No Longer a Frontier: Free Speech vs. Online Ugliness

This week Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation denounced tech companies who censor online ugliness. But the internet is no longer a frontier.

“That Dead Girl”

Twelve-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick had been bullied by a clique of 15-year-olds for over a year, after her brief romance with a boy. They taunted her at school and also online, urging Rebecca to kill herself. Her mom changed her school, cleared social media applications from her cellphone and, when Rebecca began cutting herself, took her to counseling. Her mom also checked Rebecca’s cellphone regularly, to make sure she wasn’t using any social media, and the girl seemed to be getting better.

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But she had found new social media app, one her mom didn’t recognize when she checked Rebecca’s phone. The bullies found her again, and finally Rebecca could bear it no more:

Inside her phone’s virtual world, she had changed her user name on Kik Messenger, a cellphone application, to “That Dead Girl” and delivered a message to two friends, saying goodbye forever. Then she climbed a platform at an abandoned cement plant near her home in the Central Florida city of Lakeland and leaped to the ground, the Polk County sheriff said.

Sheriff’s department investigators are looking into Rebecca’s death and may file charges under a new Florida law that cracks down on online bullying.

“… because I’m a woman and I don’t feel that way”

Perhaps Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation would support Florida’s cyberbullying law. Back in February, she called out a blogger who posted what he later claimed was a satirical article supporting rape:″ target=”_blank

Yet in an interview yesterday with the Washington Post‘s Timothy Lee on Facebook and other tech companies blocking misogynistic speech, York seemed to have changed her mind:

[Lee:] Some people argue that sufficiently vicious hate speech can effectively censor women by bullying them out of participating in public discussions.

[York:] I get really tired of that argument because I’m a woman and I don’t feel that way. But I think it’s true of some women.

But censorship also negatively impacts women a lot of the time. For example, images of women breast feeding. Facebook would see that as inappropriate content. They treat it as obscenity. Yet you could imagine health and education benefits.

“A politically correct wasteland”

Later in the interview, York conceded that she is “open to” blocking or punishing threats of violence and online comments that would be hostile work environment discrimination had they been said in the workplace. But that’s what got Business Insider‘s Pax Dickinson fired last week. In a New Yorker interview published yesterday, Dickinson says the problem is … the rest of us:

People are so thin-skinned and, I don’t know, we can’t joke anymore in this society, it seems. And that’s kind of unfortunate, it seems. And it’s unfortunate that people didn’t try to get my side of the story at all, really. It was just an instant thing. A post went on on Valleywag at 6:30pm, and 9:30 the next morning I lost my job. I feel there was a big rush, and that wasn’t necessary, and my side of the story could have been gotten easily.

He goes on to say that the tech field doesn’t discriminate against women, but women aren’t a good fit for the field:

I think the tech world is just kind of – it doesn’t have a woman problem. Women in tech are great. There’s just not that many of them because tech is just a kind of thing that a lot of women aren’t that interested in, I think. I mean, I don’t think it has a problem. I’d worry more about taking away what makes tech great. The freewheeling nature of it is what leads to innovation. And my fear is that if we’re all going to police what we say, maybe we lose that innovation. And tech is important, it’s really important to this country and to the world. And I’d hate to see us kill the goose that lays the golden egg by turning it into a politically correct wasteland.

“The tyranny of common opinion”

As the Washington Post‘s Andrea Peterson wrote, that “freewheeling” misogyny is exactly the problem:

When you say in a tweet that “feminism in tech remains the champion topic for my block list” and make rape jokes, you’re directly adding to what the American Association of University Women describes as the “stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities” that help keep women from full participation in those fields.

Similarly, if you think talented female engineers are the equivalent of unicorns, as Dickinson has said in a tweet, that says more about your biases than the actual talent pool. And when you think that and are the CTO of a company that counts major industry players such as Marc Andreessen, Jeff Bezos and Kevin Ryan among its investors, it says a lot about the tech industry.

But Not Quite Noahpinion‘s Josiah Neeley is more worried about an imaginary future where everyone will be fired within fifteen minutes:

Increasingly, though, I wonder if this trend might be permanent. Michael Brendan Dougherty recently noted how the Internet can serve to intensify the tyranny of common opinion. The anonymity of modern industrial life created space for more non-conformity of opinion and behavior as opposed to, say, life in a small town or village where everyone is “in everyone else’s business.” If technological advances mean an end to anonymity, is this going to result in some degree of rollback of this openness as social media recreates the social pressures of conformity on a much larger scale?

“All too easy for those demons to slip out”

Heaven forbid that we might be held accountable for how we use a tool with the power to destroy lives. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s title imagines an internet akin to a Wild West town, where a hardy few make their way in an isolated environment. But as we saw in Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked, the internet is now deeply embedded in our daily lives. Many businesses now use online tools to connect employees and solicit job applications. And many have or are developing social media policies for employees.

Back in its frontier days, the internet was ruled by the fastest and most ruthless wordslingers. Today, as we saw in discussing Andrea Weckerle’s Civility in the Digital Age, we need to put that mindset behind us. What we say online is public and permanent, and as Paul Krugman wrote, that calls for some discretion:

One reason [Krugman doesn’t tweet] is that I have better things to do with my time. Another is that I don’t think my instant reactions to things are especially interesting. But I have to admit that I’ve also been aware for some time how many people end up destroying themselves by tweeting something really offensive.

Why do people do this? Well, it turns out that many prominent people have inner demons of one kind or another – often homophobia, but also racism, sexism, or just some kind of generalized contempt for large numbers of other people. And social media make it all too easy for those demons to slip out in front of a large audience.

I don’t think I have any demons like that, but who knows? And if I do make uncomfortable discoveries about myself, I’d like to do it in private, thank you.

In that sense, Dr. Krugman is employing a wisdom at least as old as Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice … don’t say nothing at all.”

Had more parents in Lakeland, Florida taught their middle-school children that wisdom, Rebecca Ann Sedwick might still be alive.

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