Comment Moderation, “Free Speech,” and Feminism: Interview with Sam Meier

October 18, 2013 § 3 Comments

Earlier this week I was approached by Sam Meier, editor of news and analysis startup PolicyMic. She asked to interview me for an article she’s writing about online commenting, and I was happy to oblige. She’ll be integrating my answers into her forthcoming article, but encouraged me to publish the full exchange, which I’m pasting below. This is a pretty long read, so go get some popcorn or something. More after the jump!

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This Is Excatly the Sort of Crap I Was Criticizing Re: “Free Speech”

October 11, 2013 § 4 Comments

Yesterday, On the Media’s PJ Vogt published a piece forwarding precisely the sort of infuriating “free speech” stance I criticized in my Daily Dot piece. According to Vogt, Amazon should continue selling rape and incest porn fiction, because a) no one is actually raped and b) free speech, which was apparently violated when Amazon quietly began removing the offending titles (not how that works, but ok). Here is his argument, which by the way isn’t an argument, but rather a universalized statement of preference:

We outlaw snuff films, child porn and, increasingly, revenge porn, because actual people are harmed during their production. Erotic fiction concerns fake characters who don’t exist in real life.

Since Kernel started writing about Amazon’s back room, Amazon has deleted many of the offending titles without public comment. Which is too bad. I wish Amazon would say, aggressively, that they’re for free speech, and that they won’t ban a book just because it’s a stomach-turning obscenity with no redeeming literary or cultural value.

In the pre-Amazon Dark Ages, there were small towns where the only place to buy a book was Walmart. If you wanted a book that was too risque for America’s most squeaky-clean retailer, you were in trouble. If Amazon is going to be, essentially, the world’s last bookstore, I’d like to know that Bezos isn’t Steve Jobs, who defined freedom for his customers as freedom from objectionable content. I wish Bezos would say that while he despises these books, Amazon’s role is to publish everything, even our culture’s most irredeemable garbage.

And why should Amazon publish everything, even literature that glorifies the worst sorts of crimes against the most vulnerable populations? Well, free speech, of course! Because god forbid we infringe on the sacred right of rape fetishists and pedophiles to spread the good news of sexual violation, and the Constitutionally-protected right for other rape fetishists and pedophiles to search for and purchase self-published e-books detailing sex crimes against women and minors. Oh wait, there is no clause in the First Amendment guaranteeing sex criminals a wide selection of bathroom reading? Then shut up about free speech, because that’s not what this is about.

What this is about is the default assumption that it’s more important to protect a monster’s speech than it is to protect those who find themselves on the receiving end of whatever monsterousness, however indirectly (to that: the idea that “no one is harmed” by rape fantasy porn is flatly erroneous — I am harmed just knowing that it exists, a feeling born of and exacerbated by the statistical reality that at least a quarter of women will report experiencing sexual violence, a number that does not take into account the sexual violence that goes unreported). And that sucks; those priorities suck. But try explaining that to a free speech proponent.

INB4 “FREE SPEECH,” Shut Up

October 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

deal with it dog

A few days after Popular Science announced their decision to disable their comments section (nutshell version: too many trolls, not enough science), The Daily Dot asked me to share my thoughts on the thorny issue of comment moderation. YES WONDERFUL I said, and wrote this article, which just went live. In particular, I focus on the “free speech” question, which makes me want to eat my own face.

The kind of speech most likely to be defended by [“free speech” in the colloquial sense] is speech that is bigoted and antagonistic, largely toward women and other historically underrepresented groups (note the infrequency with which women and people of color use the “…but but FREE SPEECH” defense in a debate, whether online or off-). Free speech in the colloquial Internet sense, particularly as it’s used in the context of comment moderation, almost always justifies or outright apologizes for a typically male, typically white aggressor. It is a concept that frames freedom in terms of being free to harass others, not freedom from being harassed, or simply from being exposed to harassment (which often amounts to the same thing).

Unlike discussions of the ideal relationship between author and commenter, or the extent to which platforms are responsible for protecting their readers from harassment,  concerns over “free speech” are unlikely to precipitate thoughtful conversations about best moderation practices. In fact, by actively latching onto “free speech” as a behavioral ideal, platforms inadvertently privilege the aggressor and pathologize readers—readers who, for some strange reason, don’t like wading through a tsunami of antagonistic bullshit every time they scroll through a comments section.

For the conclusion, head on over to The Daily Dot. I even make a joke about poo-flinging, so it’s totally worth it.

Some Thoughts on the Verge’s “The End of Kindness”

September 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

why can't i hold all these feels

Greg Sandoval’s article about weev and the cult of the angry young man has me juggling a lot of feels. First and most importantly, I’m relieved to see this article in print; as I discussed way back in March, I was dismayed to see the outpouring of support for weev post-conviction. Not because I agreed with the charges, they were clearly bullshit, but because the magical reframing of weev as American free speech hero was an even more insidious flavor of bullshit.

Sandoval’s article calls attention to this fact, and challenges the impulse to adopt as a martyr for FREE SPEECH (I have expressed my attitudes towards FREE SPEECH of the all-caps internet eye-roll variety here) the same guy who has for years stomped all over the speech of others, particularly women, and even more particularly Kathy Sierra. This is a weird, offensive, and ultimately counterproductive impulse — I can’t think of a better way to undermine arguments for a free and unregulated internet than by rallying behind a self-proclaimed anti-Semitic racist who likes to terrorize women on the internet. From a purely PR perspective, that seems like an odd move.

But maybe not so odd, given recent conversations about the cult of the bro within the tech space, summarized nicely by Nitasha Tiku in this Valleywag article. Maybe the reason weev is regarded by so many people as an American treasure is because so many people have internalized the idea that violence towards women, whether symbolic or directly physical, isn’t that big of a deal, a point Sierra reiterated in her interview with Sandoval. “His rise as a folk hero is a sign of how desensitized to the abuse of women online people have become,” she stated.

Just as importantly, weev’s case shows the gendered and raced one-sidedness of so many conversations about FREE SPEECH — I can’t remember a time I have ever heard a woman (qualification: who isn’t a bigoted Ann Coulter white lady type) or person of color hide behind the First Amendment to justify their speech. Much more frequently (and/or much more always, since I can’t for the life of me think of a counterexample) FREE SPEECH, at least the kind weev is celebrated for helping protect, is almost always deployed by precisely the people  whose speech has always been the most free to silence those whose speech has always been the most precarious.

So maybe, in the end, weev IS a free speech hero —  in which case, we had better rethink the politics behind that term. Because if Andrew Auernheimer is what we mean when we talk about FREE SPEECH  — well, I’ll let you fill in that blank for yourself. Personally I am inclined to say no thank you.

I Am Very Sorry I Missed this Panel

March 9, 2013 § 13 Comments

someone on the internet

…it would have been very interesting indeed to observe the Reddit SXSW panel audience split between staunch supporters of Reddit (FREE SPEECH/YOU DON’T WANT TO END UP LIKE CHINA DO YOU???) and those who a) take issue with the many unsavory aspects of Reddit’s culture(s) and b) enjoy getting a rise out of Redditors because let’s face it, white guys unaware of their own privilege are lulzcows.

John Herrman’s article (linked above), which seems to side with the SXSW panelists (or at least, seems to side against the most vocal supporters of the site), sums it up thusly:

The best criticism of Reddit is that it can, on occasion, victimize people. Yet drawing attention to jailbait photos, creepshots and other forms of victimization — low-level, constant misogyny included — does not compel Reddit to look within itself. Instead, according to the site’s most vocal proponents, it makes Reddit the victim.

1,000% yes to the last part, but I would push the first half of that statement a bit further*, since the best criticism of Reddit is not just that Reddit is –at least, the main subreddits are, allowing for exceptions within smaller subreddits– a cesspool of generalized misogyny, generalized racism and generalized homophobia, attitudes that are so pervasive they’re kind of just there. Just as problematically, Reddit as a company is permissive of the cesspool — on the grounds that FREE SPEECH, obviously. Which as Jezebel pointed out the other day, doesn’t actually work the way most people on the internet seem to think it works.

But other than that, victim complex it pretty much exactly right. It is so hard to be an oppressed minority middle class educated white men, on the internet.

*Herrman’s use of the term “victimization” is somewhat confusing — “victimization” seems to imply a specific target, but then he also glosses low-level misogyny under the same umbrella, suggesting he means “victimization” in the broader sense, as synonymous with “oppression,” maybe. Consequently I’ve revised this paragraph several times trying to figure out what he means, and how best to respond.

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