If you DON’t want to read a blog about a touchy subject these days (free speech and the internet), then move right along, my friend. No hard feelings. I get it.
If you DO want to read about that…then hey ya! Let’s get weird.*
Why are we talking about this?
Because Instagram. In late June, Instagram began monitoring comments through a system named DeepText (originally created by Facebook to help computers interpret language, but that’s a blog for another time). Essentially, Instagram’s engineers have found a way to program the system to filter out negative comments. Comments are flagged on a scale of 0-1, i.e.: “What a cute puppy!” would be scored at 0, and “You’re a (enter expletive)” would probably be flagged at a .2. You don’t want to know what gets flagged at a 1. The more obscene the comment, the higher it’s rated.
Now you may ask, how can a computerized machine do this on its own? Well, it doesn’t. There are still real life people looking at many of the comments that DeepText flags as negative. Which begs the question: who’s to say that Joe Shmo isn’t the kind of person who thinks others need to lighten up? Or what if Jane Doe interprets a comment as negative, when it was intended to be a light-hearted joke?
All this is to say, the program is new, and it’s not perfect. It still has a hard time interpreting the difference between an insult and a culture’s slang. There’s still a huge chance that human error will come into play. And, there’s that whole freedom of speech issue.
The History of Free Speech (abridged)
The year was 1789. Tea had been thrown in the harbor, statues of British monarchs had been defaced and supporters of King George III had been tarred and feathered. It was an odd time, nevertheless slightly reminiscent of today, but I digress. When writing the constitution, George Washington et al. decided that the #1 thing they wanted to ensure was that people could say whatever they wanna say, whenever they wanna say it, however they wanna say it – more or less.
Then things happened. History went down. Amendments were added. People were concerned with things like censorship and fighting words. Then the Internet happened. And people could say whatever they wanted to say on this new and shiny platform, behind the safety of a computer screen, and no one could do anything about it. Which brings us to today (I mean, other things happened, but we really don’t have time for that today).
What’s the big deal?
In my humble opinion, you can look at this one of two ways:
- If what person A is saying is so offensive and obscene that it hinders person B from posting what they wish out of fear of persecution, then person A has actually hindered person B’s right to freedom of expression. So good on ya, Instagram. If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.
- Instagram is crossing the line. The whole point of freedom of speech is for people to say what they want, even if others disagree with it. That’s how change happens. People are presented with ideas that they may find either moronic or inappropriate, but no one is forcing them to read that, and if they do choose to read it, their reaction to these comments is ultimately under their own control.
Personally, I would say that I lean a bit more towards #2. And I get it, there’s a huge difference between posting “$%*& you” and a contentious opinion (the earth is flat, keep the statues, etc.). But in my opinion, censoring social media is like a gateway drug. Where does it stop? I would rather live in a world where people are allowed to express themselves, even if it offends others, than constantly fear that my words break the law.
So, now that I’ve rambled and probably left you more confused than when you began reading, I leave you with a few lines from my favorite poem:
“…Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story…”
*you were warned.
We also explored this topic in a recent episode of More than a Few Words. Listen Now