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Free Speech in a Networked World

It has always been complicated, but in what Timothy Garton Ash calls the "cosmopolis," cultivating this freedom is something we need to understand better.

August 20, 2018
 
 

Last week I had the great pleasure of discussing early results of a new Project Information Literacy report that will be released in October. This time, Alison Head and her research team are looking at how college students consume news. Several folks met to talk about their findings and brainstorm what we think we should be doing to help students navigate this confusing information environment – not just librarians, but experts in media studies, journalism, education, quantitative social science, computer science, and civic engagement. Interdisciplinary conversations are so useful and far too rare.

Free Speech - Timothy Garton AshI’ve been reading a couple of books that are also entering this conversation for me as I wrestle with the problem of what free speech means in a networked environment. One is Timothy Garton Ash’s dauntingly long but thoroughly engaging Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. The other is Tarleton Gillespie’s Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions that Shape Social Media. Ash (a journalist and academic) is a supporter of good old fashioned Enlightenment liberalism. He believes in universal human rights, specifically in everyone’s right to freedom to hold opinions and express them and to seek information regardless of frontiers – something spelled out in a UN covenant that most countries in the world have signed on to, but don’t necessarily uphold. All of this has become a bit more complicated in our networked world. He discusses the value of free speech and things that complicate it: the potential for some forms of speech to lead to violence, the complexity of developing a common sense of civil discourse in a diverse world, the importance of journalism, the need for privacy and the problem of secrecy, the complicated architecture of an international network that we rely on but don’t really understand. It’s a lively and ambitious defense of free speech that explores its complexities without losing faith in its basic universal value. Though it was published in 2016, the companion website adds new content and presents it in many languages, something I've bookmarked as useful material for courses.

Custodians of the Internet - Tarleton GillespieTarleton Gillespie is more tightly focused on how platforms handle speech, and it’s illuminating. A researcher at Microsoft Research and associate professor at Cornell, he has the ear of folks who work at Internet companies and has thought deeply about how moderation works and how it could be improved. One key takeaway: not only are platforms not neutral, moderation is a constant and fundamental part of how they operate, even though its terms tend to be buried in legal boilerplate and its operation is largely hidden and often capricious. Platforms operate in an odd place: they don’t produce content, they provide a way to host, organize, and circulate it to maximize data handling, advertising, and profits. They aren’t legally responsible for the content they host, thanks to Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act, but they constantly make choices about it, choices that are in many senses editorial. The filters they create and the actions they take are largely hidden from users, and sometimes content is hidden from one user but visible to another. Users can influence the way content is moderated by sharing information, speculating about procedures, and organizing protests. He analyzes one such protest in depth – breast feeding mothers whose photos were deleted as unacceptable nudity. He also opens with a rather famous moderation debacle: a Norwegian paper republished a famous photo from the Vietnam war of a girl suffering after a napalm attack. It was removed as child pornography. Even the prime minister reposted it, only to have it removed. Facebook eventually relented, but it illustrated how complex content moderation is. And how much it is hidden from view, even though it’s an essential function of platforms. He writes:

For more than a decade, social media platforms have presented themselves as mere conduits, obscuring and disavowing the content moderation they do. Their instinct has been to dodge, dissemble, or deny every time it becomes clear they produce specific kinds of public discourse in specific ways. While we cannot hold platforms responsible for the fact that some people want to post pornography, or mislead, or be hateful to others, we are now painfully aware of the ways in which platforms can invite, facilitate, amplify, and exacerbate those tendencies: weaponized and coordinated harassment; misrepresentation and propaganda buoyed by its quantified popularity; polarization as a side effect of algorithmic personalization; bots speaking as humans; humans speaking as bots; public participation emphatically figured as individual self-promotion; the tactical gaming of algorithms in order to simulate genuine cultural value. (p. 206)

He has recommendations, including that platforms radically rethink who works at these companies to avoid the groupthink that assumes a white, privileged, Californian mindset “where the notion of structural inequity is alien, and silencing tactics take cover behind a false faith in meritocracy. They tend to build tools ‘for all’ that continue, extend, and reify the inequities they overlook” (p. 202). He argues against "the economics of popularity" that amplify harassment, hate, and lies rather than newsworthiness or relevance. He also thinks the work of moderation, already labor shared through opaque flagging and reporting options, should be truly a shared effort, with users given a say in how moderation should work as well as tools and data to make the whole process more transparent.

Free speech is important enough to care for it. These books shed some light on why its limits need to be carefully negotiated and defined and how, perhaps, we can do it better in future.

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