Sarah Jeong's Harvard lecture: "The Internet of Garbage"

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There has never been a time when threatening people was covered by free speech. I mean, if I point a gun at you and say “Give me all your money or I’ll kill you” that is not free speech, and it is no more so if you threaten someone over the internet. Targeted harassement that doesn’t rise to the level of threats is a “thorny free speech issue” but even bringing up free speech when it comes to threats of violence is framing the issue completely wrong.


Threats are a very specific type of speech, as you note, but it’s only an aspect what’s being discussed in the video. She’s also discussing the roundly awful stuff that is thrown about so nonchalantly. It’s not a threat to demand “tits or GTFO,” or to refer to women as “ovaries” or “ham planets,” but it’s gross. And its pervasiveness makes using the Internet difficult for no reason other than we, collectively, have decided being awful is OK as long as you can say whatever you want.

That’s the issue–women are singled out for harassment on the Internet. The nature of it is insulting, often sexual, and unrelenting.

What’s desired is a tool to discriminate and screen awfulness without overshooting. That’s actually, the saddest thing about this topic–we have roundly given up on any hope of restoring civility. The ability to remain anonymous and suffer no consequences for saying horrible shit to another person makes the Internet an unpleasant, if not threatening, place for women.


The internet is the world. It’s up to all of us to sort out stuff that matters to us and protect ourselves from bad stuff. There’s no one to do it for us. If someone crosses the line in a public space, document it and call the cops.

“the Internet” <> “social media”

I would have loved to ask Jeong “How about the commentary of a Milo Yiannopoulos? Is that the sort of thing which users have a right not to be shown??”

If John/Jane Q. User wants to not see direct threats, I think that’s a reasonable request on any platform. But when it extends to not wanting to see “gross” things or political opinions which they may find deeply offensive, then I think they need to spend their online time in fora such as BB (or for that matter Free Republic), which are carefully moderated to ensure a more limited range of worldviews than what one might encounter on FB or Twitter.


That’s so helpful! So you’re essentially saying that the internet makes up “the world”. And that “it’s up to all of us” to protect ourselves from “bad stuff”, as long as we’re not in a “public space”–then people can “call the cops”.

So…call the cops if you’re harassed in public, otherwise suck it up?


I’ve read the forum guidelines here, and I recall nothing that forbids any but a “limited range of worldviews.”

Of course, some ridiculous viewpoints (“white people are obviously superior,” “raped women were just asking for it,” etc.) do get deleted, but those are so obviously just wrong, and abusive (and usually covered by the rule against victim-blaming), that if the mods here let them stand, many of the regulars would have left a long time ago.

That said, in terms of “worldviews,” this place strikes me as generally “liberal,” but that doesn’t mean rightwing or conservative views are banned. From what I’ve seen, what mostly gets comments deleted and commenters banned is abusive, or bickering, or insistently off-topic behavior, not a commenter’s apparent “worldview.”

ETA: all of that said, yeah, the range does end up being somewhat narrower that what one might encounter on FB or Twitter.


I think that’s at least as much human nature as curation. FB and Twitter are vast cities of the internet driven by end users. Users gravitate towards their favored niches on them, but the chaos resists the human tendancy towards epistemic closure. BB and it’s big corner of Discourse are awesome; I appreciate it’s contributors and I love interacting with you and the other BB regulars. But, as Antinous (miss that fella) once said, most readers never click past the break on the front page, and these days few probably get past the BB Tweets. Which is cool, but it’s worth remembering our little band of mostly happy mutants are a small town on the modern internet. BB is a content driven site for bloggers. Our commentariate community is ultimately a spin-off of that. It’s natural that we’re going to be a little more isolated than FB or Twitter.

I used to intentionally expose myself to addresses on the internet and other media that I wouldn’t naturally be inclined to go. I’ve done that less and less as my career and other aspects of my offline life grew more demanding (all in good ways). But I certainly don’t fault BB for that. If I want a little more test by fire, it’s up to me to go where the flames lick at me.

Just my tuppence.

ETA: While my worldview likely seems to most to skew liberal because of the issues I normally engage in on here, I’m actually probably closer to progressive-capitalist civil-libertarian socially-inclusive pragmatist. I mention this only to point out that a given forum on the internet only sees the parts of a personality that it interfaces with. As I’m sure you already know since I’m willing to guess there’s more to you than what you share here, which is, again, only natural IMO.


And when the cops don’t do anything because they think you’re just some hysterical broad getting bent out of shape over some boys being mean to them on the internet?

And when those people cross the line in a space that’s not so public and provides a veil of anonymity?

It’s also more than a little messed up to say that the job of protecting people from abuse falls solely on the abused.

It doesn’t.

It falls to all of us. It falls to you.


Exactly. It’s entirely possible to be on the Internet while seeing little or none of the things that may cause a real sense of being threatened.

It’s not nearly so possible to be on Twitter and feel the same sense of security.

Now recently, it seems that Twitter is trying to police not only outright threats, but opinions that may cause offense. We’ll see how well that works. Unlike most Internet fora, Twitter has a stock price that will give us a clue.

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Would be interested in your opinion of this short piece:

Not interested in giving them a page-view, but I might respond to your summary of what the piece has to say.

I think social media is a kind of disastrous mix of different things. People use twitter to talk to social subgroups, to share things with their families, to keep up with press released from the government, to get weather alerts, and to viciously attack people and tell them to die. @lolipop_jones raised the example of of Milo Yiannopoulos. It would seem pretty crazy if we started saying that he shouldn’t be able to have a column because we think he’s an asshole. But even if he is just expressing his view, we all know how what effect that has after he expresses it.

If he mentions someone, or retweets something with a negative view, there will instantly be hundreds of people telling that person to die. I watched this unfold a couple of weekends ago when someone tweeted something about the outcome of a harassment trial in Canada. Yiannopoulos replied to it saying he thought the guy was wrong. There was a barrage almost immediately. Urging suicide, saying they were going to contact they guy’s employer to get him fired, and of course strings of slurs. I have no idea if his home address was posted or his family threatened, but that would hardly be unusual. The alpha wolf barked and his pack ripped the guy to shreds, and we are stuck saying, “Well, the alpha wolf was just expressing his opinion.”

So the line becomes very blurry. I’m not saying that we should shut anyone down because of what other peoplea round them did. In any individual case there is no way you could prove to a criminal court standard (or even likely a civil court standard in a law suit) that one of these alphas did what they did with the gleeful intention of siccing rabid fans on someone, maybe he was just expressing his opinion. But just expressing his opinion leads to the threat of physical violence against people. There are surely leaders of organized crime syndicates who can express certain opinions of people and reliably discover those people have been murdered. Just free speech unless they actually explicitly say to have someone killed? Just because we can’t prove that someone did something wrong doesn’t mean there isn’t something wrong going on.

When Canada was a young country voting was done publicly by having a each person stand up on a platform and declare which candidate they preferred. Candidates would bring groups of thugs with them to the place where voting occurred. Unsurprisingly the candidate with the more intimidating thugs would tend to win the election. Being powerless to stop people from congregating at a voting station, and being unable to quantify intimidating looks, we needed secret ballots to counter this suppression of rights. That’s why we need systems that make this kind of intimidation less effective, not prosecution of people with odious opinions.

In discussions of free speech there seems to be a constant worry about “censorship” of people who say misogynist things and no corresponding worry about “censorship” of people who are afraid to speak because of the possibility of being target by roving packs of misogynists. I really don’t understand how “Look, if you don’t want to have people post your address online and tell you to kill yourself just don’t speak in public” is not an attack on free speech.


Too bad you feel that way. For my part I have learned a lot by visiting sites that are opposed to my own preconceptions.

The tl:dr version of the article:

“Twitter talks about getting rid of anonymous harassment and abuse, but with 300 million users that’s simply impossible. What they can do and are doing, though, is purging controversial opinions expressed by controversial (and not at all anonymous) tweeters, (although only if those tweeters are libertarian or conservative).”

Edits in boldface

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But what if “controversial” means “harassment provoking”? Twitter actually has data. What if they can demonstrate that every time X, Y or Z tweets @anyone, suddenly @anyone gets inundated with anonymous harassment? Maybe there is some sense in which we can say it isn’t the fault of Y that he is slavishly followed by a vicious pack of people who issue death threats, but if his tweets are causing hundreds or thousands of other people to stay silent because they fear repercussions, isn’t it a net positive for free speech if Twitter says, “Look, you are too toxic and we can’t have you here.”


Then make it a clear, unambiguous rule, applied evenly.

“If you tweet Mary Smith, and within 48 hours Mary Smith receives 200 emails containing threats, your account will be suspended for a week. If it happens five times to the same user or to different users, you’ll be banhammered.”

Edit - it just came to me that this would give any 200 people the power to get anyone banned from Twitter. I’m trying to decide if this is a bug or a feature.

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To some extent I can agree, except any hard and fast rule will create its own unintended consequences (just as having no rule will create some kind of unfairness). I recall one online videogame that had a jury system where harassment complaints were analyzed by other players to see whether it really constituted harassment, maybe something like that would be good place where you avoid making loopholes but still have a level of transparency.

I’m all for transparency, but I don’t think the need for transparency trumps doing something about the harassment. Basically the level of harassment that some people are exposed to on Twitter seems like a more urgent problem to me than the idea that Twitter would be significantly neutered as a vehicle for speech. Tweeting isn’t a human right, and we aren’t sending innocent people to death row.

I certainly don’t like the prospect of a future where major forms of human communication, used by millions, have their content regulated by private enterprises that are accountable to no one. But on the other hand while, “First they came for the Jews…” is a powerful statement, “First they came for the raging assholes who were saying raping women should be legal…” seems like a bit less slippery a slope.


Um, well…that’s really the whole point. Twitter is a private corporation, accountable only to their shareholders unless they do something illegal. It’s not the phone company, or a licensed over the air broadcaster. It has no state-granted monopoly with the accompanying regulatory constraints.

Now that of course cuts both ways. If Twitter decides to ban public figures who oppose Black Lives Matter, or find contemporary feminism risible, or believe that same sex marriage is wrong, they have every right to do so, and those who have those views are free to join another network, or start their own.

But if Twitter becomes “the social network for those of acceptable progressive views”. that may affect their user base, and eventually their share value. That’s Twitter leadership’s prerogative as long as they can handle the consequences.

Alright, well if this has nothing to do with free speech and it just about whether or not we agree with Twitter’s business decisions then I think they’ll do better as a FaceBook than as a 4chan, which is the direction they are going.


Their goal is to deal with problem behaviors, not quash conservative political speech. Right-wing authoritarians have a mix of a massive victim complex and a higher level of being comfortable with harassment (of anyone in their out-group) that causes them to tend to be more disruptive than other people, so you might think they’re being targeted for their views, but the problem is their behavior, not their opinions. Right-wing authoritarians’ victim complex and longing to feel stabbed in the back also causes false claims like the BS Adam Baldwin was recently spouting to be accepted uncritically, despite the facts. There are other crazies like the freaks who harassed this scientist for being pro-GMO that are also the sorts Twitter is apparently also trying to moderate:

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