The fear of coming across something undesirable or unwanted on an increasingly personalized internet is giving rise to calls to legislate decency. But trying to scare away the trolls will create more problems than it solves. Instead, we need a new conversation about distinguishing personal from public space and the extent of individual liberties.
JBS Haldane moved to India in 1956. As a celebrated scientist and a Professor at University College of London, moving to a third world country raised many questions which JBS addressed by observing that he “saw in India the closest approximation to the free world”. When this was met with incredulity, JBS elaborated “Perhaps one is freer to be a scoundrel in India than elsewhere…The disgusting subservience of the others has its limits. The people of Calcutta riot, upset trams, and refuse to obey police regulations, in a manner which would have delighted Jefferson”. Such irreverence towards a government might be particularly jarring in a pandemic-afflicted time, but it does provide an evocative picture of a free society. Most of us might agree that citizens rioting on the streets is not the most desirable outcome, but that does not undermine the need for a society to tolerate scoundrels. Such tolerance is particularly needed when it comes to dealing with activities on the internet, where it does not take much to be a scoundrel.
Watch: Avrion Mitchison on JBS Haldane going to India
In Defence of Scoundrels —Exploring The Tension Between Decency And Liberty In The Online World.
Tolerance, of course, is a much-contested word these days, not in the least because it is often confused with respect. But the core of the dispute lies in understanding tolerance more as a benchmark to evaluate others, rather than ourselves. Consider the case of a video on YouTube weighing the benefits of buying a used, 2012 Apple Mac Mini in 2020. The presenter, presumably an expert on computers, repeatedly caveats her suggestions with an admission that some groups will disparage her views. A quick look at the comments confirms her fears. Aside from the many uncalled for abuses, she is called a Luddite, a pretender and a fake-expert. If sharing an opinion on such a niche and politically benign question can inflame such passions, tolerance must be lacking somewhere. But with whom? The unknown, anonymous commenters, or with me (and the creator of the video) who read those comments and imbue them with meaning and intent?
Commenting, posting or tweeting is not a complicated activity. Particularly to people who are comfortable with digital devices. It is even easier if the person is anonymous or at least not in personal contact with the intended recipient of the message. In fact, for a person who does not want to be careful about what they post, the process is almost devoid of cost or consequence. In standard economics, this is what is called cheap talk. If the price of a product or activity is close to zero, then among the people who get a positive benefit from it, the demand will be very high. There are likely quite a few people who enjoy venting or provoking or demeaning others. Hence the proliferation of abusive or seemingly nonsensical posts. They are not necessarily devoid of any meaning, but in most cases, the insights offered to a casual reader will not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. For someone subjected to abusive posts, just ignoring them is almost always the best course of action, saving both time and energy along with exercising tolerance.
Watch: Why Do People Troll?
There can be cases where useful information can be inferred from posts and comments, in which case they are feedback, possibly not politely worded, but feedback nonetheless. The matter is, of course, more complicated if the inferred information implies a threat. It is certainly undesirable for people to threaten each other, but it is similarly undesirable to try and eliminate the possibility of a threat. The distinction between intent and outcome is of great importance here. A threat is an intent to harm, but an almost negligible number of threats translate into actual harm. A threat is a thought, whereas harm is an outcome. In a world where we have an enormous capacity to share our thoughts, punishing thought crimes would only increase the frequency of punishments without any decrease in the harm caused. Many would point out that a threat might cause psychological harm without any subsequent action. That may be true, but psychological damage is idiosyncratic, and no one can tailor their language to ensure that no one is hurt. Thought crimes are not crimes, and to consider them as such suggests a lack of tolerance.
Public vs Private Space
There was a time when information and ideas could be shared widely only by printing them. Those were the days when posters and pamphlets would be upon actual walls, only to be routinely defaced by a wide variety of people. Most people never knew who these vandals (trolls?) were, but more importantly, no one cared. It was assumed that if you put something up on a public wall, it would eventually suffer this fate. But just because something used to happen frequently, does not make it desirable or unavoidable. In which case, think about books. What is likely to happen if an author got access to all the notes and comments ever made on her book? It is very likely that she will be just as exasperated as the creator of the Mac Mini video on YouTube. But if her exasperation translated into calls to regulate what people should write on books, most of us would think it an extreme reaction. The platforms where we share information have evolved, but the nature of it has not. The internet may seem like our own private space, but it is self-evidently not. On whom then, rests the burden of tolerance? My proposition in the simple example of a YouTube video is the creator of the content and not the anonymous trolls. In general, anyone who shares their idea with the wider world should be ready to deal with undesirable, even vile responses to their work.
Watch: Social Media | Personal vs Public
The rise in threat-perception emanating from posts and comments on social media must be tempered by the knowledge that it is largely a consequence of more people having a voice, rather than a dramatic increase in the threat posed by people to each other. We cannot celebrate the power of the internet in democratizing the generation of ideas and opinions and simultaneously complain when we do not like the ideas of some of these new people. When disparate people interact, there are many potential sources of clash and every such incident mustn’t be taken as evidence for a world coming apart at the seams. In fact, possibly the most important source of this conflict is the lack of clear norms around impersonal interactions in the virtual world. But these norms will evolve, and when they do, they will still involve tolerating some degree of obnoxious behavior. In fact, they already have on certain platforms like LinkedIn, which is not without its scoundrels, but rarely generates the kind of outrage that other platforms seem to. The last thing we need is to try and legislate decent and polite behavior.
We cannot celebrate the power of the internet in democratizing the generation of ideas and opinions and simultaneously complain when we do not like the ideas of some of these new people.
JBS Haldane had once said “..that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state…I can be, and am, a nuisance to the government of India, which has the merit of permitting a good deal of criticism, though it reacts to it rather slowly”. Most of us would readily get behind the idea that citizens must hold their governments responsible, even if the resulting nuisance means that many would be thought of as scoundrels. We increasingly live in a world where ideas flow more freely and in the sense that these ideas can have a material influence on our lives, they are very much a part and parcel of modern governance. If we agree that we have to tolerate some scoundrels to hold our governments accountable, then it surely must follow that we must tolerate them in keeping tabs on the many sources of information that at least partly determine how we are governed.