Talk back: Why should we have more restrictions on “harmful” speech on social media?

Dear all,

This is a different sort of blog post.

Rather than me writing yet another essay to you, I want to open the floor to you. I want you to answer something for me. It’s like the subreddit “Change My View.”

This is aimed specifically at my liberal and progressive friends who are very upset at the social media giants for letting things get so out of hand. See how much of the following applies to you:

You have become increasingly aware of how awful the harassment of women and minorities by the far right has become. You are really, sincerely worried that they have elected Trump, who isn’t just a crass clown (many people agree with that) but basically a proto-fascist. You are convinced that Trump must have gotten elected because of the growing popularity of right-wing extremists. They engage in hate speech. Not only is this why Trump was elected, it’s why people are constantly at each other’s throats today, and why there has been domestic terrorism and mass murder by the right. Therefore, all mature, intelligent observers seem to agree that we need to rein in online hate speech and harmful speech.

I’ve heard all of this a lot, because I’ve sought it out in an attempt to understand it—because it freaks me out. Here’s the thing: I think it’s mostly bullshit. Yes, people (of all political stripes) have gotten nastier, maybe. I didn’t vote for Trump and I dislike him. But beyond that, I think the entire line above isn’t just annoyingly wrong, it’s downright scary. This is largely because I have always greatly valued free speech and this above-summarized mindset has put free speech (and hence other basic liberal democratic/small-r republican values) at risk.

But I’m not going to elaborate my view further now; I mention it only to explain why I want your view first. I’ll save an elaboration of my view in a response to you. What I hope you’ll do, if you agree with the bold bit above, is to explain your sincere, considered position. Do your best to persuade me. Then, sometime in the next week or two, I’ll do my best to persuade you, incorporating all the main points in your replies (assuming I get enough replies).

So please answer: Why should we more aggressively prevent harmful or hate speech, or ban people who engage in such speech, on social media? The “why” is the thing I’m interested in. Don’t answer the question, please, if you don’t agree with the premise of the question.

Here are some sub-questions you might cover:

  1. Did you used to care more about free speech? What has changed your mind about the relative importance of it?
  2. Do you agree with the claim, “Hate speech is not free speech”? Why?
  3. Exactly where did my “Free Speech Credo” go wrong?
  4. If all you want to say is that “free speech” only restricts government action, and that you don’t think corporate actions can constitute censorship, but please also explain any thoughts you have about why it is so important
  5. If you’re American and you want Uncle Sam to restrict hate speech, why do you think the law can and should be changed now, after allowing it for so many years? (Surely you don’t think Americans are more racist than they were 50 years ago.)
  6. Does it bother you that “hate speech” is very vague and that its application seems to have grown over the years?
  7. If hate speech on the big social media sites bothers you enough to want to get rid of it, what’s your stance toward blogs and forums where racists (or people who want to call racists) congregate?
  8. Where should it end, generally speaking? Would you want the National Review banned? Don’t just say, “Don’t be ridiculous.” If that’s ridiculous, then where do you draw the line between, for example, banning Paul Joseph Watson from Facebook and using government power to take down a conservative opinion journal?
  9. By the way, do you think it’s possible for conservatives and libertarians to be decent people? Honest? Intelligent? Do you think they are all racists? Do you think that articulating all or many conservative or libertarian positions is essentially racist or harmful speech?

Basically, if enough people answer these questions (one or all), I think that’ll give me an idea of how your mind actually works as you think this stuff through. This will enable me to craft the most interesting response to you. I want to understand your actual views fully—i.e., not (necessarily) some academic theory, but your real, on-the-ground, down-to-earth views that results in your political stance.




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Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

8 responses to “Talk back: Why should we have more restrictions on “harmful” speech on social media?”

  1. Larry,

    Thanks for kicking it off. I will also share this post with Bloggers of Color and more women so we capture some of the lived experience of those who face harassment online every day.

    I also believe you misconstrue my position as against free speech. What I said when I noted I could not sign any declaration or get involved in any movement for the web that does not explicitly design for diversity and inclusion.

    You conflated this position with “Against Free Speech,” which is often a tactic that those who engage in organized harassment campaigns use.

    This is not the same. I am not asking for an end to free speech but a consideration of designing for all from the beginning and not just inviting folks to your table but going to break bread at their table.

    I think your mention of Trump is a bit if a dog whistle. As a #credweb scholar I have been studying misinformation for over a decade (tree octopus anyone??).

    This is not a political issue but a moral issue of education. Tech is a white male space and open source is the whitest and malest of them all.

    I am not surprised. Literacy, how we read and write, always determined by parental income and this is determined by slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and segregation. This is not an opinion but settled scientific fact.

    Literacy online is no different, and yet at same time words and the web can empower people whose voices have been squashed.

    This is why I even favor a more hyper local web rather than a decentralized system. I love the IFPS and P2P dream. I did more trading musical concerts on the web before doing much else, but what I dream more about these days is a more equitable web.

    I mean look at how you frame your questions, “Did you used to care more about free speech.” You are saying any position pushing for greater diversity is in contrast with free speech and to care for diversity means you not care for free speech.

    These are mutually exclusive.

    I am a person who firmly believes hate speech is free speech and must have government protections or those same governments will eventually come for my words. To me, historically, the second amendment exists to protect the first.

    In terms of corporations and free speech this is settled law. In 1867 corporations were given the same rights as people and therefore it is their free speech to decide what does and does not appear on their platform. What you call censorship I call exercising free speech.

    Corporations in the US also have a legal fiduciary responsibility. Keeping off hate speech is a matter of legal responsibility to shareholders as it impacts profits.

    Hate speech is only vague to those who have not been on the receiving end. To those face harassment, you don’t even need a Supreme Court “porn test.”

    In terms of me leaving some social media sites my reasons were myriad. Please do not assume it was some myopic “SJW” agenda. It was a deeply personal choice.

    Do I worry that all right wing conspiracy folks will head to their own blogs? I would welcome that. The web flourishes with multiple perspectives, even those that are wrong.

    Further I wouldn’t add them to my feeds and they would lose the amplification social media and the profiting of attention causes. If conspiracies get driven underground, good.

    Your statement is ridiculous. You can not equate a corporation practicing free speech by banning someone with the government violating free speech by banning a magazine.

    Stop equating conservatives and liberals with intelligence or being a decent human being. You can be a conservative and not spend your days calling folks a “lispy queer.” 50% of the people I know are conservative. I live in a 50/50 rural town in liberal Connecticut. Most conservatives I know don’t know a blogger let alone care or even know about a decentralized web.

    The people who use the same argument that your questions make (while framing them as questions) are activist that use harassment as a tool. They are not the beliefs of conservatives and libertarians.

    So for me the question is can you build tools for diversity and inclusion that support privacy, security, self-sovereign data and digital memory. I believe you can and that many of these solutions exist.

    Does the absolute anonymity of the decentralized web scare me a bit? Yes. Any system will need moderation tools. This is why I like a platformless approach.

    I am not anti DNS like many in the decentralized crowd (I also don’t live in a country without free speech where this will matter).

    Do I have all the answers? No. Not sure I am even in the place to ask the right questions

    The best way to reach all folks is to ensure they have a place online that is their own. Through agency and better connections, we can build a better web.

  2. Samupaha

    I think you are looking at this from a wrong perspective. Most people are very irrational and can’t answer these kinds of questions. They just repeat what their tribe leaders are saying, without thinking any bigger ideas and principles behind the message. First they support what everyone else supports in their tribe and then come up with reasons later if somebody happens to ask for them. By asking questions like this you can’t find the real reasons, you will only get made-up answers that are invented after the fact that leftists support restricting freedom of speech. It is very common for humans to form an opinion first and come up with reasons for the opinion later.

    Just flip everything on the other side and you see how it changes. Start saying that leftist progapanda is hate speech and it must be restricted. There are good reasons for this, leftists have murdered and indirectly killed tens of millions of people. It’s brutal and horrible ideology, so it is quite reasonable that civilized societies should limit the speech of its supporters. We have to make sure that the massmurders won’t happen again, right?

    You can be sure that the leftists will immediately flip their opinions and start supporting unlimited freedom of speech. This proves that there is no general philosophical principles behind the demands of restricting freedom of speech. It’s just normal tribal politics where those policies are supported which bring benefits to the tribe. If the same policies stop giving any benefits, the support will immediately end.

    This is probably the primary reason why libertarians and classical liberals have been losing the ideological battle. They focus too much on the logical reasoning and facts behind the ideas and principles. But the truth is that the opponents don’t act at the same level. They don’t care the logical reasoning at all. So what if there are logical inconsistencies in their reasoning? That doesn’t matter at all, they just want to make their tribe to win in the battle against everyone else.

    Just look at what leftists think about multinational corporations. 10-15 years ago there was a lot of resistance against them. Leftists were demanding strict regulations against the big corporations. But what about now? The rhetoric has been changed almost completely. Leftists don’t hate the corporations anymore because they noticed they can control them and use them to advance their own interests.

    This applies especially to the social media platforms. Instead of trying to argue against non-leftists and win the battle of ideas, they just took over the big social media platforms and made them to censor all the non-leftists ideas so that leftists don’t have to spend any time on ideological discussions. It’s easier to win the battle if you prevent the opponents to take part in it. Classic Sun Tzu.

  3. Dirk Walker

    We should more aggressively prevent hate speech because the power it has to drive our social media interaction. Social media is driven by clicks, and views, and nothing gets more clicks and views than raw hate. Rational reasoned discussion is not what gets people to engage. People use hate speech to their advantage, they profit off of it, and it’s very destructive. There’s a reason Russia spawns millions of fake social media accounts and drums up hate. It destabilizes us as a society. I think the problem, as a whole, is much more serious than some people acknowledge.

    There has to be some active measures taken to protect discourse in our country. If we don’t protect it it will continue to deteriorate, we will continue to polarize. I almost see Free speech rights, and preventing hate speech as two sides of the same coin. Free speech online is important, but it’s devalued if 90% of it is hate and misinformation. Who would want that? Its clear if nothing is done that’ll be the end result.

    1) Seeing how damaging hate speech has been over the last few years changed my mind. I have the lowest possible opinion of Trump and his enablers and I think the infectious spread of hate thats been going on for many years is a big part of why we have them.

    2) Hate speech is a bit too loosely defined for me to say it’s NEVER free speech, but no, often it’s not.

    3) I’d say it went wrong on point one. I know you’re being facetious but you define free speech as the right to say offensive things, when I’d define it as the right to express your honest opinion. Sure there’s some overlap there, but free speech was meant for the latter, not the former. I think it’s an important distinction because as I mentioned earlier social media already incentives being offensive and needlessly hurtful so we shouldn’t go out of our way to glorify it further. I also strongly disagree with point 4) that popular safe speech needs no protection. Trump is unpopular, it may be popular to rag on him and speak truth to power but that right is still in need of protection. Plenty dictators have outlawed criticism of the state and they didn’t take a popularity poll first.

    I have a number of small quibbles with the rest of the points that I wont go into. I think a lot of little inaccuracies and exaggerations sprinkled throughout led to an conclusion I don’t agree with.

    4) I have made that point many times, the constitutional right to free speech keeps you out of jail, nothing more. It doesn’t guarantee you a platform.

    5) If there were laws against hate speech 50 years ago, well enforced, I truly truly believe we’d be a much better country today. But I’m not advocating for laws, or Uncle Sam’s intervention. Not yet. I’m just applauding private companies that uphold their terms of service even in the face of backlash from the whining crying violators.

    6) Yes the vagueness of the term ‘hate speech’ does bother me. The vagueness of a lot of terms bother me. I’ve had many political arguments that went in circles because we were using different definitions of the same word. That’s another problem all it’s own. I think hate speech should be categorized into different levels of harmfulness.

    7) Blogs and forms where racists congregate I hope one day lose their hosting and get unlisted by google search

    8) I don’t think the national review should be banned but I’d applaud any vendor who decided not to carry it.

    9) Sure. I can understand being conservative or libertarian. I don’t understand being a trump supporter though. Do I think there are some decent, intelligent Trump supporters. Sure. I haven’t given up my faith in humanity enough to think 33% of the U.S. is dumb or indecent. But by the same token I think there are / were decent and intelligent people who supported plenty horrible dictators throughout history. Why do they do it? I don’t know. All I know is we can’t let them win.

  4. Clairvaux

    Is this thread open to refutation of the liberals’ position on “hate speech” ? Or is it best left to them (which I would perfectly understand) ?

    1. I think it might be best that we wait for them to weigh in without having to worry about defending themselves in a long thread here. My plan was to respond to them systematically in a separate essay, and then of course you could respond to particular issues then.

      1. Larry, FYI, your erstwhile disputant Professor Sears previously wrote an essay relevant to this topic, about his overall views and conversion from being “a conservative”:

        I’ll put it this way – though brief, he certainly does outline his reasons.

        There’s certainly value in working through the various positions, as an exercise, especially if one is an intellectual interested in these issues. But sadly, one must then deal with the fact that responses do not seem to change anyone’s mind, which has some disquieting implications.

  5. Aaron P

    I probably shouldn’t respond to this because I don’t agree with the statements in the yellow box, and I am not going to answer the specific question you asked, because I think it is the wrong question. However, you called me out specifically.

    Here are some points to consider that will hopefully help you understand why you are not asking the right question, and why questions like these continue to inflame the situation. Hopefully this will help you understand the goals we’re working towards as well.

    1. There is no place for hate speech and bigotry anywhere, including online. Specifically hate speech that attacks an individual. There is no benefit to anyone when this kind of attitude exists. It is not an effective way to make an argument, and there are plenty of papers to back this up.

    2. Corporations are not the government. Like individuals, corporations should be encouraged to have their own opinions and decide what they should keep on and off their platforms. Just as I as an individual have no obligation to repeat what you say, YouTube has no obligation to keep any particular video or person on their website.

    3. With that in mind, it is a huge problem that any single corporation has the power and responsibility that they currently do. The fact that YouTube can kick someone off their platform is not the problem. The fact that YouTube can kick someone off their platform *and that they then have a much smaller audience* is the problem. The key problem is that YouTube has all the eyeballs, and so has control over what is seen online.

    4. The solution that many of us are working towards is to get to a place where instead of 4 major corporations controlling all of the online social media content, that control and distribution is broken up into many thousands of smaller communities, each which can have their own policies and guidelines about what kind of content they allow. Any particular operator should have no obligation to host content they disagree with, and any individual should be free to join or ignore any particular community.

    Hopefully this gives you some new insight.

  6. I own a company that features pretty women wrestling for real (with no nudity) and we have been removed by Youtube, Dailymotion, Vimeo, and Tumblr over the last 7 years and I’m sure more will follow.

    Efforts to stifle expression has unintended consequences, that touches many people.

    If this is an issue at all, it should be dealt with locally. Not at the federal level. They cannot accurately forecast the needs of everyone as well as it could be done locally. And, people who don’t like certain rules can go somewhere else.

    Point being, I would much rather be banned by these companies than being banned or stifled by any government.

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