A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] “Free Speech and Power: From Reddit Creeps to anti-Muslim Videos, It’s Not *Just* “Free Speech”

Technosociology blogger Zeynep Tufekci has a long history of being concerned with the ways modern social networking technology can interact with social issues of whatever vintage to produce toxic social issues–some months ago I linked to a post of hers where she worried that the preservation of evidence of atrocities in digital media might not only make it impossible to overcome the past but might legitimize new violence. In a recent long post, Tufekci manages to synthesize the previously-mentioned Reddit/violentacrez affair with the global protests at Innocence of the Muslims. She makes what I think to be a valid point, that free speech that’s aimed against weak or marginalized groups can be deeply problematic.

[L]let’s point out that defenders of “absolute free speech” actually do understand that speech has power—and are more than ready to ban it to protect themselves. If you were following the story, you know that this all became a public brouhaha after Adrien Chen exposed the real name and location of the main editor of “creepshot” forum in an article in Gawker. All of a sudden, defense of “free speech” became a secondary concern for Reddit management and they banned linking to Gawker from the site. Leaked text of Reddit moderator chats discussing the situation make it very clear that even those who don’t think Gawker should be banned agree that the Gawker reporter did an awful thing. This deep hypocrisy in Reddit’s position that posting names of child predators [as it is predation to post pictures of minors for sexual exploitation] should be banned, but child predation should be protected by Reddit as “free speech” is so blatantly obvious that one could almost stop there[.]

Rather, let’s look at this as a good example for why “free speech” as an absolute value for any community that is not balanced by any other concern is at best an abdication of responsibility, and at worst an attempt to exercise power over vulnerable populations.

[. . .]

One problem with discussing speech on the Internet is that one gets told “well, if you don’t like it go elsewhere.” I also hear this with privacy violations of major sites—if you don’t like it, go elsewhere. As I’ve repeatedly tried to explain, this, too, is an assertion of power. Due to network effects, Facebook, for example, is fairly mandatory for college kids –it’s like having a phone is in modern societies, there is much you can’t get done if you don’t have one–and the ability to reject Facebook profile of some kind is often the privilege of those who are rich enough in social capital and would be very costly for most regular kids. Having these “creep” forums exists on Reddit, an Internet powerhouse, is similarly an assertion of power and it is one reason that I tend not to go there—not because I’m easily offended but the idea of a forum that even incidentally protects child predation disturbs me too deeply. However, being preyed upon by Reddit or Internet creeps has an effect not just an individuals (see one case of a teenager here) but on all of society because one of the functions of public speech is to set public norms of what’s acceptable—Internet is a powerful norm-shifter.

[. . . ]

Another variant of the argument has been that “it’s just the Internet.” Chill. This, of course, rests of on something I’ve long been railing against, the notion that the Internet is somehow not real, that it’s virtual or that it is “trivial.” [. . .] This stance of “it’s just the Internet” is basically relegating the children preyed upon into the “virtual” realm. They just aren’t real enough to count while Reddit moderators are so hyperreal that exposing their mere name is a grave violation. In fact, digital dualism often surfaces as this kind of “power assertions” when gatekeepers and already-powerful who have access to broad publics trivialize self-expression on the Internet (“it’s just cat videos”), never miss a chance to put down Twitter (“it’s about what you had for lunch”), or consider social interaction on Facebook to be unreal compared to “real life” interaction. In reality, of course, the Internet is many things and there is nothing wrong with cat videos, Twitter is a powerful tool for taking part in the public sphere as well as sharing what’s good for lunch, and Facebook is an integral part of social interaction for many people not just because it’s convenient, but sometimes it’s the only way to keep in touch.

Let me briefly discuss the harder case, the anti-Muslim video that sparked off protests around the world. Many commentators in the West have pointed out that the Muslim world seems to be too easily offended and it is ridiculous to hold protests over a two-bit, clownish attempt to insult. I’d like to assure everyone that many, many, many commentators in Muslim public sphere have pointed out the same thing and have appealed for sanity, tolerance and ignoring of cheap provocations. So, most people on either parts of the world are on the same page there.

[. . . ] While the Western countries only see a blasphemous video, many people in the Middle East also see hate speech that dehumanizes them and helps justify actual violence upon their lands and their people. And this is an understandable position because of two acts by the Western public sphere in an one-sided exercise of power and assertion of privilege: 1- Ignoring the Iraq War as soon as the preponderance of US troops left; 2-Ignoring most of what’s going on in Afghanistan including the drone strikes that the few independent observers able to get into the area claim are killing many, many civilians and terrorizing the population. Hence, portrayals of Islam in the United States public sphere are a legitimate cause for concern for anyone who lives in these regions. The differences in the public spheres are quite striking. Whenever I go to the Middle East, people bring up the Iraq War. The lies, the lives lost, the destruction and the aftermath… It hardly ever comes up in the United States… Ever. It is as if we believe electing a different president allows us to say that it is over as far as we are concerned—regardless of whatever else it may have caused. This is a blatant assertion of power and privilege.

[. . . ]

The real problem for most people in the Muslim public sphere isn’t the blasphemy; it’s that they feel dehumanized and discounted. *Perception* that they are not, that a public out in the West is trying to reach out and listen to them –and understand their grievances with Western policy– goes a long way in diffusing some of these tensions. That is why this kind of pushback we saw with #muslimrage is very valuable –and also maybe, just maybe, recognizing that the Iraq war is not some distant past that we can conveniently ignore because we’d rather not talk about it anymore and that the drones flying over Afghanistan isn’t just their problem but should be open to scrutiny and criticism from people here as well would go a long way in diffusing such tensions.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 18, 2012 at 2:59 am

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