From Gamergate to homophobia to this piece of crap, trolls are everywhere on the internet. When challenged about their behavior their first fallback position is almost invariably freedom of speech. “You are violating my freedom of speech. I have a right to my opinions.”
In making this argument they are taking the moral high road. The argument ceases to be about their behavior and becomes about some higher principles.
It’s also pure bullshit. Yes, freedom of speech is an important right. However it’s not as gray as trolls would like you to believe, nor is it applicable to their behavior.
Here are three simple ways that the freedom of speech argument fails and how to shut down trolls when they try to use it on you.
1. You have freedom of speech, too.
When you speak out on an issue you feel strongly about, that’s freedom of speech. When a troll responds in the comments, or in person, trying to shout at you to shut you up, that’s not freedom of speech. That’s the exact opposite. When Gamergate “activist” attack feminist who critique gamer culture, they aren’t expressing their opinion, they are attempting to silence their opponent, and then trying to claim that is freedom of speech.
2. freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequence
Remember in high school when you had to debate that ludicrous situation where someone yells “fire!” in a crowded movie house. That always drove me nuts because the solution seems so obvious. Having the freedom to do what you want or feel is right doesn’t mean you are free from all the consequences of your behavior.
The right to bear arms doesn’t make murder legal. You might have the right to yell “fire!” in a crowded movie house, but if people die in the stampede to escape and it turns out you just thought it would be funny to see people run, you can still be charged with manslaughter.
Yes, trolls have the right to their opinion. But when they phrase those opinions as insults or threats, they may face consequences. That’s life.
3. Speech may be a right but publishing is a privilege.
You have the right to free speech but no one owes you a platform. I have the right to write whatever story I want, but I can’t force HarperCollins to publish my thousand page rant on how mice don’t really like cheese. HarperCollins gets to choose what it publishes.
What we often forget is that anything posted on the internet is actually being published. Most of the websites we use don’t belong to us and the owners have a choice of what to publish and what not to.
If I am running my own personal blog, I don’t have to publish any comments. I can, and most bloggers do, because it builds a sense of community around a blog and brings readers back. However if I feel a comment is from a troll, or has no value to the discussion, I can choose not to display it. If you disagree, you are welcome to start your own blog and respond there.
Most public websites have clear terms of service. They vary in details but most clearly forbid certain behaviors. It is Facebook, Google plus or Twitter’s prerogative to decide what these are and to decide what is acceptable on their website.
The users are faced with the choice of playing by the rules or not using the site. Sometimes that means they allow posts that we personally find offensive. Sometimes that means they remove our posts because someone else found them offensive.
Trolls may be a fact of life in the internet age, but the damage they do, and the number in your life, can be controlled. It starts by realizing that insults and attacks in comments aren’t free speech, they are an attempt to silence the original poster’s free speech. It’s possible to respectfully disagree with someone without being a troll.
Second we need to recognize that online behavior does have consequences. If someone violates the rules of a given website by posting threatening or derogatory language, flag them. If they want to cry that their freedom of speech has been violated, they can do so somewhere else. Believable verbal threats, doxxing someone and adding rape threats, for example, might also violate the law. Contact your local police to see what sort of evidence they need and how to gather it.
Finally, all of us are webmasters, even if all we have is a Facebook page. You control, to a large extent, what lands on your webpage. If you are a journalist or a blogger, you are also an editor. It’s up to you to make sure that each comment on a post adds to, rather than detracts from the discussion. You have the right to delete or unapprove comments. On social media you have tools to delete, block or untag people and photos. Use your power wisely, to strip internet trolls of the one thing they were never guaranteed in the first place, an audience.