Essays on Technology and Culture

The Right To Be Heard

In the United States, many people don’t understand the true, legal meaning, of their right to “freedom of speech.” It’s been shown time and time again that First Amendment protections towards speech have limits, ranging from protection against libel and defamation, controls on commercial speech, and restrictions on speech that can bring harm upon others: e.g. shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. These limitations leave a very wide open space for someone to express their opinion, though I bring them up to contrast with a right that does not exist: the right to be heard.

Case in point: the Gamergate Block List, as created by Randi Harper, a developer, and part-time GamerGate target. The idea such a tool exists has been met with cries of “censorship” among the people it keeps out of its users Twitter timelines. Never mind that the same tool can be turned around and used to block any group of people you don’t want appearing in your timelines, even the “Social Justice Warriors” that GamerGate rails against. [1] In other words, “freedom of speech” allows you to shout someone into silence, but not for them to tune you out. Particularly if you’re sea-lioning someone.

This is patent bullshit.

Freedom of speech is not, and has never been the same as freedom to be heard. Censorship is an organized effort of a governing body to silence something they don’t like, and it can be done by a government or a corporation alike. Individuals choosing who they do not wish to hear, and collaboratively tuning them out is within their rights by any legal framework. If Twitter, or any other service, were bound to force users to see replies from any Tom, Dick, or Harassing Harry on their service, it would be akin to Fox News having the legal right to pre-empt you watching CNN on your TV. (And that analogy works if you flip the networks around.)

There’s a culture of entitlement in the Internet age. Something’s brought out a craving in people to have their opinions acknowledged, approved of, and amplified. Perhaps it’s a relic of early days of Internet life where the space was small and intimate enough that it was easy to keep up with the demands of acknowledgement from your “audience”. Or, perhaps it’s because so much of the Internet is on-demand, we assume other people must be as well. Whatever the reason, it’s not the case that anyone is entitled to a response, or an acknowledgement via Twitter, email, or even face to face. To claim otherwise is to misunderstand, often deliberately, one’s relationship to others. The Internet and social media do not change that.

  1. Such a list exists, and I’m on it, but because of some concern around its creator, I’m not going to link to it. Google it.  ↩