of public versus published and an ongoing evaluation of publishing decisions through various systems. Similar rules have been difficult to put in place online, which is how one can end up with the ‘whatever, the good stuff wins out anyway’-camp. That’s not good enough. Let me explain why with a story from the world of games (first published as a column in The Digital Post in September 2015, and I thank them for letting me republish it in this book):

In the autumn of 2014, GamerGate shocked the games industry. While it may have masqueraded as an online debate on press ethics, the actual effect was to silence female journalists and academics who publicly criticized sexist depictions of women in games.

Hundreds or thousands of anonymous web users made rape and death threats toward the handful of public women who were the targets and victims of GamerGate.

In some cases, GamerGaters allegedly also paid visits in real life. Media scholar Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a speech at Utah State University following an email threatening a mass shooting would take place if she gave it.

Game developer Brianna Wu had to flee her home after her address was posted on Twitter (alongside rape and murder threats).

This is not an isolated event, anonymous haters online – or trolls – use social media to silence the voices of those they happen to disagree with, ironically often citing freedom of speech as a justification. Sexism is just one theme; racism may be even more popular.

GamerGate started as a hashtag on the online forum 4Chan, famously connected to the ‘Anonymous’ movement – an association of sort of anarchist internet activists, some of whom may also be involved in GamerGate.

However, even the moderators of the notoriously liberal 4Chan decided that GamerGate went too far and kicked them out. The GamerGaters regrouped at a similar but even more lax online space called 8Chan (or InfiniteChan) which has hardly any rules whatsoever.

There the actions against the likes of Sarkeesian and Wu were orchestrated, however the actual attacks were carried out mainly via Twitter using the #GamerGate hashtag.

Anyone who says something like ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me’ or ‘freedom of speech is absolute and can also be used to defend oneself against hate speech’ has never been on the receiving end of something like Gamergate and has a very limited understanding of freedom of expression.

It is fair to express one’s own views, but not to try and abuse others into silence.

It is fair to express one’s own views, but not to try and abuse others into silence. I have met many who prefer to remain silent even on much less controversial topics such as piracy or vaccines from fear of threats or hate speech.

Anonymity has something to do with it, but lack of consequence is a more important factor. Some of the cyberbullying directed against, for example, Sarkeesian was not anonymous; instead attackers bragged on forums how they had hacked her Wikipedia page or posted porn images with her head pasted on.

The games industry was in shock. For many years, several parts of it had made great efforts to attract more women players and employees, as well as removing that age-old stamp of sexism.

The GamerGaters claimed they have the right to define who gets to play games and particularly have opinions about games. It went against every ambition of gender equality and all the progress made in the last decade. And the game world reacted.

Sweden’s top game developers wrote an op-ed saying ‘not in the name of our games’. Thousands signed petitions. The mainstream media covered the story with little patience for the haters who hid behind anonymity.

Companies and organisations launched equality and diversity initiatives. Processor manufacturer Intel set aside US$300 million towards equal opportunity initiatives. Some of these activities were already on the way, some were a consequence of GamerGate.

In an online world without consequence, it is only too easy to post before thinking, more often than not exaggerating to impress other users.

But the most important actions may have been much humbler. Many game companies changed the rules on their forums, making consequences clearer and more strictly enforced by moderators.

In an online world without consequence, it is only too easy to post before thinking, more often than not exaggerating to impress other users.

The tone on many game forums may certainly have contributed to the GamerGate attitudes, but the game forums are also part of the solution.

Other social media could learn from how active moderation and clear rules can develop a climate in which respect and freedom of speech prevail over hate and bullying. The game world learned it the hard way.

 

Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.

 

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