Are Censorship Free Platforms Doomed to Become Den of Trolls? Gab’s Case
Free speech and censorship are household topics for every crypto nerd worth his or her salt. It is time that we touched upon this topic in earnest and dived into the inevitable controversy that stems from these conversations.
First, let us establish the terms.
- Freedom of speech pertains to freedom to express opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. It is one of the constitutional guarantees of any liberal democracy and is a prerequisite for another fundamental human right, which is the right to freedom of conscience.
- Censorship is the process of limiting one’s freedom of speech directly or indirectly.
Free speech is good, censorship is bad. Or so it seems.
At second glance, it’s way more complicated.
The Dialectics of Freedom of Speech and Censorship
While free speech is important to any liberal society, censorship is considered by many a necessary evil. An instrument that allows curbing individual’s rights when his speech infringes upon the human rights of others.
Ideally, the purpose of censorship is to protect the general public from acts or materials to which a large portion of society would strongly and reasonable object. For example, people generally don’t want to see individuals urinating or wanking in public. When people are prevented from doing that, it is a form of censorship. There are of course more sinister forms of censorship, when people are imprisoned or “canceled” for criticizing or expressing certain political ideas.
At first glance, objectively there is not much difference between someone getting in trouble for public nudity or for criticizing the regime. At second glance, it is clear that the latter belongs to its own specific kind of censorship, the political one. Political censorship is used by a group that has the power to censor, to explicitly target and shut down rival groups and ideas.
To check if an instance of censorship is political in nature, it is usually enough to gauge whether one political/ideological group benefits from it and/or the other is hurt.
Of course, even this sort of censorship is seen as necessary by many in society. For example, there are not many voices from all walks of the political spectrum that would challenge the legal ban on Nazi ideology. Likewise, in many countries that survived Soviet rule, the ban on communist propaganda is also a part of cultural consensus.
Ironically, it is mostly far-left and far-right groups and regimes that engage in political censorship as a means to an end. One can argue that the farther the corporate establishment leans left, the stricter censorship becomes. Naturally, far-right voices are targetted first and foremost but as the flagpost is being moved, moderate conservatives often do not feel they are receiving fair treatment on platforms like Twitter.
Blockchain-based social networks were envisioned as a means to, among other things, oppose legacy social networks that engage in political censorship. But is this goal even intellectually honest?
Today we shall try to make sense of the story behind the notorious Gab the “alt-right Twitter” and see if it is relevant to blockchain-based social networks (spoiler: it very much is).
Gab: Humble Beginnings
The public was made aware of Gab back when a scandal erupted on Twitter which resulted in one of the first high-profile user bannings for offensive speech. A flamboyantly gay man while having a spat with a black actress pointed out her perceived similarities with a gorilla. The man, known as Milo Yiannopolus, was promptly banned from Twitter for life. Following this, a slew of bans on alt-right voices followed.
Many popular conservative commenters, including Steven Crowder, pointed out Twitter’s perceived unfair treatment of white conservative members, who were de-platformed for allegations of racism, while more and more cases of racism against white people went unpunished by the platform.
Dissent was growing predominantly among the white conservative online community, both the actual alt-right crowd and moderate free-speech proponents.
In this climate Gab, social network surfaced as a censorship-free alternative, welcoming all those who were banned or ostracised on Twitter. The platform’s founder Andrew Torba, the self-described “conservative Republican Christian” and Trump supporter, has long been a black sheep in the Silicon Valley. And although he self-identified as “not a fan of alt-right,” his platform did adopt the orphaned Twitter white racists.
Gab did have the usual restrictions to user-generated content, pertaining to materials and activities that were illegal, like terroristic threats and doxing, but otherwise was not policing content. While early commentators described it as an otherwise normal social network they reported being exposed to offensive materials that were not easy to filter.
What Ruined Gab?
In October 2018 a racially-motivated shooting happened in Pittsburg synagogue, where an alleged neo-nazi murdered 11 people. Right before committing the act, he made a post on Gab. Despite the post being subsequently removed by the platform due to violation of terms of service, this triggered a media campaign against Gab, eventually leading to a complete shutdown.
Gab team claimed being made “guilty by association” and pointed out that most other mass shooters would post on Facebook before or during the shootings. Which is in fact true, the latest being the Delhi shooter who posted live on Facebook as he committed acts of terror.
Despite this Gab’s reputation as alt-right cesspool was now firmly established.
Blockchain Becoming White Supremacists’ Last Haven
Being banned by Godaddy, PayPal, and other service providers Gab found itself without a platform to offer its users. Eventually, Gab’s team had to turn to the infrastructure which claimed to be censorship-resistant—Blockchain.
In 2019 Gab switched to a fork of Mastodon, an open-source blockchain-based Twitter lookalike. Mastodon released a statement in protest, denouncing Gab as trying to “monetize and platform racist content while hiding behind the banner of free speech.”
“The Mastodon community does not approve of their [Gab’s] attempt to hijack our infrastructure and has already taken steps to isolate Gab and keep hate speech off the fediverse.” they claim in the statement. “Mastodon itself allows instance owners to decide which domains to block. Most servers in the fediverse are already blocking the Gab domains and we have done the same at mastodon.social.”
Mastodon has done everything to isolate and censor Gab’s content but was unable to deny Gab a platform altogether.
But is Mastodon or any other blockchain-based social network truly censorship-free? Many creators and opinion-makers even from within the blockchain industry doubt the censorship-free part of every such social network. In a recent Forklog interview Tone Vays summed up the reasons why many creators do not consider leaving legacy media platforms for blockchain-fueled ones even despite the current censorship campaign on blockchain-related content:
“I don’t see any of these projects actually being decentralized. Any company that is hosting your content is responsible for your content. There’s no such thing as decentralized YouTube. There’s no such thing as Steemit being decentralized. All of that is totally irrelevant. Steemit has your content on their servers and therefore they are responsible for that content. If one of these projects, whether its Steemit or BitTube or Hive, gets big enough they will become YouTube. And they will censor you all the same.” said Tone Vays, owner of one of the largest Bitcoin analytics channels on YouTube.
Indeed, the aforementioned Steemit, Inc is under the U.S. jurisdiction and thus beholden to the U.S. laws. Steemit also does have the power to censor content via a hard fork, which is a complex but efficient mechanism. And Justin Sun, the new owner of Steem, is in fact using this mechanism to crack down on dissenters right now.
Now, this begs the question: can we actually have a censorship-free social network? The answer is: likely we can not. Just like we can not have a censorship-free online market.
In this light, the rallying cry of the crypto community to fight censorship becomes more nuanced. What the people are really willing to fight against is the political censorship that infringes upon those freedoms that they personally deem inalienable, but those are not the same for everyone.
This makes political movements and new tech solutions less suited to represent each individual’s interests. And places a greater onus on each individual to fight for their interests, because each of us possesses a unique combination of beliefs and convictions.
Thus there is no other option for each of us than to prioritize our socio-political goals and support technology that brings at least some of them closer to life, but not ascribe to any one ideology fully.
That is why supporting Steemit or Mastodon may be a controversial but necessary move for those who deem it most important to foster future competition to Facebook, while others would call it futile as they see no value in having a competitor who just gradually turns into Facebook #2 as it grows.
One thing is clear, the media or the individuals that go against the grain will be marginalized and shut down. Blockchain social networks are not free speech absolutists and will not let anyone to “hide behind the banner of free speech” if it hurts their bottom line.
Social networks are just an extension of broader society and they have to play by the same rules. Thus the battle for free speech can not be won solely by creating alternative social networks, it will have to take a society-wide conversation and forming a new social consensus on this topic.
Written by Constantine Golubev
This article is a part of our Occupy the Internet series, where we review the current trends in the nascent decentralized web and cover the burning issues of privacy and censorship.
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