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Many years ago, back when I still had a normal 9-5 job, they called a meeting for the entire IT Department. They had these meetings about once a quarter, but on this occasion, a significant level of dissatisfaction had built up around wages and salary. It was widely thought that the company was underpaying its technical staff when compared to the other companies in the area. In order to get ahead of the grumbling, the CFO decided to attend the meeting and explain things.

I’m not sure what the CFO expected to accomplish, because he came to the meeting with a really weak hand. They weren’t prepared to announce any big changes to the way they determined salaries, but they did announce that the amount we paid for health insurance every month was going up. In other words, there was significant bad news and no good news.

The one thing the CFO did have to fall back on was that they had been very good about giving annual raises. And as I recall he made a big point of emphasizing that. The problem was that the size of these annual raises was such that they were more cost of living adjustments than actual raises. Which is to say that if they give you a 2% raise, and inflation is at 2% then you wouldn’t expect your purchasing power to change very much, if at all. And, of course, that assumes that your costs don’t go up. Which we had just been informed, in that very same meeting, was not the case. What this meant is that, once you combined the increased healthcare costs with a “raise” that was very close to the rate of inflation, you could quite easily end up making less in absolute terms after all was said and done. This was particularly true for those near the bottom end of the salary scale, where healthcare was a bigger percentage of their gross. (I certainly wasn’t at the lowest end of the scale, but I was definitely in the bottom 50% at this point.)

Now if I had been smart, I would have kept this observation to myself, and not said anything, but keeping my mouth shut has never been my forte, so I brought it up. This did not go over well with the CFO who, as I indicated, was already kind of floundering. After stammering for a bit the only retort he could come up with was that they had never reduced our salaries when inflation was negative. This would have been an excellent point, if inflation ever went negative, which it doesn’t (at least not during the entire time the company had been in business). In fact, given that this happened somewhere in the 2004-2006 range when inflation was hovering at or above 3%, this retort was particularly pointless. In any event, I didn’t point this out, I was at least that smart.  

The reason it wasn’t smart on my part is that the whole incident was enough for the CFO to strongly suggest that I shouldn’t get a raise at all the next time the subject came up. But I guess my boss told him that I would quit if I didn’t get it, and that that would be bad, so it was eventually approved, over the CFOs objection.

I tell this story because we’re going to be talking about free speech, and this incident is a great example of how speech used to work:

  • There was always a well defined power structure. There’s a few people at the top, and a mass of people below them. In the story you have the CFO and the employees. Before the internet you had politicians on top with newspapers and TV acting as the voice of the masses.
  • The number of things people cared about were fewer but held onto less passionately, and for many of these concerns there was wide agreement even at the different levels. Neither the executives nor the employees wanted the company to go out of business. From the perspective of the press, previously things like the evening news had a vast audience of people who all felt loosely connected to everything that was being said.
  • Given that there were fewer concerns with wider agreement anything being said was likely to be of interest to more people. No one else was stupid enough to bring up the idea of wages staying ahead of inflation, but lots of my co-workers congratulated me for bringing it up afterwards.
  • There was a limited number of venues where this speech could take place. In my example it largely only took place once a quarter during the general meeting. In the pre-internet age we had the limited venues of newspapers, TV and radio.
  • Censorship was easy. If they could have shut me up then likely no one else would have brought up that point, and as I said if I had been smarter even I wouldn’t have brought it up. I confess to not having seen the movie The Post, but as I understand it, the whole point was that if the government could have stopped the Washington Post and the New York Times from printing the Pentagon Papers, then it would have been over. I doubt anyone would try the same thing now.

As I said, this is how speech used to work. But this is not how it currently works. Now, rather than having the executives and employees all meet in a single room once a quarter to listen to what each other has to say, there are countless rooms, and the meetings don’t happen once a quarter they happen all day every day. And rather than a format where the executive stands up in front of people and takes questions, every person can say just about anything at anytime, and everyone has a megaphone, though some megaphones are bigger than others. Oh, and did I also mention that some of the people wear masks?

On top of all this, if you’ll allow me to stretch the metaphor even further (though hopefully not too far), Facebook and Google own most of the buildings and once you’re inside they usher you to the room they think you’ll like the best, because it’s a room full of people who think exactly the same way you do. Now of course you don’t have to go into the Facebook or Google buildings, but that’s where most of the people are, and if you want to either hear what’s happening from, or talk about what’s happening to, a bunch of people that’s the fastest way to do it.

In the good old days I was a free speech absolutist. And it’s entirely possible that this was a factor in pointing out the possibility that wages might not be keeping up with inflation. After all, if we follow the metaphor, being a free speech absolutist, meant I felt that the executives should have lots of meetings and that at those meetings people should be able to ask any question or raise any point they wanted to. Which is what I did.

Though even back then, my support was not so absolute that I thought you should be able to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Nor did I think that violent threats should be protected. But beyond that I felt that more speech is more better. The question which is before me now, is do I still think that? The answer is probably, but there are some doubts starting to creep in.

I’ve written about free speech before, and the place that social media currently occupies in the debate, but it was once again brought to my attention by a recent issue of Wired, billed as The Speech Issue. The general position Wired takes in the issue can probably best be summed up by the title of their featured article, The {Divisive, Corrosive, Democracy-Poisoning} Golden Age of Free Speech. Which, even if you know exactly what problems they’re talking about, still grabs your attention, particularly if you’re a free speech absolutist.

This is actually fairly well-covered territory, but despite that I think the article framed some of the issues in a way I hadn’t considered before, particularly with respect to the issue of censorship. When considering speech, there’s actually two ways to approach it, you can be in favor of speech or you can be against censorship. In both cases what you’re really hoping for is that good ideas, good policies, and more broadly, truth, will rise to the surface. If you’re focused on the speech side of the equation, as Americans have been ever since the First Amendment was passed, then you worked to create a situation where you had as many ideas out there as possible. Which is not to say censorship didn’t come up, but the issue was always framed as being pro-speech, not anti-censorship. Also censorship, particularly government censorship, has, historically, been easy to identify and deal with.

Under the old standard for speech of “the more the merry” we are, as the Wired article points out, in a “Golden Age”, but it doesn’t seem to be working out quite as well as people hoped. And that’s because, when viewed from the other side, the enormous quantity of free speech has ended up creating another form of censorship. From the article:

The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself. As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns, which harness the dynamics of viral outrage to impose an unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out. They look like epidemics of disinformation, meant to undercut the credibility of valid information sources. They look like bot-fueled campaigns of trolling and distraction, or piecemeal leaks of hacked materials, meant to swamp the attention of traditional media.

These tactics usually don’t break any laws or set off any First Amendment alarm bells. But they all serve the same purpose that the old forms of censorship did: They are the best available tools to stop ideas from spreading and gaining purchase. They can also make the big platforms a terrible place to interact with other people.

Thus, we very well might have ended up in a situation where the speech side of things looks great, but the censorship side of things is as bad as it’s ever been, and possibly precisely because of the quantity of speech.

I think the point about not setting “off any First Amendment alarm bells” was particularly interesting, because it describes the current situation as being one where none of the old rules work. Which is probably more accurate than I’m comfortable with.

(As an interesting aside I’ve been listening to the Revolutions Podcast, (which I highly recommend). And currently he’s covering the various revolutions that took place in Europe starting in 1848. While listening, I was struck by how freedom of speech and of the press was a major demand in all of those revolutions. In some cases people were willing to keep the king or emperor around, but they wouldn’t budge on freedom of the press.)

All of this leaves us asking, what happens when you take something which has been core to the modern, enlightened, western world and say it no longer works. That in fact things might have flipped and be working in the exact opposite fashion from how they always have.

Identifying this switch is useful but I’m not sure how far it gets us. In addition to switching our focus from speech to censorship, we’re also forced to redefine what we mean by censorship. If currently censorship consists of an “epidemic of disinformation”, then one idea is to boost the signal of good information. Both Google and Facebook latched on to this idea and started to fact-check things, which proved to be less effective than expected.  Google came under so much fire for bias that they cancelled their efforts just a few days ago. And Facebook’s efforts have not met with much success either.

Even if things had worked, you still have a situation where some third party is choosing what people see and what they don’t see, which is basically still censorship. It may take a slightly different form, and come about from slightly different motives, but the end result is largely the same. Do you really want Facebook and Google deciding what’s true and what’s not? Deciding that something you just posted is garbage, and that accordingly no one should see it? Deciding when “viral outrage” is justified and when it’s not? (The correct answer on this one might be that it’s never justified.)

Speaking of “viral outrage”, at this point everyone seems to agree that if it’s ever justified it’s justified against members of white supremacist groups and more broadly members of the alt-right. But how can we be sure that this new variant of censorship is justified here, but not elsewhere? I know it seems pretty clear cut, but even so, as always the question that’s raised is, how do we know that this form of censorship will only be used against “bad” guys? With that consequence in mind it might be appropriate to look at the trade-off. If we’re running a big risk on the one hand by allowing this sort of censorship how big is the risk on the other hand, the risk we’re hoping to eliminate? In this respect the recent issue of Wired was useful as well, because it contained an entire infographic title “The Reach of Hate Online”. Here’s what it had to say:

Headlines (and timelines) can make it seem like a rising tide of white supremacists, Nazis and trolls is one “free speech rally” away from swamping us all. To be sure, hate in America is more visible than it’s been in decades, helped along by the internet–the factory where bots, propaganda, and real people slosh around together in an agita-inducing flurry. But all that makes it easy to overestimate how many far-right extremists there are. We pulled together some numbers and facts to put the hate-mongering into context.

Among the facts which jump out:

-There are 27 million bots on Twitter, of those 2,752 have been identified as Russian Bots. (If you do the math that’s 0.01%.)

-Looking at the sub-reddits most associated with the far right the number of subscribers to the biggest (r/The_Donald) is 538,762 while r/aww a subreddit dedicated to cute animals sits at 16,360,969

-Finally if we look at the two biggest free speech rallies, Charlottesville and a rally shortly after that, in Boston. The number of demonstrators was always completely overwhelmed by the number of counter demonstrators. The Charlottesville rally was answered by 130 counter rallies held all over the nation the very next day. And the Boston free speech rally had 25 “far right demonstrators in attendance” as compared to 40,000 counter-protestors.

Above, in a quote from the Wired article,  the author talked about the “unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out”. I think if there are going to be 1,600 counter-protestors for every far-right individual in Boston, that might represent the “unbearable and disproportionate cost” the author was talking about.

Now let’s grant that these 25 individuals were the worst of the worst. People totally without any redeeming qualities whatsoever (except bravery apparently.) And that nothing they wanted to say was worth listening to. First, we still have the possibility that we’ll eventually have 40,000 people show up and shout down 25 people who do have something worth saying. And second, if these 25 people are the most extreme individuals in the movement, what is going on with anyone more moderate than them?

I mentioned this phenomenon in my last post. If the extremists are the only ones showing up, then to the extent that they are allowed to speak, they dominate the discussion. Additionally, you may end up with a lot of people who, because of the “unbearable and disproportionate cost” of speaking out keep their feelings to themselves, revealing them only when they’re standing in the voting booth, and then to the surprise of everyone, boom, you’ve got Trump. Given all this. are we sure that viral outrage is really the best strategy, even if it’s being used against literal Nazis? Finally, to return to the point I started with, when you consider the numbers, is the far-right risk really as great as people think? Is it so large that it justifies unleashing this potentially terrifying weapon?

What is the solution then? Returning to the article, it’s depressingly short on suggestions for how to proceed. And the suggestions they do offer mostly involve the government intervening in some ill-defined manner:

But we don’t have to be resigned to the status quo. Facebook is only 13 years old, Twitter 11, and even Google is but 19. At this moment in the evolution of the auto industry, there were still no seat belts, airbags, emission controls, or mandatory crumple zones. The rules and incentive structures underlying how attention and surveillance work on the internet need to change. But in fairness to Facebook and Google and Twitter, while there’s a lot they could do better, the public outcry demanding that they fix all these problems is fundamentally mistaken. There are few solutions to the problems of digital discourse that don’t involve huge trade-offs—and those are not choices for Mark Zuckerberg alone to make. These are deeply political decisions. In the 20th century, the US passed laws that outlawed lead in paint and gasoline, that defined how much privacy a landlord needs to give his tenants, and that determined how much a phone company can surveil its customers. We can decide how we want to handle digital surveillance, attention-­channeling, harassment, data collection, and algorithmic decision­making. We just need to start the discussion. Now.

As you can see there isn’t anything you would point to as a concrete policy proposal. Mostly they offer up a lot of analogies to past regulations and then press for a discussion to begin. Many of the analogies deal with previous ways in which dangers were mitigated. But let’s take a moment and run with that. He mentions seatbelts, and lead paint. In both of these cases you could perform studies, and gather statistics which showed people being harmed. I don’t know that you can perform the same kinds of studies or gather similar statistics when it comes to speech. Also there are very few benefits to not wearing seatbelts, and you can make paint without lead. But as I have pointed out, the same is not true for speech, there are many benefits to free speech, not the least of which may be that it’s not possible to have a non-free-speech democracy (whatever Russia and China might say.)

Their other analogies revolve around privacy, specifically, landlords and phone companies, And while initially, this seems like a more promising avenue, the author completely overlooks the trade-offs. Privacy entails keeping certain things private, as in, unknown. I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to see where any increase in privacy entails a corresponding increase in anonymity. The problem being that when Wired talks about the current divisiveness and corrosion accompanying modern free speech, most people agree that anonymity largely contributes to both.

As part of the issue there is an entire other article about Megan Squire, a woman who spends all of her free time attempting to uncover white supremacists and fascists. Frequently she then passes the identifying information over to the Antifa. Wired seems to be largely in favor of this endeavor. And one might assume from context that they’re actually offering it up as a potential solution. But here we once again encounter the conflicted landscape of free speech. If, as the issue claims elsewhere, censorship currently takes the form of “coordinated harassment campaigns”, “epidemics of disinformation” and tactics meant to “swamp…attention”. How does removing the anonymity of a single individual do much to stop this censorship, rather than being an example of this form of censorship? And how does this dovetail into the privacy regulations they allude to in the other article?

I think as with so many things the correct strategy lies somewhere in the middle. I certainly agree that widespread anonymity has been a big contributor to making the internet the cesspool it currently is. But completely eliminating all privacy, or stripping away anonymity from individuals and then passing them over to the Antifa doesn’t feel like great strategy either.

The upshot of all of this is that there aren’t any great strategies. If I were forced to offer up an idea, the only one I have is that most services should have some kind of circuit breaker, something which turns things off if anyone person starts getting too much attention. (This at least would have made Justine Sacco’s life better.) But don’t bother telling me about all the difficulties and issues inherent in that, I can already imagine them.

In answer to the question of whether I am still a free speech absolutist, I still mostly am, but I think I’m going to pay more attention to the censorship side of things. Perhaps now it would be more accurate to call me a anti-censorship absolutist.

In closing, all that can truly be said is that we’re in new territory here. Greater connectivity has led to less effective coordination. Privacy is important, but it might also cause people to behave worse. Allowing as much speech as possible is no longer a defense against censorship, it’s a vector for censorship. And above all, the genie is out of the bottle, making one thing clear at least, we can’t go back to the way it was.

I know I said there were no great strategies, but if you want to encourage me to keep thinking about it, in the hopes I can come up with one, consider donating.