Dark Side of the Blogosphere

A portion of the blogosphere is abuzz with comments relating to the alleged death threats against Kathy Sierra .

To recap, Kathy Sierra is the creator of a popular blog called “Creating Passionate Users.” In a recent post, she asserts that she has received death threats that are paralyzing her with fear and left her so terrified that she’s canceling her appearance at the Etech conference. I do not know Kathy personally and am only acquainted with some of the people she mentioned in her post.

Before I go any deeper into this post, let me state that I do not agree with threats of any violence in general: one’s freedom stops when it start interfering with another person’s. Having been on the receiving end of such threat, I know first-hand what effect they can have on an individual’s psyche (during my college years, I received death threats (at gunpoint, no less) as a result of a politically charged satire article I had written for a local publication.) My thoughts go out to Kathy on this and I hope that the passage of time will help her overcome her fears.

That said, I worry about the current reaction in the blogosphere turning into a mob justice against the alleged guilty parties. The court of opinions seems to have convicted the people Kathy is pointing to with little evidence as to their assumed guilt. Under the model the blogosphere seems to have taken, carrying anonymous comments is cause enough for being guilty. I thought we had fought that fight long ago and agreed that carriers are not generally to be held responsible for what the community posts unless they edit or moderate the content.

This creates an interesting conundrum and one that cannot be easily solved. Remember that the genius of the US founding fathers was in ensuring that speech, no matter how unpopular it is, is generally broadly protected under the first amendment to the US constitution. This is why neo-nazi groups are allowed to deny the existence of the Holocaust or why the KKK is still free to operate as long as its activities are just communication related and do not expand to actions. The problem with speech, in general, is that you can always find a type of speech you object to and if you want to be fair about free speech, you are forced to defend people you disagree with. It’s not easy but it’s also what makes this country great.

In the mid-90s, I was involved as part of a group that took a lawsuit all the way to the US Supreme Court to ensure that free speech would remain protected on the Internet. I was a wide eyed idealist then and still remain one today. And thus, the conundrum: in order for a free society to exist, hate speech cannot be condoned but must be allowed.

The knee-jerk reaction from the blogosphere calling for outing the guilty parties and taking them to the gallows will not solve the fundamental problem and will actually make things worse. A mob, not matter how well meaning, is always ugly. As Scoble pointed it, “we have to fix this culture.” But that doesn’t happen overnight and calling for jail time is not the answer. While I deeply disagree with the premise behind sites like meankids.org, I do not believe that shutting them down would solve the problem. If anything, it might serve as a way to pour fuel on the fire, allowing for such thing to spread at a much quicker rate. Lisa Stone puts it best when she said “My opinions aside, we don’t believe that linking to and associating with sites we don’t like is currently in and of itself a breach of our community guidelines and editor agreements.”

In the past, I’ve bumped into a few people who were extremely unhappy (not to the point of death threat but definitely working through other forms of intimidation) about posts I made about the A-list. This is actually part of the darker side of the A-list: what happens if an A-lister breaks the code of civility? In 4 short points, Ross Mayfield gets to the crux of it: “Being safe is something most everyone can agree is a right… Being anonymous on the web matters… Being open on the web matters… Being free with speech is both what makes us great and makes us go too far…”

What is disheartening, though, is that few people are trying to provide answers as to how to deal with the situation. Umair Haque proposes a system that would remove anonimity from the system. I don’t think that’s the solution but at least he’s trying.

As Doc Searls points out Getting your facts right isn’t always so simple and, in this case, it’s not clear what all the facts are. Sitting here as an outsider, I have a hard time understanding the basic issues at hand (what provoked the initial arguments?) So maybe, the first thing is understanding the fact.

The other thing I’d suggest the blogosphere look at is how hate speech sites can co-exist with the rest of the web. Hate speech online is not new (I’m sure that a little research could yield both Zionist and anti-semite sites turning their hatred of the other people into online posts) but it seems it CAN be contained. Based on that, here are some prescriptions:

  • Don’t link to site that support hate speech: Obscurity is generally the enemy of hatred as it doesn’t allow it to spread. The more one pays attention to people speaking hateful words, the more those people will post so highlighting them has a negative effect. Linking is a choice the writer makes so it doesn’t violate the right of the haters to speak, it just denies them traffic flow.
  • When confronted with hate speech, either confront it on the speaker’s site itself (hence ensuring they don’t get the flow while at the same time, presenting your own point of view)
  • If hate is followed through with actions, out the actions. The speech in itself may be disagreeable but, as long as it is not followed through with actions, it is constrained. However, if it turns into harassing phone calls and emails, or worse, it then becomes something that can be taken care of in a court of law.
  • Be mindful of the dangers of mob justice. In this month’s wired, I’m quoted saying: “have you considered the difference between the “wisdom of crowds” and “tyranny of the majority.” It is something that I haven’t heard too many people talk about but what happens when the majority is wrong?” In this case, I’m afraid the majority is wrong in calling for jail time due to speech.

I know this post will probably result in my losing some readers and for that I am sorry but I cannot abide letting a mob run while so many of the facts are still unclear. I do believe that what happened to Ms. Sierra sounds horrible and for that, I send her my best wishes but, at the same time, I want to make sure that the blogosphere does not over-react because the result could be a more limited definition of free speech in the blogosphere. Hate speech, because it is so dreadful, crosses a line that most of us (myself included) would like to see not crossed but it is exactly why it is protected: because it makes us uncomfortable, because it goes where none of us wants to go and that is the genius of the US founders: to protect even the vilest individuals from the overbearing abuse society can impose upon them.

To deny that protection would be denying the genius of the US founding fathers and that’s a step that I, for one, am not yet willing to take.

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