Is banning trolls a prerequisite or a defeat for free speech?

Is banning trolls a prerequisite or a defeat for free speech?

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The permanent banning of uber-troll Milo Yiannopoulos from Twitter was probably long overdue. It's time for non-trolls to stop complaining and start defending civility in our social spaces, or simply decamp to build better ones. (image: NextWeb)

I'm not here to argue the rights and wrongs of this particular case (for what it's worth, Yiannopoulos denies the crimes he's been accused of). What bothers me more is how the self-styled “most fabulous supervillain on the internet" immediately cast Twitter's decision as a blow to free speech, as well as a victory for "Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists" - exactly the sort of conflation only a truly dedicated asshole - someone who's managed to turn that behaviour into a profitable business model - could make.

The support the 'free speech' argument garnered reminded me of the recent brouhaha over Facebook's Trending Topics (see my May enewsletter). People seem to view Twitter and Facebook as utilities, serving up free speech like power companies serve up electricity or gas. Power utilities are not allowed to 'ban' customers (as long as they pay) because a citizen's right to energy is considered pretty fundamental. From utilities, in other words:

"we expect a kind of dumb passivity … phone companies don’t send through certain calls and not others…Utilities are regulated to assure fairness and consistency of service; Facebook and Google are not.“ - Why Do We Care If Facebook Is Biased? New Yorker

But Twitter and Facebook are not utilities. They're more like private clubs: free to join, but 100% owned by private interests who are totally within their rights to blackball a member who acts like a dick and whips up a mob to drive thousands of other people out the door. So don't cry for Milo - he'll be fine:

“It’s fantastic... The timing is perfect.... I thought I had another six months, but this was always going to happen.” - I'm with the Banned, Laurie Penny

Better late than never

Instead, having been on the receiving end of some trolls' attention almost a decade ago*, I'm applauding Twitter. Better late than never. Social media platforms have become central to our public discourse, so how they manage their members' behaviour directly impacts politics and society. That means their rules affect everyone, whether members of these platforms or not.

So perhaps people treat them like utilities because they'd like some sort of democratic control? Wise up, guys: these are private, unregulatable clubs whose prime imperative is to make a return for their investors, not foster democratic debate. Which is perhaps why, as Laurie Penny puts it, right now "the spoils go to those with fewest fucks to give", why we have leaders like Trump, Farage and Johnson, and...

"... how we got to a place where headline speakers at the Republican convention... are now actively calling for the slaughter and deportation of foreigners, declare that Hillary Clinton is an agent of Satan, and hear only cheers from the floor"

Use with caution

I can't recommend her article enough for the insights it gives into the many subspecies of trolls which have evolved over the past 10 years, and how they have begun sucking rational discourse out of our democracies by gaming social media:

... the game of turning raw rage into political currency... Milo is the best player here. Like Trump, and like a lot of successful politicians in this postmodern circus, they channel their own narcissism to give voice to the wordless, formless rage of the people neoliberalism left behind.

So go read it. And then remember that: a) this is not inevitable: change the rules, change the game; b) the platforms will change the rules only when they see it as commercially necessary c) as users of these platforms: Collectively, in fact, we probably have more control over social media platforms than we do over any utility. 

  • we are the only people the platforms' owners listen to, because we're the product - without us logging in, they won't make any money
  • the platforms' algorithms reflect our values, so how they evolve is up to us.

So use with caution. 

Further reading * I'm in no way saying that my 2007 experience with Eurosceptic trolls comes anywhere close to what some people experience every day on social media. As a white male, I probably never will. But they did get under my skin, and that little inkling was more than enough.

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See also: Online Community Management , Social Media Strategy , Psychology , Social Web , Media , Politics

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