Month: August 2018

“Public Safety” – The Road to Thermidor

Freedom is dangerous. Your unregulated actions may cause harm to yourself and others. Parents are now expected to monitor their children every minute of the day and adults are voting for politicians who promise ever-increasing protections against harm, to regulate guns, food, and even speech.

The US long ago chose freedom over safety; as Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” We can see now that he should have been more specific — small liberties have been given up one by one, so that now most citizens could be prosecuted for some violation. The lack of enforcement of laws and regulations on the wealthiest and high-level machine politicians leads to cynicism and acceptance of lawlessness at the highest levels of government, while at the same time everyday life is more and more micromanaged by busybodies who want to control how others live.

Network effects make for near-monopolies in Internet-based communications businesses. Google, Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook dominate their respective sectors of user-generated media. These platforms increasingly censor speech that opposes the political status quo. Much of this censorship is motivated by efforts to make these media safe for advertising by removing discordant voices that passive consumers might find objectionable; no one wants their ad for a consumer product to run beside a disturbing message. Already advertisers are being pressured to drop support for content producers, in an effort to give activist groups veto power over content.

Twitter has its “Trust & Safety Council,” intended to censor Twitter. While the company denies it, it mass suspends or shadowbans users who have attracted “too many” user blocks or complaints. Many users wonder why a simple block of someone who annoys them isn’t enough, but for activists the goal is to prevent *others* from seeing anything they find offensive — because they believe removing speech from public spaces will prevent bad ideas from being seen, heard, and possibly influencing the weak-minded.

Every print publication chooses what content goes in and what is left out. Twitter, Facebook, and other services are free to curate users and police content that is illegal or offensive, but the governing laws then tend to make them responsible — if you are in the business of providing an edited product, you tend to be seen as responsible for that content, unlike common carriers that transfer all messages and have no say in what is carried from user to user. It is relatively safe to censor only content that could legally be actionable under the First Amendment — imminent, direct threats to identifiable people or groups. Uncomfortable political ideas can’t be defined clearly, and allowing activists to veto speech based on nebulous hurt feelings is a recipe for silencing most people who have something to say — as voices are removed, what is allowed to be spoken gets narrower and narrower, and those activists who validate their existence by taking offense in order to gain power to silence ideas they don’t like will simply define more and more ideas as offensive until almost nothing is left.

The French Revolution had its governing Committee of Public Safety. Notice the language — no longer focused on protecting the citizens from hostile external powers, but policing safety — that is, finding enemies both internal and external. These ideologues came to a bad end as the revolutionaries were, one by one, found to be “problematic” and executed in service of the higher goal of perfecting and protecting the new State. The modern and humane guillotine made quick work of disposing of anyone who got in the way of Progress.

The Mob, the sans-culottes who could reliably rounded up on the streets of Paris to put muscle behind the Reign of Terror, were the power base of the factional leaders in the struggle to control the day-zero government which would overthrow all vested interests and rethink all customs. Today’s equivalent is the Twitter mob, ready to condemn and disemploy anyone accused of harming a member of an oppressed class. But it is far easier in social media than it used to be in the physical world to destroy reputations and end careers. And the gusto with which the Twitter mob sentences its targets to punishments is related to the selective empathy employed — instead of recognizing each human being as an individual with goals and emotions that can be understood, targets are dehumanized and abstracted.

The stakes are lower in social media (no one aside from a few suicides is actually being killed for the Cause), but the mechanism is the same — the rush of power shared with your tribe to vanquish your enemies and gain strength in numbers. To pull down idols so that you can put yours up instead. To drive out competitors and get you and your friends appointed to positions of authority.

The killing fields of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge government are arguably the most horrific example of a real-world pogrom in recent history. I’ll wrap this up with the campaign ad for the daughter of Cambodian genocide survivors, recently censored by Facebook.