Newsroom Gunman, Jarrod Ramos, Free Speech & Social Media Part 1

(Reuters) Gunman held, newspaper publishes a day after five killed in newsroom. The issues that come to mind are gun control and social media. I feel passionate about both, but social media is more complex and interesting, the restructuring of our society that is happening now.

Jarrod Warren Ramos is a monster, but monsters have always walked among us. By some estimates, 2-3% of men are psychopaths, women half as frequently. Most of them are not violent; the workplace psychopath is recognized as the ‘bad boss”, or as executive material.  It has been claimed that most criminals are not psychopaths. This may be a matter of definition, or more than that, but from this uncertain pool come the monsters of social media.

What is the issue? Not how to avoid creating psychopaths, because that seems to be an unavoidable part of our heredity. Nor is it about locking them up; there are too many of them, many are gifted, and acting against Future Crime is the essence of totalitarianism — on steroids. One or more steps down from proactive incarceration of possibly dangerous people  is weakening of freedom of speech.

Shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater has never been protected speech. Other kinds of speech, such as verbal representations of fraud, or violent threats, are of similar category, lacking constructive purpose. In the U.S., transient weakening  of protection has occurred in times of war,  feared subversion, and most recently,  threat of terrorism.

Freedom of expression does not have the same protection as freedom of speech; child pornography is broadly restricted, as is threatening behavior. High school civics explains the concept of individual liberty with the expression, “Your freedom ends where my nose begins.” But the issue is too complicated for the pure libertarian creed. Society is constantly adjusting the balances, to afford protection from random mischief and intimidation.

In the U.S.,  the first restrictions were imposed by the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, in direct contradiction to the First Amendment of  1791. One portion, the Alien Enemies Act, remained in force until 1920.  In the Civil War, the press as a whole escaped censorship, though numerous prosecutions of individuals occurred in connection with war powers granted by Congress to Lincoln. The most serious attack on free speech came about during World War I, with the Sedition Act of 1918, during the administration of otherwise liberal Woodrow Wilson. Quoting, it forbade

…disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces or that caused others to view the American government or its institutions with contempt.

Unlike the prior infringements, the 1918 Act actually sent a number of people to jail. Repealed in 1920, enduring regret for the Act is largely responsible for the modern American commitment to freedom of speech, which barely wavered during World War II

Now we find ourselves astonished by the evolution  of our world in social terms. Technological advances have not resulted in the cornucopia of plenty. But the social aspects of the new world are not evolutionary, but revolutionary. Nothing could have predicted the augmentation of the media pyramid with a parallel structure that connects every individual on the planet, who wants to be connected, with someone else, even if that someone does not want the connection.

Marxism refers to the “means of production”, which, according to the theory, should be owned by the “masses.” It never happened, and it’s doubtful that it should. The  media analogy is the “means of publication”,  which encompass these activities:

  • Information gathering.
  • Editorial process and content creation.
  • Distribution, in the form of radio or TV empires, traditional, and internet.
  • Revenue, via advertising, paywall, or subscription.

This is the up-and-down media pyramid, which selectively winnows the expressions of hundreds of millions of citizens, down to the summary called public opinion. The bulk of content comes from officials, authorities, sources, leakers , human interest, and editorial. Uncountable and unmemorable, the individual citizen is left out, except by chance encounter with the news truck at the water main break outside his house.

Back in the day, we can probably remember occasional  encounters with lonely individuals waving placards and handing out flyers. Physically exhausting, that one-on-one activity is itself is a deterrent for all but the most committed. It has been replaced by individuals acting as their own publishers on social media. Sometimes they find  audiences, and sometimes they don’t. Some are constructive, while others are destructive. Social media is almost neutral to these considerations, because the cost to the user, and to the sponsoring organization, is nearly zero.

So although the prerogative of freedom of speech has been well protected by the First Amendment, the audience of the individual was  limited by access to the media. Until recently, free speech was  a legal right, but without discussion of how the individual is enabled.

The media pyramid remains, but augmented by a new peer-to-peer modality. Now the definition of “protected speech” is challenged again, with new costs. Social media platforms have based the neutrality of their platforms on the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The Act protects service providers from liability for the content they host as long as they do not exercise editorial control. Quoting (Electronic Frontiers Foundation),

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (47 U.S.C. § 230).

But when providers edit the content of their networks, they become responsible for all of it. Protected more by wide popularity than by statute, the misuse of social media by terrorists and the demented has pushed providers towards ever greater control.

The utopian goal was for every individual to have a personal publishing platform. It has been achieved, but it is no utopia. It never occurred to us that, in a word challenging to democracy, it could be unhealthy. Social media enables the individual, with the legal right to free speech, to reach a large audience of unwilling respondents. If we were to decide that this purest form of free speech were bad for society, how could it be limited without undermining free speech as a whole?

To be continued shortly; the maladjustment of man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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