Earlier this month, amid a wave of controversy regarding harassment on social media, Instagram launched a new option enabling its users to moderate the comments they receive on their posts. The feature allows users to specify words they find threatening, and comments with these words will be filtered and deleted. Instagram’s founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, claimed the purpose of the feature was to protect self-expression.
“All different types of people — from diverse backgrounds, races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities and more — call Instagram home,” Systrom wrote. “But sometimes the comments on their posts can be unkind. To empower each individual, we need to promote a culture where everyone feels safe to be themselves without criticism or harassment.”
Systrom’s words speak to an emerging, overarching issue faced by women, people of color and individuals of different sexual orientations and identities, who face threats and harassment on social media. Harassment ranges from disturbing, triggering language to violent threats that discourage individual expression and tend to move victims to censor themselves for their own safety. This issue of social media bullying stems from the growing alt-right movement, which is rooted in extreme social intolerance and the silencing of marginalized groups. Ironically, individuals in alignment with the alt-right movement have seized and weaponized freedom of speech to justify their behavior, but it is their behavior that infringes on other individuals’ abilities to express themselves.
Those who argue against moderation of social media users’ communications and commentary and oppose punishment of those who use offensive speech often targeting diverse groups, ultimately argue that offensive speech is still free speech. But Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are all privately owned companies, with the right to enforce their own policies regarding language and expression. This offensive “free speech” has a record of silencing its victims by making them feel unsafe in expressing their ideas.
In July, Guardian columnist and vocal feminist writer Jessica Valenti temporarily quit Twitter after a rape threat was directed at her 5-year-old daughter. Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones did the same after alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos led thousands in spamming her Twitter account with racist sexist, and outright threatening comments. Twitter proceeded to ban Yiannopoulus’ account, but has yet to introduce concrete policies to prevent Jones’ experiences from being replicated. Meanwhile, investigations into online abuse (namely threats of killing and rape) fielded by female journalists reveal how such unsafe conditions have led many to censor themselves in fear of intimidation and disturbing hate speech, merely for doing their jobs.
Earlier this year, one study by London-based research center Demos, found over the course of three weeks that more than 6,500 British Twitter users were on the receiving end of 10,000 explicit, misogynistic tweets containing the slurs “slut” and “whore” and found 200,000 similar tweets were sent to 80,000 people around the world over the course of those same three weeks. This inspired female British politicians to launch the “Reclaim the Internet” campaign to look into sensible solutions for protecting users from harassment, pointing to existing laws protecting people from harassment in the physical public, and arguing that this should be mirrored online.
“Forty years ago women took to the streets to challenge attitudes and demand action against harassment on the streets. Today the internet is our streets and public spaces,” Yvette Cooper of the Labour Party told the Guardian. “Yet for some people online harassment, bullying, misogyny, racism or homophobia can end up poisoning the internet and stopping them from speaking out.”
The goal of protective policies against abuse is not to silence the other side, but protect vulnerable groups from dangerous hate speech. Threats of violence and targeted harassment are entirely distinguishable from mere disagreement and argument.
It must be recognized that internet “trolling” is far from a joke and has disproportionate effects on marginalized people’s abilities to express themselves. Taking measurable steps to protect their freedom of expression is an important step in the right direction.