At Forbes, Kalev Leetaru reports on Friday’s introduction of “hate speech” filtering on Twitter:
Earlier this morning social media and the tech press lit up with reports of users across Twitter receiving half day suspensions en masse as the platform abruptly rolled out its decade-overdue hate speech filter to its platform. The company has refused to provide details on specifically how the new system works, but using a combination of behavioral and keyword indicators, the filter flags posts it deems to be violations of Twitter’s acceptable speech policy and issues users suspensions of half a day during which they cannot post new tweets and their existing tweets are visible only to followers. From the platform that once called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party” these new tools mark an incredible turn of events for the company that just two years ago famously wrote Congress to say it would do everything in its power to uphold the right of terrorists to post freely to its platform. What does Twitter’s new interest in hate speech tell us about the future of free speech online?
It was just a year ago that I wrote on these very pages about Twitter’s evolution from bastion of free speech to global censor as it stepped back from its utopian dreams as they collided with the realities of running a commercial company. Yet, even after changing its official written policy on acceptable speech and touting that it would do more to fight abuse, little has changed over the past year. Indeed, from its inception a decade ago, Twitter has done little to address the problem of hateful and abusive speech on its platform.
[…] the concern here is that Twitter has thus far refused to provide further detail into at least the broad contours of the indicators it is using, especially when it comes to the particular linguistic cues it is concerned with. While offering too much detail might give the upper hand to those who would try to work around the new system, it is important for the broader community to have at least some understanding of the kinds of language flagged by Twitter’s new tool so that they can offer more informed feedback to help it shape that tool given that both algorithms and people are far from infallible. Simply rolling out a new tool that begins suspending users without warning or recourse and without any visibility into how those decisions are being made is a textbook example of how not to roll such a feature out to a user community in that the tool instantly becomes confrontational rather than educational.
Moreover, it is unclear why Twitter chose not to permit users to contest what they believe to be a wrongful suspension. The company did not respond to a request for comment on why suspended users are not provided a button to appeal a suspension they believe is due to algorithmic or human error or lack of contextual understanding. Given that the feature is brand new and bound to encounter plenty of unforeseen contexts where it could yield a wrong result, it is surprising that Twitter chose not to provide a recovery mechanism where it could catch these before they become news.
The Bourbons, said Talleyrand, learned nothing and forgot nothing. Sometimes it seems as if our modern liberals are just like the Bourbons. Here, for example, is a headline from the U.K.’s hard-line liberal newspaper, the Guardian:
FAR-RIGHT PARTY STILL LEADING IN DUTCH POLLS, DESPITE LEADER’S CRIMINAL GUILT.
What was the crime of which the far-right leader — Geert Wilders — was guilty? It was incitement to discrimination; in other words, not even discrimination itself. He had discriminated against no one, but made a speech in which he called for “fewer Moroccans.” Significantly, the Guardian gave no further details of what Wilders meant by this — whether, for example, he proposed that fewer Moroccan immigrants should be allowed into the Netherlands, that the illegal Moroccan immigrants should be deported, or that Dutch citizens of Moroccan descent should be deprived of their citizenship and forcibly repatriated. For the Guardian, it hardly seemed to matter.
More significant still was the Guardian’s inability, even after the victory of Donald Trump in the United States—which must, in part, have been attributable to a revolt against political correctness — to see that the conviction of Wilders on a charge so patently designed to silence the fears of a considerable part of the population couldn’t possibly reduce his popularity. By illustrating the moral arrogance of the political class against which Wilders’s movement is a reaction, the charge might actually make him more popular.
Commenting on the recent fine handed down by a Dutch court against opposition leader Geert Wilders, Perry de Havilland points out that it’s not just governments on the continent that are working so hard to quash free speech:
Now whatever you think of Wilders, this has been an astonishing attempt to simply shut down free expression in a western nation. And of course this will not silence anyway and will probably prove to be a spectacular establishment own-goal.
And in the UK, more and more infrastructure to censor internet porn is being put into place. Why is this related? Because once control infrastructure exists, it can and will be re-purposed, in much the same way the Department for Education’s “counter extremism unit“, set up ostensibly to prevent violent Islamic extremist views being taught in UK schools, gets re-purposed to shut down a gay secular journalist who has not called for any violence against anyone.
All across the Western World, political verities and assumption are starting to shift, and almost nothing can be accurately predicted any more. We live in times that are a danger and opportunity in equal measure, and people who care about liberty will have to get their hands dirty, making common cause with others who will not pass any purity sniff tests but with whom we share common enemies (however care does need to be taken in such matters for sometimes the enemy of my enemy is my enemy … but sometimes not), however now is the time for engagement and action.
It may have been awkward for Democrats who watched Obama go further, faster than George W. Bush on deportations, surveillance, assassination, and even torture, but they can finally get their groove back on in protesting Donald Trump’s use of exactly the same tools Obama has been using for the last eight years:
Even the extreme legal theories of the George W Bush administration were mild compared to some of the “compromise” positions Obama’s DoJ argued for, and now Donald J Trump gets to use those positions to further its own terrifying agenda of mass deportations, reprisals against the press, torture and assassination, and surveillance based on religious affiliation or ethnic origin.
When it came to things like closing Guantanamo, Obama argued for limits on establishing offshore black-sites and military tribunals, but refused to shut the door on them. So maybe Trump won’t be able to use Gitmo to house the people he has kidnapped by his CIA, but he can use the legal authority that Obama argued for to set up lots of other Guantanamos wherever he likes.
Likewise torture: Obama decided that it was better to move and and bury the CIA torture report, and had his DoJ block any attempt to have torture declared illegal, which would have given people opposing Trump’s torture agenda with a potent legal weapon that is now unavailable to them.
Obama argued that the president should be able to create kill lists of Americans and foreigners who could be assassinated with impunity, and argued against even judicial review of these lists.
Then there’s Obama’s war on whistleblowers — his administration invoked federal law against more whistleblowers than all the other presidents in US history, combined — and his aggressive assertion that journalists have no right to protect their confidential sources. These will be of enormous use to the Trump presidency, which has already promised to use executive powers to persecute hostile journalists who try to hold it to account.
It’s sad that partisans of the current administration can only seem to see the problems in granting the president more powers when those powers are about to be wielded by a president of the other party. A wee bit too late to repent, my friends.
I’ve got an account on Gab.ai, and from my short experience with it, it’s much more than just an alt-right echo chamber (but, as you’d expect, there are lots of alt-right folks there, too). Here’s Lexi Palmieri talking to Mr. Gab himself:
Ray Bradbury once said “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” If you know anything about the social media industry, or “Big Social”, you’ll know that Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg are two such people, with Facebook and Twitter serving as both the book and the match. This isn’t surprising, considering that Silicon Valley employs their own specific bias. From the ashes of the banned speech comes the platform Gab. This week, I was lucky enough to speak with Gab creator, founder, and CEO Mr. Andrew Torba to discuss his platform, his inspirations, and the current state of social networking.
Q: What is Gab’s backstory? What inspired you to create Gab? T: Prior to Gab I co-founded an ad tech company called Automate Ads. We worked with and built on top of the three Big Social ecosystems of Facebook, Twitter, and Google in Silicon Valley. I was also in Y Combinator’s Winter 2015 batch. After moving to Silicon Valley and working closely with these companies for five years, I got to see the dirty underbelly of how they operate. For years I knew that progressive agendas were being pushed and conservative voices were slowly being shut up. When news broke of the Facebook Trending Topics team member admitting to it at scale, I knew something needed to be done. Shortly after I resigned as CEO from Automate Ads, passing control of the business to my co-founder, and started Gab.
Q: What is your company philosophy/mission statement? Gab‘s mission is to put people and free speech first. We believe that the only valid form of censorship is a user’s individual choice to opt-out of seeing certain content they don’t want to see. Gab is for everyone. All are welcome on Gab and always will be.
About how big is Gab’s user base right now, and what are your expectations for growth in the next year?
Currently Gab has 50,000 monthly active users from around the world in less than 90 days of being in beta. We have 110,000 people on our waitlist and are sending out thousands of invites every week. We expect this rapid growth to continue and to have millions of users by this time next year.
Some years ago, the liberal writer Michael Kinsley described the different attitudes to free speech in the U.K. and the U.S. as follows: “In a country like Great Britain, the legal protections for speech are weaker than ours, but the social protections are stronger. They lack a First Amendment, but they have thicker skin and a greater acceptance of eccentricity of all sorts.”
Today, both sorts of protection for speech — legal and social — are weaker than before in both countries. This year, official regulation of the press was passed into U.K. law for the first time since 18th-century juries nullified press prosecutions. These new restraints enjoyed the backing not just of all the parties but apparently of the public as well.
In the U.S., the case of Mann v. Steyn, let alone a hypothetical case involving Quran-burning, has yet to be decided. But Democrats in the Senate are seeking to restrict political speech by restricting the money spent to promote it. And in the private sector, American corporations have blacklisted employees for expressing or financing certain unfashionable opinions. In short, a public culture that used to be liberal is now “progressive” — which is something like liberalism minus its commitment to freedom.
The U.S. and Britain have long thought of themselves as, above all, free countries. If that identity continues to atrophy, free speech will be the first victim. But it will not be the last.
People seem to be surprised that censorship generates pushback from the censored. In this case, the more active censorship of certain words by Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies has encouraged the targets of the censors to come up with other ways to communicate with fellow-minded people, in this case a simple substitution code:
Now a new type of hateful internet code appears to be emerging: The systematic use of innocuous words to stand in for offensive racial slurs. Search Twitter for “googles,” “skypes,” or “yahoos,” and you will encounter some shocking results, like this tweet: “If welfare state is a given it must go towards our own who needs. No Skypes, googles, or yahoos.” Or this one, reading “Chain the googles / Gas the yahoos.”
What does this mean? Nothing good. In this lexicon, “googles” means the n-word; “skypes” means Jews; and “yahoos” means “spic.” The word “skittles” has come to refer to Muslims, an obvious reference to Donald Trump Jr.’s comparing of refugees with candy that “would kill you.”
By all accounts the lexicon seems to have been conceived on 4chan — a message board famous for its trolls — as a response to Google’s improved method for identifying pages and comments with offensive content and potentially removing or flagging them. The title of the 4chan post that seems to have started it all is “RIP alt-right trolls, SkyNet is coming for you.” The trolls responded with a loosely organized effort called “Operation Google,” which aims to get around these algorithms, and to trick them into blocking the names of their own services and companies.
Hence the use of “google” to mean what is arguably the most offensive term of them all. For a fuller list, including coded anti-LGBT terms, click here. (Warning: It’s not pretty.) This list appeared on 4chan’s “Politically Incorrect” /pol/ board, and has been widely shared on Twitter and elsewhere, and similar terms can be found as well.
As Orwell noted in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” He was speaking, of course, about control of written history, of what we know to have happened — and thereby how we allocate our political support. It is not a small matter if the company that is coming to be the nation’s most significant source of news skews that news toward its own political preferences. In fact, it’s just a tiny bit chilling. Government censorship is, of course, terrible. But censorship by a small group of unelected young people is not all that much more appealing.
This problem existed already on another scale. The socioeconomic, racial and political homogeneity of the media is a problem, one that I have written about before. That said, those media were operating in a competitive landscape, and no one outlet really had all that much market power. In each medium there were outlets of different sorts of political leanings, and more of them with the rise of the Internet.
Facebook, on the other hand, dominates all other social media outlets for news to an extent that no print outlet ever dominated the American landscape. The only arguable parallel is the big television networks from the 1950s to the 1980s, and at least there were three of them, rather than one. Besides, for most of that time they operated under the Fairness Doctrine — in other words, under heavy-handed government interference to limit their power to shape the national debate.
The greater danger is that liberals will end up falling back on an argument that is gaining more and more currency on the left: that this biasing of information is not merely an unfortunately insoluble problem, or so minor that it doesn’t make much difference in our politics, but that it is actually an affirmative good. These are the people who embrace Orwell’s dictum and say: “Yes, absolutely, the left should have control over what people are allowed to hear and know, because that’s how we’re going to build a better future.” The first argument may be unsatisfying. But the second is … downright Orwellian.
The American of today, in fact, probably enjoys less personal liberty than any other man of Christendom, and even his political liberty is fast succumbing to the new dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious. Laws limiting the radius of his free activity multiply year by year: It is now practically impossible for him to exhibit anything describable as genuine individuality, either in action or in thought, without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty. It would surprise no impartial observer if the motto “In God we trust” were one day expunged from the coins of the republic by the Junkers at Washington, and the far more appropriate word, “verboten,” substituted. Nor would it astound any save the most romantic if, at the same time, the goddess of liberty were taken off the silver dollars to make room for a bas-relief of a policeman in a spiked helmet. Moreover, this gradual (and, of late, rapidly progressive) decay of freedom goes almost without challenge; the American has grown so accustomed to the denial of his constitutional rights and to the minute regulation of his conduct by swarms of spies, letter-openers, informers and agents provocateurs that he no longer makes any serious protest.
H.L. Mencken, The American Credo: A Contribution toward the Interpretation of the National Mind, 1920.
The Alberta government tried to expel journalists from a particular (and particularly irritating) right wing media organization and was utterly shocked to discover that the rest of the mainstream media didn’t play along:
The MSM’s defence of the Rebel reminded me of how libertarians used to defend the rights of Holocaust deniers: Teeth clenched and at a long arm’s distance. The hatred of Ezra Levant by the Great and Good — and he is truly hated — is largely tonal. The right-wing impresario’s politics are not terrible right of centre, remember this is a guy who worked for both Stockwell Day and Preston Manning. Some of his campaigns and video rants — if rendered in more moderate language — could even gain the assent of the editorial staff at the Globe. The great sin of Ezra is that he is terribly rude.
More than half a century ago Pierre Berton observed that you can get away with saying anything in Canada, so long as you wear a bow-tie. It was an important insight into the Canadian character. There sits on the NDP and Liberal parliamentary benches figures far more radical — in terms of political distance from the mainstream — than anything that has ever passed the lips of Mr Levant. These radicals however speak in the dulcet tones of the Leftist argot. They wear the modern day equivalent of bow-ties and so pass unhindered through the corridors of influence and power.
Some of those corridors are now occupied by Rachel Notley and her band of tone-deaf socialists. That the Rebel was deliberately targeted is obvious enough. The thing that is truly fascinating is how utterly ill-prepared the NDP High Command was for the backlash. They basically handed Ezra a massive campaign on a silver plater. What were they expecting to happen? This is a man who makes his living fighting crusades over freedom of expression. Did they really think he’d refuse to pick up this particular gauntlet? That his tens of thousands of supporters would fail to back him as they’ve backed him so many times before?
With the Rebel the committed Right in Canada has at last found a perfect platform. No longer burdened by the tacit censorship and looming overhead costs of the legacy media, a genuinely new media has emerged to finish what’s left of the old. That may sound like hyperbole and perhaps it is. Yet there is a better than even chance that twenty years from now there will still be Ezra Levant ranting at full throttle, while his many critics and opponents have vanished into history.
I probably wouldn’t have imitated the grandiloquent style of a notorious former slave holder. And I would have been a bit more humble about the “Citizens of Cyberspace” creating social contracts to deal with bad behavior online. The fact remains there is not much one can do about bad behavior online except to take faith that the vast majority of what goes on there is not bad behavior. Yeah, I hate spam, and viruses, and worms, and surveillance [by America’s National Security Agency], but the fact remains that if you can censor one of these bad behaviors, you’ve endowed yourself with the ability to censor almost anything you don’t like online. This is not an ability I wish to extend to any existing government in the physical world. If we assert it, what’s to prevent Saudi Arabia from doing the same.
And I would make it more obviously clear that I knew that cyberspace was not sublimely removed from the physical world, with which it has exactly the same relationship that the mind has with the body: deeply interdependent but qualitatively different. I think that point often got lost.
Over the decades, it has been continuously fashionable to make a straw man of my declaration, to hoist it up as the sort of woolly-headed hippie nonsense you’d expect from techno-utopians like me. This is done largely by people who have never read it, or take a strong interest in believing that government is about to come stomping into town, there to “civilize cyberspace.
Michael Geist on the Quebec government’s latest attempt to limit the freedom of Quebec internet users:
If there is a first rule of the Internet in Canada, it is “thou shall not block.” Canadian Internet service providers face a wide range of policies that have implications for accessing content including net neutrality rules and the copyright notice-and-notice system. Yet in virtually all cases, blocking or removing content is simply not done (the lone exception is a limited, private sector led initiative to block child pornography images).
My weekly technology law column […] notes that unlike other countries which have dabbled in mandated takedowns or Internet filtering, Canada has largely defended an “open Internet”. Canadian law does not mandate that Internet providers take down content due to unproven allegations of copyright infringement or allow them to alter or change content. In fact, the Telecommunications Act stipulates that “a Canadian carrier shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.”
Despite the clear legal mandate to avoid blocking, earlier this month the Quebec government introduced unprecedented legislation that would require Internet providers to engage in content blocking. The new bill targets unlicensed online gambling websites as part of the government’s efforts to increase revenues from its own online gambling service, which has thus far failed to meet expectations.
Brendan O’Neill reminds us that being a supporter of free speech requires you to support those who don’t always agree with you or express themselves in ways you’re comfortable with:
It’s the 21st century and Europe is meant to be an open, enlightened continent, and yet a man has just been sentenced to jail — actual jail — for something that he said. Will there be uproar? It’s unlikely. For the man is Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the French comedian, and what he says — that Jews are scoundrels and the Holocaust is a fiction — is deeply unpleasant. Yet if we’re serious about freedom of speech, if we are truly committed to ensuring everyone has the liberty to think and say whatever they please, then the jailing of Dieudonné should outrage us as much as the attempts to shut down Charlie Hebdo or the jailing of a Saudi blogger for ridiculing religious belief. We should be saying ‘Je Suis Dieudonné’.
Due to the regimen of hate-speech laws in 21st-century Europe — which police and punish everything from Holocaust denial to Christian denunciations of homosexuality — Dieudonné has been having run-ins with the law for years. In 2009, a French court fined him €10,000 for inviting a Holocaust denier on stage during a gig. In March this year, a French court gave him a two-month suspended prison sentence for saying he sympathised with the attack on Charlie Hebdo and with the anti-Semite who murdered Jews at a Parisian supermarket a few days later. Now, this week, a Belgian court has given him an actual prison sentence: a court in Liège found him guilty of incitement to hatred for making anti-Semitic comments during a recent show and condemned him to two months in jail.
In all these cases, Dieudonné has been punished simply for thinking and saying certain things. This is thought-policing. It’s a PC, spat-and-polished version of the Inquisition, which was likewise in the business of raining punishment upon those who said things the authorities considered wicked. To fine or imprison people for expressing their beliefs is always a scandal, regardless of whether we like or hate their beliefs. Dieudonné really believes the Holocaust is a myth, as much as a Christian fundamentalist believes that people who have gay sex will go to hell or American liberals believe Hillary Clinton will make a good president. He is wrong, massively, poisonously so; but then, so are those Christians about gays and those liberals about Hillary. If every person who says wrong, malicious or stupid things were carted off to jail, Europe’s streets would be emptied overnight.
It is incredibly illiberal for the state to police hatred. Hatred might not be big or clever, but it’s only an emotion. And officialdom has no business telling us what we may feel — or think, or say, or write. Allowing the state to monitor belief represents a brutal reversal of the Enlightenment itself. John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), set the tone for the Enlightenment as an attempt to ‘settle the bounds’ between the business of government and the business of morality. ‘The business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of every particular man’s goods and person’, he wrote. That ideal is now turned on its head. Across Europe, governments ‘provide for the truth of opinions’, and in the process they silence those they don’t like and patronise the rest of us, reducing us to imbeciles incapable of working out what is right and wrong, and of speaking out against the wrong.
All hate-speech laws should be scrapped. Dieudonné should be freed. And a continent whose governments argue against the imprisonment of bloggers in Saudi Arabia while jailing comedians at home needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.