20 October 2014

Failed experiment

Four months ago, I wrote this post noting the founding of a new internet forum, F169, dedicated to free speech as absolute as possible.  There would be no censorship of anything (with the exception of child porn and gay porn), no political correctness, no concern about whether what was said offended anyone.  Anonymity was encouraged, disregarding the attitude that people should "be accountable" for their free expression (that is, be subject to threats if they say something somebody doesn't like).  I recommended F169 here because I found the idea intriguing, and the number of times I've included F169 threads in the link round-ups here shows that it did indeed foster some interesting discussions.  Then, too, the concept appealed to me on a visceral level.  Much of the left-wing internet has become prissy, priggish, and tremulous, too deferential to the pearl-clutchers who declare themselves shocked and upset at the lightest provocation.  I've lost track of how many times I've been urged to tone down my truth-telling about religion so I won't "offend people".  I liked the idea of a forum free of such sniveling.

But sadly, I think the experiment must finally be judged a failure, and the reasons have to do with the broader practical reasons why anarchy doesn't work in reality.

F169 has become dominated by an extreme right-wing fringe element -- the kind of people for whom words like "nigger", "kike", and "faggot" are a normal part of everyday talk, the kind to whom the genetic inferiority of "mud races" and the existence of evil Jewish conspiracies are considered obvious facts.  It's stupid, but shocking only to the sheltered -- people like that do exist, and if you want genuine free speech, it has to apply to them as well.  I don't shock easily.

The problem is that that element moved in early and established itself as the dominant presence, setting the tone for the whole of F169.  Board owner "Hans" is no right-winger, never mind an extremist (his profile lists Hillary Clinton as his favorite politician), and he several times displayed an interest in attracting a larger and more diverse posting membership, but the problem was obvious -- normal people who found their way there would take one look at all the Naziism, misogyny, etc. and just leave.  The dominance of that element may have been serendipitous, but once established, it's self-perpetuating.

Yesterday I finally decided to bring up the problem bluntly, posting this thread calling for a purge of the extremists.  Not because their material is offensive -- the board hosts many kinds of offensive material, as a true free-speech forum inevitably will -- but because there was just so much of it that it was making growth impossible.  I also pointed out that the total free-expression principle was already compromised by the gay-porn ban, so there was precedent.  Others posted similar calls, and another poster collected them together here.

Today came this official response from a moderator -- a ban on.....any advocacy of banning anything.

Hans didn't set out to create a neo-Nazi forum, but that has been the de facto result of all his hard work, and it now looks as though it will remain so indefinitely.

The paradoxical fact is that for freedom to work, it needs rules.  Without rules and some degree of control, the noisiest and most bullying element will take over.  If you declare that anyone can do absolutely anything they want, pretty soon pigs will move in and turn your place into a pigsty, and the smell will drive everyone else away.

In an entire country, this problem isn't much of an issue where free expression is concerned -- a country like the US is too large and diverse for any one group to dominate the national conversation.  But in other fields, like the distribution of economic power, we can see analogous problems with the libertarian ideology with which some elements of our society are besotted.  Allowing enormous concentration of wealth in a few hands creates de facto concentration of power to an unacceptable degree.  In a society where ordinary people have rights in the public space, but in practice everything is privatized as someone's property, those rights have only theoretical existence.  A mentality of jihad against the supposed tyranny of the state means weakening of society's main bulwark against the real tyranny of a parasitic oligarchy.  This is not just hypothetical.  We've seen these problems growing in our society as economic libertarianism has taken root.

Then there's the issue of the "heckler's veto".  We've seen speeches canceled as a result of campaigns to silence unpopular truths.  Public advocates like Dawkins and Hitchens have been targeted by relentless threats in an effort to shut them up.  Women exercising their right to abortion often have to run a gamut of menacing thugs to approach a clinic.  This is people using their right of free expression to squelch the freedom of others.  On a lesser scale, something like this is what's happened with F169.  When you can't start a conversation about any unrelated subject without being interrupted by a passel of troglodytes yammering about Jewish conspiracies, they're using their free speech to suppress yours.  Maybe not in an abstract sense, but in reality, that's what's happening.

I haven't completely given up on F169.  Maybe it will eventually tackle the elephant in the room, end the dominance of one noisy element, and start to realize its early promise.  But that will require recognizing that the policy followed so far has not worked, and can't deal with the problem.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't find it on Google anymore, but I remember reading an article, possibly on the SPLC's website, explaining that there's a long-running, highly organized campaign by one of the white supremacist groups (I think it was Stormfront) to invade and take over Internet forums and social media. Forums with permissive content policies and allowing anonymous posting, like F169 and 4chan, are "soft targets", so to speak; the Stormfronters can create the illusion of numbers via sockpuppetry until they drive everyone else away in disgust. But user-moderated sites like Reddit are more rewarding targets because the neo-Nazis don't have to settle for merely making others flee in disgust; they can enjoy the power trip of downvoting non-racists' posts and banning them from subforums that they have managed to squat on and take over.

(As an example, /r/xkcd spent a long time as a racist-controlled forum with almost no connection to the popular webcomic; eventually the two guys who were squatting on it managed to both get themselves banned from Reddit at the same time, and actual XKCD fans were able to seize control of the forum)

4chan dealt with the problem, more or less, by opening a "containment" subforum, /pol/ (ostensibly a "politics" subforum, but it's 90% neo-Nazis and the other 10% Communists who are there to have flamewars with the Nazis) and strictly banning racist slurs and imagery everywhere else on the site.

20 October, 2014 16:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm no Nazi. I'm no "Sotrmfronter" I'm not even a "right winger". And I see absolutely nothing wrong with what's been posted to F169. For as long as the Internet has existed, it has been 5% interesting and/or entertaining content and 95% crap. F169 is no exception to this.

F169 is a refreshing change from the overly-moderated politically correct crap forums that have taken over the Internet. Where there are no longer any legitimate discussions any more because speaking the truth, even when every sane reasonable person knows it's true, and even when it can be proven to be true, will get you banned

The content on F169 is no different from what used to be on F2 for the past 7 years. What killed F2 was not all the so-called "nazi" posts that you complain about but the wholesale banning of people for no good reason. F2 would still be going strong after 7 years but they began engaging in exactly the type of behavior you advocate (massive banning)

Like a good and devoted communist you advocate censorship "for the good of the people". If you don't like the posts on F169 then feel free to leave and never come back. Contrary to what your overly inflated ego may believe, you will not be missed.

20 October, 2014 16:58  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon #1: That could well be the case. Neo-Nazis certainly have a much bigger presence in some internet forums than they do in the real world.

If 4chan and Reddit were able to deal with the problem, maybe F169 will too, but the fact that it repudiated its own free-speech principle, not to deal with the Nazis but to silence any talk of dealing with them, isn't encouraging.

Anon #2: I'm no Nazi. I'm no "Sotrmfronter"

If you "see absolutely nothing wrong" with the kind of material that's become so prevalent on F169, I'd seriously question that. The same suspicion is aroused by how you carefully avoid, in your second paragraph, specifying exactly what the suppressed "truth" you're referring to is. In my experience, people who do that are often referring to the same old Nazi horseshit about evil Jews. That stuff is moderated out in most forums because you can't have intelligent conversations about the real world when some troglodyte keeps interrupting with that stuff.

Yes, I know F2 has been full of Nazi crap for years as well. It's another example of the same problem. It never had a chance of attracting a broader audience because it was infested with Nazis. It went down the tubes because it started banning anybody who pissed off the owner and the "in crowd", not because it tried to ban Jew-haters, which it didn't. Hell, Akins still posts there, the one guy so egregious that he did get banned from F169.

21 October, 2014 04:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yahoo has become another site that is taken over by far-right bigots.

Look at any yahoo article that is marginally related to race, and the comment section will be filled with xenophobic, racist trash. Because comments on Yahoo are blocked based on the vote, and the vote is now dominated by nazis, the only comments that end up blocked are those that call for tolerance and acceptance of other cultures. You can advocate straight up genocide, and your comment will last forever.

21 October, 2014 07:54  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well part of the problem is that you confuse the fairness with freedom. That all forms of free expression are equal. What you wanted was people to be free to be wrong or even misguided and to be able to say so openly.

What you got was a bunch of racist pigs who are hell bent on staying that way.

Seems like you also assumed that some people want to solve problems like ignorance, poverty, racism, misogyny. You made the mistake of so many others - that people are unaware of exactly how they benefit from these mindsets and that maybe if they could just talk these things out - we could make some progress.

But the truth is - people who are on top are aware of it and they mostly know why. They do everything they can to protect their own power and if insulting non-white people will get them that, then so be it

And you gave them yet another forum to do so, as if the whole world isn't the forum for such power.

21 October, 2014 08:12  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon #3: Yeesh, Yahoo too? I've never noticed that, but I don't think I've ever read anything race-related there.

Anon #4: I never thought that "all forms of free expression are equal", whatever that means, and certainly nobody expected F169 to "solve problems". It was mostly meant for fun and socializing. Not everything has to serve some higher purpose.

Also, the racism on display there is way beyond anything that could be considered mainstream, and the people spouting it are certainly not "on top". Most of them seem to be poor, powerless losers -- certainly uneducated -- and I get the impression they adopt this hateful stance as a way of lashing out at a world that ignores them, and blaming their problems and frustrations on someone else. It's the same kind of people that join the KKK or the American Nazi Party. They're not the powerful, they're marginalized hicks who desperately want to feel superior to something. You don't find people with real power, like the Koch brothers or Wall Street kingpins, talking like that or frequenting venues like that. They'd have nothing to gain from it, even psychologically.

Also, you may have misread something, but I'm not the one who "gave them a forum". I had nothing to do with starting F169.

21 October, 2014 09:36  
Blogger Robert the Skeptic said...

Reddit was supposed to like that also, free and open with the exception of clearly criminal content such as child porn. Well as "open and free" as one would have thought, I have been banned from /r/Politics. The moderator (whoever that may be) decided a comment I made stepped over some indistinguishable line and I was summarily banned. It would have been a waste of my effort to plead my case; I shrugged. Reddit is something I browse while sitting on the can or waiting to fall asleep.

It was said long ago that freedom of the press belongs to those who have one. I have mentioned this before, however, that having a completely anonymous forum is problematic in that it shields people from accountability for their thoughts and words. Clearly there is a reason why the members of the KKK hide their identities behind hoods. Lack of accountability is the definition of anarchy and it is not sustainable, let alone productive. It is the world where Trolls dwell, as you and I have both experienced.

21 October, 2014 14:45  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Unfortunately, as I mentioned in the post, what people usually mean by "accountability" is the ability to shut up those whose views they don't like by threatening them. Just imagine how much of the political or atheist blogosphere would dry up if all bloggers had to use their real names. Expressing an opinion should not come at the price of losing one's job or getting harassing phone calls in the middle of the night for the rest of one's life, which is what "accountability" and the rejection of anonymity usually mean in practice.

21 October, 2014 15:20  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

On a very small scale, I've had to deal with imposing censorship on my own blog. The harassing and pornographic comments and photos came from -- guess where.

I've been criticized because keeping my blog free of taunts and smut is equal, in some people's minds, to censoring. But since I prefer not to have that sort of crap stink up my blog, I will continue to keep comment moderation on. The weirdos, jackasses, and sick minds cannot censor themselves so that they can participate in civilized discussions, so a grown-up has to.

freedom of speech (Concise Encyclopedia)

Right, as stated in the 1st and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, to express information, ideas, and opinions free of government restrictions based on content. A modern legal test of the legitimacy of proposed restrictions on freedom of speech was stated in the opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in Schenk v. U.S. (1919): a restriction is legitimate only if the speech in question poses a “clear and present danger”—i.e., a risk or threat to safety or to other public interests that is serious and imminent. Many cases involving freedom of speech and of the press also have concerned defamation, obscenity, and prior restraint.

The desire to have a totally open and free forum is a worthy goal, but that desire is predicated on the ideal that all minds are healthy. We know they're not, therefore, to keep a blog or any forum free from sexually deranged and depraved comments one has to censor -- at least that's how it works for my blog.

But banning all talk of banning? That doesn't make sense.

22 October, 2014 07:12  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Shaw: You should never have to apologize or explain for restricting comments on your own blog in whatever way you see fit, because a blog is not a public forum, it's a vehicle for expression by one individual. It's your space. Issues of free speech and censorship don't really apply at all. As I've said before, free expression means you can put an opinionated bumper sticker on your car -- it doesn't mean you can put that same bumper sticker on my car if I choose not to let you.

I would generally reject a pornographic comment here, not because I find it objectionable, but because it would be off-topic and a distraction. I'd reject a lengthy comment about knitting on a post unrelated to that subject for the same reason.

F169 was rather a different case because it did bill itself as a public forum, one that was open to anything. Of course, as soon as it announced a ban on calls to get rid of the neo-Nazi infestation -- certainly a legitimate topic of discussion -- that principle vanished. Unless things change there, I've pretty much given up on it.

22 October, 2014 07:37  

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