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Of free speech in global social media

I’ll probably come back around to this important topic again, but right now I have only two points to add to what’s partly a discussion about free speech in social media, fueled in the past week by feminist Soraya Chemaly in the Huffington Post. It’s difficult to talk about “controversial humor” pages in the context of free speech because this content on Facebook (and now on Tumblr, its creators announced on the FB page), is so offensive to me too, as well as to so many other people, both men and women. Beyond the comments Facebook deleted from the page, there may be more coming from the company about degrading speech in its site – but I won’t wait to post this, because a lot of thoughtful discussion has unfolded in the past week.

Before my points, though, some important related comments from others:

  • On free speech
  • In “Why Facebook and YouTube Should Err on the Side of Free Speech,” my ConnectSafely co-director writes that Facebook and Google together “have a reach that’s bigger than any of the world’s governments,” so decisions they make about what speech can or can’t be allowed carry “enormous weight.” [Added 10/4: Facebook announced today that it now has more than 1 billion active users a month.] I agree with Larry that these giant media companies can’t morally be arbitrary; they have to have rules that, hopefully, uphold the universal values that psychology Prof. Carlo Strenger at University of Tel Aviv refers to in this TEDx Talk, including “freedom of expression that doesn’t generate hate or preach violence.”

    Wherever it’s spoken, regulating speech is extremely difficult when it crashes into the question of whether it grows hate or incites violence, especially in an online context. “On one hand, banning offensive Facebook pages and hateful YouTube videos would be popular among many people,” Larry writes. “Yet, having to make decisions on a page-by-page or video-by-video basis without adhering to guidelines sets a dangerous precedent because it would require censors at the companies to make value decisions about the nature of specific content their users post. It’s one thing to enforce [terms of service], but it’s something different to make exceptions just because a piece of content is offensive.”

    These companies have “a solemn responsibility,” he adds. They do. The really difficult part is determining – quickly and transparently – when content or behavior crosses the line. Consistent enforcement of their terms of use protects employees and companies from being the moral arbiters that they’re morally obligated not to be. And it keeps them as pro-social as they need their users to be (see this about anti-social media companies).

  • On gender issues
  • Another timely comment was in last Sunday’s New York Times: In “The Myth of Male Decline,” Prof. Stephanie Coontz at Evergreen State College writes that, “if the ascent of women has been much exaggerated, so has the descent of men. Men’s irresponsibility and bad behavior is now a stock theme in popular culture [as expressed online too, now]. But there has always been a subset of men who engage in crude, coercive and exploitative behavior” like that exhibited in the pages Chemaly refers to.

    “What’s different today,” Coontz writes, “is that it’s harder for men to get away with such behavior in long-term relationships. Women no longer feel compelled to put up with it and the legal system no longer condones it. The result is that many guys who would have been obnoxious husbands, behaving badly behind closed doors, are now obnoxious singles, trumpeting their bad behavior on YouTube. Their boorishness may be pathetic, but it’s much less destructive than the masculine misbehavior of yore. Most men are in fact behaving better than ever. Domestic violence rates have been halved since 1993, while rapes and sexual assaults against women have fallen by 70 percent in that time. In recent decades, husbands have doubled their share of housework and tripled their share of child care. And this change is not confined to highly educated men.”

    [It’s a slight digression from the free [but offensive] speech discussion, but an interesting point Coontz makes is that “one thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood.”]

  • Two other considerations
  • So back to the sometimes repulsive behavior on exhibit in social sites. A couple other points for your consideration that haven’t been made yet (as far as I know):

    1. It’s all there, in social media: the offensive and the redeeming. In fact, sometimes – if allowed to play out – it goes from offensive to apologetic to changed to life-changing. Social media increasingly mirrors all of human life, updated by hundreds of millions of people in real time, globally, 24/7. An example from the positive side this past week started with some cruel behavior directed at high school student Wendy Kropp in the small Michigan town of Alger, when peers elected her to the Homecoming court. They reportedly “thought it would be funny if the popularity contest was won by someone who was unpopular.” Then other students at her school, Ogemaw Heights High School, rallied around her, including students at Ogemaw’s Homecoming rival. And a mom who was an alum of Wendy’s school created a “Support Wendy Kropp” Facebook page that, “in two weeks, almost 100,000 people have ‘Liked'” and where thousands have posted messages of support and personal accounts of being targeted by bullies,” reported.

    Another example played out just in the past week at, where abusive behavior toward a Sikh woman in the UK turned up and where she herself calmly, respectfully responded. Shortly thereafter “the thread was flooded with positive comments … in support of [Balpreet] Kaur,” the woman who had been insulted, The Guardian reported. “Even more impressive,” it added, “the man responsible for posting the picture [of Kaur] offered a tail-between-the-legs mea culpa. ‘I felt the need to apologise to the Sikhs, Balpreet, and anyone else I offended when I posted that picture. Put simply it was stupid. Making fun of people is funny to some but incredibly degrading to the people you’re making fun of. It was an incredibly rude, judgmental, and ignorant thing to post,'” he was quoted as saying.

    “So what have we learned here?” writes Guardian writer Jane Martinson. “That the nuances of the Sikh religion are still lost on some, that taking pictures of people without their consent is despicable and that little beats a good old-fashioned apology (except, perhaps, not doing wrong in the first place). Oh, and that Balpreet Kaur is a bit of a hero, frankly.”

    One other takeaway is what happens when these things play out online for all to see: social norming. People – not all, but most, I think – learn from watching what happens, and the result is that social norms are in development. It has been happening offline for millennia, and we are now in the process of seeing those norms adopted in humanity’s newest space: social media. Which leads to my second point:

    2. Transparency is mostly good. When offensive behavior is expressed privately in an echo chamber of like-minded people, nothing happens. When it goes on display – in addition to affecting social norms just by eliciting disgust – it also begins to marginalize itself, possibly to self-destruct. That’s a net gain. I know people who are deeply offended or scared for their fellow human beings can barely see it as a gain. I completely understand their feelings. But hate, degradation, etc. need to be seen for what they are in order for them to be addressed. Let’s be clear, though: It’s equally essential that the culture of blame not kick in and that behavior is separated from behaver. For example, the very labeling of people as bullies too easily becomes bullying itself. Those who hide behind abusive behavior or speech need help in finding their way to constructive, pro-social expression.

    So we come back around to the challenge of figuring out what we’re responding to – the transparency or the behavior – and how we’re responding to it, as individuals, schools, companies, governments, etc. I welcome your thoughts.

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