Sunday, July 29, 2012

Article #8: The Dilution of Censorship

Being an overview of censorship and accusations of censorship in online communites, and a meditation on what freedom of the press means on the Internet
Axiom: One of the largest sources of conflict between the power structure of online communities and the registered members who make them up is the perception of censorship. This varies in direct proportion to the stated "Free Speech" policies of the community.
At Bare Knuckles Politics, for example, it's clearly stated that ideas and opinions counter to the site's limited political purpose will be deleted. This means that few, if any, will complain about censorship, and even if they do, their voices will not be heard. It's similar to partisan newspapers of the 19th century. If a journalist's story does not have the editorial slant required, the reporter simply goes to the presses next door.
At sites where a Freedom Of Speech ethic is in place, the complaints of censorship will increase (on a per-case basis, not necessarily in raw numbers). The stronger the freedom of speech at, the more likely any editorial action is going to be seen as abrogation of rights. For example, the ongoing thrashes of Cafe Utne are in most cases due to hosts or the administrators hiding and deleting posts, closing topics (making them read-only), and removing user's ability to post. The reason this garners such a vehement reaction by the "offender" (and frequently by a whole crew of past bootees, metahistorians, and interested onlookers, both at the Cafe and another Motet) is not the simple act of removing one or more person's voice. It's removing their voice from a website that is attached to and sponsored by a magazine that champions the freedom of speech and alternative viewpoints. In Neopoeian vernacular, deleting and booting is called "hosting" or "being hosted". It's a useful turn of phrase, based on the mid-level administrators being termed "conference hosts" on Motet systems, and I use it interchangably with "deletion of words and/or account revocation".
I bring up the newspapers of the 1800's to drive home an important point about censorship -- every website with even a hope of developing a virtual community is going to have to host someone, at some time, for some reason. However, it's not censorship in a legal sense (although it can be nasty, partisan, personal, and ugly). Freedom of speech is freedom of the press, and anyone who can scrape up the money and the hardware to put together a website is the owner of the press. Deleting a person's post from a website, or even locking down their account, is not censorship. The web is a supersized Wal-Mart of soapboxes, and if you can't find one there that fits you, there's lumber and paint out back in the USEnet aisle. The web is a million partisan yellowsheets, and the difference between an ideologue and a muckraker is in the eyes of the beholder.
This is, of course, according to the legal definition of censorship. There is a grand scale of difference between throwing someone in jail for publishing an opinion and deleting a post from a website that is owned by a private corporation or an individual.
Legally, what's frequently called censorship online isn't.
But, and it's an important but, the effects of hosting on a virtual community are very similar to the effects of censorship in meatspace. It is counter-community, if the motives are capricious or the justification unclear. In the event of a booting, where the user's words may remain on the site but are uneditable by the bootee, it represents both disenfranchisement and denial of ownership (YOYOW). At least one major Utne thrash centered around a booted user's inability to selectively delete their historic posts.
Wal-Mart refuses to sell music that it deems offensive. Although this is not censorship in the legal sense, it does deprive the artists of a major market and prevents them from reaching a significant segment of the population, and prevents that target market from ready access to the material. If a private site like Rheingold's Brainstorms deletes your words or revokes your membership, you have lost access to a small, if influential, audience. If a public site deletes your words or revokes your membership, you have lost access to a larger market, especially if the site is indexed by search engines. The size and vitality of the community you are presenting your words in lends cachet to your work, and this is lost if they are deleted. An identical article at Slashdot or at will reach a different audience and have a different (and likely much smaller, at the second) impact. Although this does not fit legal definitions of censorship, there is no other word in current use to describe the phenomenon.
I have mentioned before that a dichotomy between a community's stated or understood philosophy and the actual actions of the administration is a key source of online conflict. Conflicts over censorship, the appearance of censorship, and charges of censorship are the primary source of major hierarchial conflict in virtual communities. (Flamewars between members on the same hierarchial level is a different subject altogether. Hosting is not subject to Godwin's Law, but it certainly as been known to lead to applications of it.) The effect of on the virtual community varies, but the following general observations apply.
  • The higher the hosted is in the formal or informal hierarchy, the larger the ripples. Booting an account created for spamming, or someone who has not been around long enough to have garnered a lot of respect, or who brings with them a bad reputation, or booting a secondary "sockpuppet" account when it's against policy, will cause little if any disruption of the community. Booting someone who has been around for years, or who has achieved a high enough level to have a significant following, or who has a good reputation in the community, without clear cause, will strain the relationships that make up a VC.
  • Although it is unlikely that one or even a series of bootings will cause a site to go out of operation, the booting of anyone who is a genuine member of the community will cause a change in the culture of that community. Frequently, this is the intent of the administration, a warning to others not to commit the offenses that led to the booting. However, the repercussions of booting are often not considered or unpredictable. The ghosts of famous bootees haunt sites for years.
  • Changes in the culture are directly related to the reason for the hosting, but not always in the direction intended. The amount of the precession is directly proportional to the appearance of caprice. If someone is hosted for using foul language and linking to porn, people will be less likely to use the same language and links. If someone is hosted for making comments contrary to management, this may lead people to be kinder to the administration. It is far more likely to lead to the formation of a vocal opposition group (for example, the Meta Brigade at Utne), self-censorship (in that people, afraid to cross an invisible line, may not only avoid knocking the upper levels, but avoid any discussion of the event at all), or take other actions (see The Worm OroboroUs for a partial list), especially in a site where management has claimed to be open.
  • Actions in one community can affect others, and it depends on the overlap between membership. In the world of virtual community, there is overlap between communities. In meatspace, few people are members of several communities. The virtual world is much smaller. The meta conference at Neopoeia, for example, is frequented almost exclusively by current or ex-members of Cafe Utne and SpeakEasy.
  • In nearly all cases, those accused of censorship have the best motives. In a long-standing community with a strong enough Free Speech ethic, "evil administrators" are vanishingly rare, because easily verifiable cases will lead to the community either not surviving, the administrator leaving, or the stated ethic changing. This does not mean that well-intentioned administrators never make mistakes. It's the way the administration reacts when mistakes are pointed out that can damp or intensify the thrash.
  • Deletions and bootings to prevent copyright violation or obvious trolling contribute to the health of the community. Hosting, as a reaction to derogatory comments directed at management, do not, and may harm the community. There is a time and place for criticising management, but there is no reason for it to be kept secret. If the criticism is clearly unwarranted, it will be obvious to all members of the community. Alex Delacruse, pseudonymous Admin of Neopoiea. -- "Calling hosts idiots and the management style flawed should be the last reason people get hosted. If people in positions of authority can't tolerate that much, their egos are far to fragile to trust with oversight. If the culture of authority actively supports fragile egos, [the culture is flawed]."
  • The long-term chilling effect on the community when popular or well-known members are hosted capriciously cannot be overestimated. It is the easiest way to put skeletons in the closet of a virtual community. The effects of any administrative action in this medium are magnified. "The tighter the lid on the box, the more people try to pry it up. And the more people try, the more nails the admin hammers in." -- Mittens, Neopoeia, re SpeakEasy.
In meatspace, if an authority figure tells you to shut up, you are likely to grumble, but not shout, unless you feel deeply about the issue. If they tell you to leave, you will not usually need to be maced and led out in cuffs. But in a virtual community, the mace and cuffs are easily accessed, because of the perception that nothing that happens here can cause permanent or even temporary harm.It is true that being censored in or booted from a VC causes no physical harm, and usually no financial harm. Psychological harm is well outside my ability to speculate on, as it is an individual issue, and my concern is groups.
Censoring or booting for anything other than clear violations of stated policy alter the social fabric of the community, and this effect is greatly magnified when the policies are not clear, or overly dependent on subjective judgement. One of the functions of a MetaCore group is to determine the level of justification for censorship, and to help clarify policies, when possible. Since metacore groups are not a formal part of a virtual community's administration, their recommendations and suggestions are not binding policy. However, a fair and reasonably non-partisan metacore group is an asset to a website that values the virtual community that exists there. Axiom: MetaCore groups will often have the appearance of an anti-administrative slant, because they are a balancing factor between the administrative (software empowered) and non-administrative levels of the hierarchy. There is a difference between a metacore group and "a bunch of whingers", and it is this -- metacore groups are motivated by the health of the community, and justice for individuals is a significant part of this goal, so the identity of the individual is not as important as the acual facts of the case. If a metacore group only defends speech and individuals it approves of, it is not a true metacore group. The litmus test is this: "I do not like what you say. I will defend your right to say it."
Hate speech is both the murkiest metacore issue and the most likely to lead to damage to the community, and it will be discussed in a seperate article.
I am certainly guilty of diluting the term censorship in this article. It seems to be impossible to avoid, as I do not feel I'm in a position to invent a new term.

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