You Can’t Yell Fire on the Internet

By Kira Roybal

you cant yell fire on the internet1.png
Art by Jin Yoo

In late February of this year, Reddit announced its new privacy policy, which promises to remove nude pictures published without the consent of the photographed from the site. As first noted by Gawker writer Sam Biddle, the decision did not sit well with some Reddit users. One stated, “This rule is stupid and suppresses our rights,” and another wrote, “It’s a blurry world. Just because something is unethical and should be shamed doesn’t mean you can or should ban it.” A rather frustrated Redditor resorted to a low blow ad hominem: “It’s all thanks to Reddit’s slutty CEO that fucked her way to the top.”

What can we discern from the unhappy comments of these social media consumers?  Certainly misogyny and logical fallacies are still in vogue—at least in some circles. And people get very defensive over their first amendment rights. Although internet forums are great platforms for discussion and debate, they do not exactly come with a filter. You can start off watching a YouTube video of some amusing kid dancing around and end up reading an argument in the comments section over American education policies and the state of marriage. You truly get to read all kinds of opinions because everyone is an expert online.

Certainly everyone is entitled to their opinions. Freedom of thought is arguably just as important as freedom of speech, perhaps even a precursor to the exercise of free speech. Americans are (for the most part) guaranteed freedom of thought, speech, expression, and the like, although we may sometimes have to face the consequences of our words and actions. For instance, if you yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater where there is no fire, you will face some sort of punishment. So why are social media users, such as these Redditors, upset over laws that protect the fundamental right to privacy on the internet? More interestingly, why do they feel that their right to free speech and expression are threatened?

America does not have any laws that specifically protect against hate speech—speech that is directed at historically oppressed groups and is used to belittle and even traumatize the receiver(s). Instead, we have the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from regulating such speech. The idea is that we, as a society, will have a discussion about free and hate speech, and eventually we will reach some kind of conclusion based on the ideas and arguments that everyone brings to the table. Ultimately the hope is that hate speech will be overcome by more, rather than less, free speech. The only kind of speech that is not protected under the First Amendment is “fighting words” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire).These are words exchanged between individuals that could provoke the person addressed to commit an act of violence.

“Freedom of thought is arguably just as important as freedom of speech.”

Transmitting these measures onto the internet is a different story. Thanks to social media, millions of people can anonymously (or publicly) post their thoughts and opinions for others to read and comment on. Naturally this is a terrific breeding ground for some users to share their radical opinions—through, say, neo-nationalist, anti-feminist Tumblr pages—and for other users to police the nature and diffusion of such unprogressive opinions.

One specific name for those who voice their opinions against social ills and the misdeeds of individuals online is “social justice warrior.” To some, SJWs are champions for equality and human rights. To others, they are a threat to American democracy and the bane of their existence. For example, the “humanist counter theory” and anti-feminist organization A Voice for Men warns its members of the destructive forces of social justice warriors by disclosing the five easy steps that feminists allegedly use to take over the internet: (1) infect popular forum or social network, (2) start complaining, (3) gain control, (4) silence and harass, and (5) destruction complete. SJWs are apparently out to ruin the internet for everyone with their man-hating ideology and insistent online presence… Well, not exactly. Social justice warriors are not some cohesive organization; rather, they are just a loose collection of social media users and media outlet reporters. SJW is simply a term created through the workings of internet culture, originally meant to poke fun at the users who supposedly stifled others’ exercise of free speech in order to end racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. comments and posts. This is why some, like the Redditors angered over the new privacy policy, feel that their First Amendment rights are threatened. The American government isn’t around for every post and repost to uphold their right to make neo-Fascist claims.

Social justice warriors—as well as any organization or policy that attempts to make the internet a more tolerant and regulated public space—are seen as a spectre of the far-left, haunting America. Their tactics are aimed against hateful language and comments, leading some of the opposition to worry that the political correctness found in real-life society may invade and overwhelm the internet as well. New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait, in his recent and much talked-about piece on the perversion of modern liberalism (“Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say”), defines politically correct (p.c.) culture as “a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” In short, people on the anti-p.c. side of the debate believe that they and their opinions are unwelcome in discussion forums.

Take the case of Dr. Matt Taylor, who wore a softcore themed shirt during a live interview for the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Project landing late last year. Taylor was chastised online for his shirt depicting scantily clad women, and #shirtgate and #shirtstorm took over Twitter for a period of time. Many claimed that it projected an unwelcoming and misogynistic message toward women in (or aspiring to be in) the STEM career fields and that it was simply unprofessional attire. A few days later, Taylor issued a public apology. He nearly burst into tears while making his statement.  

Yes, today many try to be as politically correct as possible—and with good reason. Many of us do not wish to promote hateful language against historically oppressed minority groups, so we find that our best solution is to suppress the problem. Others use social media to attack individuals who are making a breach in the p.c. code, as was the case with Taylor’s shirt. This tactic is also rather ineffective because it does not get to the root of the problem behind hateful and marginalizing language (and imagery, for that matter). Leaving comments on a neo-Fascist’s Tumblr page telling him to stop being narrow-minded and arrogant will not bring an end to the neo-Fascist, neo-Nazi, anti-feminist online, (etc.) communities, nor will it tell us why such communities exist and persist on social media.

Can more free speech really end hate speech? Ultimately, eradicating hateful comments from the internet will take time because it requires people changing their way of thinking and perception of the world. Outlawing hate speech and demanding political correctness may be a viable option, but I doubt many Americans will want to give up one of their most prized rights. Encouraging a discussion among those who post disrespectful comments about minority groups, those who chastise them, and everyone in-between is probably the best bet. Perhaps if far-right—as well as simply disgruntled and tactless—users come to realize their arguments cannot gain support and momentum, particularly in the mainstream, they will cease spreading biased and hate-filled opinions online.

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