The comedy sketch that explains why content moderation exists. 
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Issue #197 • May 02, 2022 • By Ernie Smith

Free Speech Disconnect 💬

A common explanation for how free speech works on the internet doesn’t seem to be connecting with the public. Perhaps we need to use a Tim Robinson sketch to make our case instead.

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What that guy speaking up in that one Normal Rockwell painting is actually like. (Netflix)

As you might have heard, free speech is a common discussion point in tech circles these days, and it’s something that people who have been following the ebbs and flows of tech moderation for a long time have admittedly struggled with.

The problem isn’t necessarily that people don’t understand the basic ideas of free speech, but that they don’t understand the role of the venue in setting the ground rules of what is said.

A good real-world example of this might be a union that’s on strike: They can’t necessarily go inside the building to protest, as it’s private property, but they can protest as much as they want outside.

The internet is complicated, because a lot of areas are basically free-speech zones, but the problem is, those areas are the ones devoid of commercial influence. Problem is, most social networks and platforms in general don’t fit into that category, leading to lots of end-user confusion. Case in point is this argument from TechDirt’s Mike Masnick that I screenshotted:

lcqrRY2Z_normal.jpgErnie Smith @ShortFormErnie
I feel like the people who actually know their stuff around the internet and free speech ( in this case) make this point constantly but for some reason this point is not clicking.

How do we get it to click? Because it’s ultimately correct.
I feel like the people who actually know their stuff around the internet and free speech (@mmasnick in this case) make this point constantly but for some reason this point is not clicking.  How do we get it to click? Because it’s ultimately correct. https://t.co/pRtkPyeewF

04/29/2022 16:26 • 20 retweets • 59 likes

This is the challenge that we run into with the internet—walled gardens have town squares, but they are not the kinds of town squares where you can freely spout your head off, unless the organization has basically no standards. (Think the proposed vision of Twitter under Elon Musk.)

The problem is, people given an ounce of freedom can immediately abuse it in ways that don’t necessarily break the law, but do break a sense of decorum that can put businesses under pressure to switch gears. This fairly profane 2021 sketch from I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson illustrates the point effectively:

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In the sketch, Robinson’s character is on a ghost tour, specifically the late-night adult version of the tour, when the guide tells guests they can say “whatever the hell we want.” Robinson’s character, who clearly has some challenges with social interaction, immediately starts asking questions that stretch the bounds of decency, leading the guide to get extremely upset and the people in the tour to eventually force him out.

Robinson, almost by accident, seems to have nailed down the problem with unfettered “free speech” on social media. It’s not that you shouldn’t have your right to free speech, but if your free speech makes everyone around you uncomfortable, it puts pressure on both the venue and the listener to force people out.

This is why, if you want real free speech, with no true risk of censorship, you have to go outside the confines of the private business. You may not find as big of an audience for your more outré views, but you will be guaranteed that you’ll have as little interference as possible, because the First Amendment applies to the government, not individual businesses.

(This point is the reason why the recent panic over books in schools and libraries is so controversial, because in that case the First Amendment directly applies.)

Every social network that has attempted to make a “free speech” equivalent has run into this problem—if they want to ban a user, it is no longer pure free speech, and they are limited by the law. This is actually why Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1996 exists, because building a network with no rules means that you have to let in a bunch of stuff that you, as a business or an employee, don’t want to be associated with. If someone else wants to take on that liability, let them. But doing so in an unfettered way has indirect effects that will ultimately harm your organization or business.

(This actually came up, true story, because Jordan Belfort—The Wolf of Wall Street himself—was causing problems on the early online service Prodigy because of his company’s controversial business practices.)

So my recommendation is that, the next time someone brings up this whole free speech debate on social media, share this R-rated Tim Robinson sketch with them. It makes the case for businesses moderating social media far better than any billionaire can muster.

Freedom of speech is not freedom of venue. If you’re on a ghost tour and you start spewing bile, you’re going to get asked to leave.


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