Silicon Valley pissbabies love moaning about free speech on online platforms. They have absolutely no idea how social media platforms work. Yishan, former CEO of Reddit, has an incredibly smarmy yet informative thread that covered most of the major problems with this line of thought (“C-suites don’t care about politics” either uses an extremely narrow definition of politics or is just a lie). We have several decades now of examples of what works and what doesn’t online that many rich guys in tech just don’t care about. Let’s start from square one in the shoes of the richest tech guy of them all and follow along as we build a social network.
A brief thought experiment
Let’s say you’re a really clever technology business magnate with a huge cult-like following and want to build the perfect social network. How do you deal with every moderation problem we know about?
Let’s start with spam, someone everyone agrees is bad. Nobody wants to go on a social site, search engine, or website full of spam.
4chan, infamously one of the last corners of the wild west web, has a small army of “janitors” to moderate spam. Reddit’s mods developed their own tooling to moderate spam, but scammers (sometimes called online marketing specialists) are clever, and many now buy old Reddit accounts to seed positive reviews in comment threads. Twitter is overflowing with crypto scams, automated and otherwise. There is not a single corner of the web that has been free from the toxic deluge of spam, scams, and bots. Nobody (intentionally) protects spam and users hate it, but it’s still speech right?
A common retort to this line of argument is that spam doesn’t really count as speech. I’ve yet to see a coherent logic for why, if all speech is protected, spam isn’t. But, fine, let’s assume that obvious spam doesn’t count as speech for…reasons! Let’s say you define posting automatically through a bot for the purposes of making money or promoting a free product as spam (or some similarly restrained definition).
You will immediately see an army of humans posting nonstop, barely within the confines of the spam rule. Within hours of this policy going into effect, there will be an entire warehouse of people in a country with low purchasing power parity writing posts for cents for spammers in high PPP countries. There will be videos on your own platform advertising this cool trick to growth hack your app.
You try implementing a real names policy, which backfires immediately — everyone hates those except for a small subset of your super-users. You try requiring 2-factor auth, but the only spam-resistant method is phone numbers. Users hate giving you their phone for still-obvious reasons, so you walk that back too.
You will never be free of spam, and every time you broaden the definition of spam, you will have users screaming they’re being silenced for not being able to post their horrible spammy content all day. Every time you add a new control to stop spam, a chunk of your user base disappears.
Okay, but what if we ignored the spam problem?
But let’s take spam out of the equation now. You have your engineers build an awesomely powerful AI system to manage your spam, and it mostly works. With your new AI anti-spam tool, you’ve created the first mostly spam-free site on the internet, and free speech abounds. As you enjoy a cigar in a big bathtub full of money, the phone rings.
“We have a problem” your assistant bleats. “You know how’ve we had issues with massive amounts of hated and threats against the Pastafarians on our platform? Well, someone just acted on a threat they posted to our site and they blew up an Olive Garden. Users are anxious. Congress is already posting about legislation against us.”
This is more or less what happened to Reddit several times, for different reasons. From falsely identifying the Boston Bomber, hosting hugely popular hate communities, to hosting one of the most prolific pedophiles on the public web, Reddit ran headfirst into the consequences of free speech ideology repeatedly. And each time, they (eventually) backed down because they preferred making money to free speech absolutism. Their user base threatened to revolt each time, and yet Reddit’s user base continues to grow despite that. Most people are not hateful cranks, free speech absolutists, or pedophiles, and just want to look at puppy pictures and memes more often than not. I have yet to see any free speech advocate explain how they’re going to avoid the same fate on their website, short of keeping it entirely funded by a billionaire.
You decide not to learn from Reddit
But let’s keep going with this thought experiment — you are a billionaire! You pay out of pocket to keep your site up in perpetuity and pay off Olive Garden’s lawyers in every country. You beat the financial incentives to clean up the site and keep your commitment committed to free speech. This is what normal people asked for, right? They don’t want to be banned for their unpopular political speech! They constantly Tweet and make Facebook posts about how much they want a free speech social network!
Unlike those SJW-run Twitter or Reddit sites, your site is still a free speech haven. Users can post about the violent, world-historical evil of the thugs at Olive Garden and the children they keep locked in the basement making unsalted pasta freely. A few bad apples burning down some empty Olive Gardens isn’t an excuse to ban anyone, obviously. People are responsible for themselves and make their own decisions, and if they’re influenced into doing something, it’s still all their own fault.
This is the transition period, where normal users with more extreme political opinions will hang around, but the normal users will begin to drift. Most people want to post about sports or cute animal pics and only occasionally feel the need to fire off something horrible and (on other platforms) bannable. Many subreddits that straddled a border between cruel-but-still-for-wide-audiences content and explicit hatred fell into this trap. /r/FatPeopleHate started with making fun of fat people in Walmart or on planes and ended with more calls for genocide than I could count.
Every deranged crank, violent misanthrope, and annoying person that would rather die than stop posting violent screeds involving soup, salad, and breadsticks continues to gather together.
Into the recycle bin of history
When enough normal users leave, it’s the beginning of the end. When surrounded by cranks, a normal person can become a crank, and existing cranks get even more extreme. Scientists call this process Crankification™️. Your social media site turned open-air insane asylum will struggle to enforce whatever rules you have left. You might think you can tighten the reigns a bit to stop the violence,it’s too late for that now.
Congratulations! You will have a social media empire of only the most worthless or actively harmful speech imaginable. Your social media site will, unquestionably, spawn more real-world violence due to Crankification™️. There is no high-minded philosophical, political, or economic discussion here. All that remains are screeds against Pastafarians, the worst memes you’ve ever seen, videos of users driving around an Olive Garden location screaming at the employees and crying about it in their car.
Olive Gardens around the world are engulfed in flame and the death toll rises. The UN opens an investigation into the social media platform that remains the only place on the web totally committed to the principle of free speech. You’ve got an appointment with the ICC next week, but the joke’s on them — you’ll be in orbit by then.