Free Speech in Online Communities

Milena Popova discusses when forum moderators become censors and the line between enforcing online politeness and freedom of speech

Turning the trolls away

Image: New Troll and Old Troll (Back) CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: Dunechaser

An increase in traffic to my blog inevitably comes with an increase in comment spam. I must admit I do not exactly feel like an enemy of free speech every time I hit “Delete” on something like this:

Elegant vintage women's evening gowns have manner that namely timeless. These vintage women's nighttime dresses are quite chic today as well. The detriment of the corset was a excellent impetuous for fashion apt take a radical alteration and ideas started ...

Nor did I feel like an enemy of free speech when I used to moderate the mailing list of my university’s rock society. Back in the days of dial-up I suspect most people were glad I didn’t let that 20 MB attachment go through and were happy to sacrifice the occasional argument about the correct spelling of “Red Hot Chili Peppers” (one L) in exchange for a manageable phone bill.

I can think of several other sensible cases that can be made in favour of limiting what people can say on the Internet. A lot of the message boards I hang out on have rules around civilised debate, around not calling people names, around employing common sense and courtesy when discussing sensitive topics like violence against women. Sometimes such communities are self-regulating; often they will have administrators or moderators whose job it is to enforce the rules. The bigger a community gets, the more likely it is that at some point someone will have to make a call between freedom of speech and members’ convenience (in the case of spam) or right to a safe space (in the case of abusive comments).

The best moderators will use a light touch. In a reasonably small, close-knit community a simple reminder of the rules and standards everyone has agreed to can be enough to calm a heated discussion, to remind people that on the other side of screen and keyboard there’s another human being. Even some larger communities can work very well on the basis of consent and consensus. Hummus wars notwithstanding, Wikipedia’s principles of discussion and consensus tend to serve it well the vast majority of the time.

Then again, there are the trainwrecks. Comment may be free on the Guardian, but don’t go below the line unless you have to. I am sure Guardian moderators do their best, but a lot of abuse still gets through and the comment threads are so far from constructive debate that they’re a waste of time unless you particularly enjoy feeding trolls. Etsy.com, the popular sales site for handcrafted and vintage items is notorious for being another trainwreck. When your forum admin needs to make a 1200-word post (that’s six times as long as their actual forum policy) about banning, muting, locking, closing and all the other things the Etsy forum teams to do members and forum threads, you know you have a problem. When that post starts out with a threat to close the thread if anyone asks the wrong question, you want to hand them a dictionary with the word “irony” highlighted.

Of course keeping it civilised was ostensibly the motivation behind Google’s highly controversial real names policy for its Google+ service. You can have free speech as long as you put your name to it, apparently. And while it is true that being able to hide behind anonymity can bring out the less pleasant sides of most of us (guilty as charged, on occasion), abolishing anonymity is in its own way a good method of stifling free speech. When what you want to talk about is being a survivor of sexual or domestic violence, or could land you in jail because your government isn’t terribly tolerant of your opinion of it, anonymity is in many cases the only real enabler of free speech.

Looking at the examples above, the online communities which strike the necessary balance most successfully are those which are self-regulated, where moderators come from within the community, where moderation happens by consent. This is not to say that SNAFU doesn’t happen in these communities, but in my experience it is rarer and easier to fix. Don’t like that I didn’t let your email on the number of Ls in Red Hot Chili Peppers through? Drop me a note or catch me at the next club night and we can talk about it. Get a second moderator in to get a more balanced view. There are options. When moderation is imposed from outside, such as on Etsy, Google+, Comment is Free or when Twitter suspends accounts which are inconvenient to commercial interests, you have two choices. You play by those imposed rules or you don’t play at all.

There are a number of efforts out there to wrest control of our online social spaces from corporate interests, to make them more open and return them to community ownership rather than market ownership. identi.ca, DreamWidth and DIASPORA* are just some of them. Some are more successful than others. Some are easier to migrate to than others. If we want to maintain the Internet’s openness and to fulfill its potential as enabler of free speech, we need to support and encourage those projects, to at least spread our eggs between the commercial and the community baskets, lest we find ourselves in a position where we can only consume, conform, obey

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra

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By Milena Popova on Jun 13, 2012

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