Sunday, August 26, 2018

"Hate Speech is Loathsome, but Trying to Silence it is Dangerous" or: "How America Learned to Stop Worrying and Put Mark Zuckerberg in Charge of Everything"


Matt Taibbi continues to write for Rolling Stone on the troubling implications of tech giants aided by dubious star-chamber influencers like the Atlantic Council named below, charging themselves with the role of curbing dangerous speech online. The real consequences of doing so being collateral, and society-wide, "Censorship Does Not End Well Or... How America Learned to Stop Worrying and Put Mark Zuckerberg in Charge of Everything”. In which Taibbi asserts; “Americans are not freaking out about this because most of us have lost the ability to distinguish between general principles and political outcomes. So long as the “right” people are being zapped, no one cares. But we should care. Censorship is one of modern man’s great temptations. Giving in to it hasn’t provided many happy stories. The platforms will win popular support for removals by deleting jackasses like Jones. Meanwhile, the more dangerous censorship will go on in the margins with fringe opposition sites - and in the minds of reporters and editors, who will unconsciously start retreating from wherever their idea of the line is. The apparent efforts to comply with government requests to help “prevent the foment of discord” suggest the platforms are moving toward a similar surrender even in the United States. The duopolistic firms seem anxious to stay out of headlines, protect share prices and placate people like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who just said deleting Jones was only a “good first step.”

And previously, also in the pages of Rolling Stone, "Many of the banned pages look like parodies of some paranoid bureaucrat’s idea of dangerous speech." writes Taibbi, in "Beware the Slippery Slope of Facebook Censorship". Where he continues; "A page called “Black Elevation” shows a picture of Huey Newton and offers readers a job. “Aztlan Warriors” contains a meme celebrating the likes of Geronimo and Zapata, giving thanks for their service in the “the 500 year war against colonialism. Facebook also wiped out a “No Unite The Right 2” page, appearing to advertise a counter-rally on the upcoming anniversary of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Facebook was “helped” in its efforts to wipe out these dangerous memes by the Atlantic Council, on whose board you’ll find confidence-inspiring names like Henry Kissinger, former CIA chief Michael Hayden, former acting CIA head Michael Morell and former Bush-era Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. (The latter is the guy who used to bring you the insane color-coded terror threat level system). These people now have their hands on what is essentially a direct lever over nationwide news distribution. It’s hard to understate the potential mischief that lurks behind this union of Internet platforms and would-be government censors. When Facebook works with the government and wannabe star-chamber organizations like the Atlantic Council to delete sites on national security grounds, using secret methodology, it opens the door to nightmare possibilities that you’d find in dystopian novels."

"The pre-Internet system for dealing with defamatory and libelous speech was litigation, which was pretty effective. The standard for punishment was also very high. In the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan - the bedrock case for libel law involving a public figure - the court went out of its way to make sure that complainants needed to prove reckless or knowing disregard for fact. Among other things, the court worried that absent such a tough legal standard, outlets would play it too safe with speech, and “make only statements which steer far wider of the unlawful zone." This mostly worked. Historically there were few analogs to Infowars that got anything like wide distribution because of the financial threat, which scared publishers most of all. In order to have power to distribute widely you needed resources, but you put those resources at risk if you defamed people. That all changed with digital media. Way back in 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act. It contained the following landmark language: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Essentially this meant that Internet providers wouldn’t be treated like news organizations. In the eyes of the law, they were less like CBS or Random House than they were bookstores or newsstands. The rule allowed platforms to grow exponentially without the same fear of litigation. Companies like Facebook and Google became all-powerful media distributors, and were able to profit from InfoWars-style programs without having to be liable for them. The sheer market power of these companies over information flow has always been the real threat. This is why breaking them up should have long ago become an urgent national priority."

The above Taibbi pieces make for a corresponding web companion read alongside The New Yorker's "The Hell You Say: New Battles Over Free Speech", and the most concise argument I've read on the subject of free speech in America, from the Los Angeles Times' Editorial Board, "Hate Speech is Loathsome, but Trying to Silence it is Dangerous". In which they expressly take the stance; "Despite the debacle in Charlottesville, Virginia - or perhaps because of it - you can rest assured that there will be more marches around the nation in the coming weeks by people who espouse hateful, racist ideas. And those events, some of which are already planned, will undoubtedly draw counter-protesters determined to shout down, if not shut down, the neo-Nazis, Klansmen, self-styled storm troopers and others from the cesspool of the far right. The vast majority of Americans would sooner have their communities hit by a plague of locusts than by the torch-bearing racists who invaded Charlottesville. Nevertheless, it is vitally important to recognize that people are constitutionally free to hold even the most deplorable views, and to express them as well. Counter-protesters, for their part, are equally entitled to say clearly and forcefully that racism, anti-Semitism and similar beliefs that denigrate or deny the humanity of others have no place in our society."

"Neither side, however, has a right to start throwing punches. Nor should the mere risk of such violence be used as pretext for denying people the ability to exercise their right to free speech or assembly. These exceptionally American notions seem lost on some of our leaders. A case in point: Several elected officials have asked the federal government to withdraw a permit for an Aug. 26 rally at San Francisco’s Crissy Field organized by Patriot Prayer, a Portland-based group of right-wing provocateurs. That is the exactly wrong approach. Denying permits in order to shut down speech that is offensive or so controversial that it might provoke a violent backlash is the act of an autocratic government. It is in fractious times like these that we must hold firmest to constitutional principles. Unfortunately, this nation has a history during times of stress of trampling the very rights we supposedly revere. A century ago, anarchists and leftists were arrested and in some cases deported because of their beliefs. In the 1940s and 1950s it happened again in response to wars hot and cold. Fear and racism during World War II also propelled the establishment of internment camps for Japanese Americans, and a generation later the government reacted to protests over the Vietnam War by spying on American citizens exercising their right to free speech. That is a dangerous path - one even more dangerous than a street brawl among political radicals. Violence at protests should be denounced no matter who perpetrates it, but the wrong response would be to silence those with whom we might not agree. We would not urge anyone to avoid confronting and countering political or social ideas they might find disagreeable, or even hatefully reprehensible. But as a society, the nation cannot countenance its political debates descending into violence - or being preemptively shut down - no matter how noxious the ideas might be."