“In today’s networked environment, when anyone can broadcast live or post their thoughts to a social network, it would seem that censorship ought to be impossible," Zeynep Tufekci writes in our special issue about online free speech. But while the social internet gives everyone a voice, it also has countless ways of punishing people for speaking.
An African American writer calls out racist hate speech—and gets suspended from Facebook. A young adult author watches her unpublished novel ignite a firestorm on Twitter before anyone has even read it. A Muslim civil rights attorney self-censors, and then finds herself hoping that a white man will say what she was thinking. A well-known conservative firebrand suddenly becomes one of the biggest targets of far-right trolls. A Google engineer writes a controversial memo, and instantly becomes a villain to one army of online readers and a hero to another.
These are just a few stories—told in the subjects' own words—that capture what it’s like to live and post in this, our corrosive, divisive, democracy-poisoning golden age of free speech.
Songwriter and activist
On being blocked by Trump, and suing him for it
I had an alert that would go off whenever Trump tweeted, and I would reply to most of his tweets. I think it was a Sunday morning: I posted a GIF of the Pope kind of looking at Trump funny, and my tweet said, “This is pretty much how the whole world sees you.”
After that, my phone was very quiet all day. I thought, well, maybe he’s golfing. Then I came back to my computer in the evening and saw that he had actually blocked me. And I just laughed. I’m nobody. I can’t be more than a gnat to him. I felt incredulous, and then amused, and then concerned, all within moments of each other. Then I started thinking, you know, this is something that shouldn’t happen.
The things that I want to say are directed not just to Trump but to the other people who are on his feed. If they’re watching Fox News and listening to Rush Limbaugh and following Trump’s tweets, then Twitter is at least a place where they can get an opposing opinion. But he’s blocked people who disagree with him. When you look at his feed now, it’s mainly just people who are praising Dear Leader. That’s the part that bothers me. So when the Knight First Amendment Institute contacted me, kind of out of the blue, and asked if I would be interested in talking to them about taking part in a lawsuit against Trump, I said sure. Public officials should not be able to block you on social media.
—As told to Chelsea Leu
On being deemed “problematic”
Nine months before my fifth novel, American Heart, was published, I got an email saying “There’s a discussion happening on Twitter about the problematic white-savior narrative in your novel.” I thought that was strange. The only thing that had been released was the publisher’s two-sentence description: “American Heart, about a fifteen-year-old girl who lives in a world where detainment camps for Muslim Americans are a reality; when she decides to help a Muslim woman who is in hiding, the unlikely pair set off on a dangerous journey hitchhiking their way through the heart of America, discovering courage and kindness in the most unexpected places.”
When I looked on Twitter, there was a raging discussion saying that it was a terrible, white-supremacist novel. Then, in October, Kirkus gave American Heart a starred review. It called the book “a moving portrait of an American girl discovering her society in crisis.”
The same people who had been outraged about the description were even more outraged about the starred review. Four days later, Kirkus said it didn’t think its review was sensitive enough—even though the reviewer was a Muslim woman. Kirkus retracted the star and asked the reviewer to reflect on her language. So now it says, “It is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter.”
I think much of the YA industry is cowed. These are important conversations to have, but someone screams “Racism!” and it’s like screaming “Fire!” People just start running and panicking. I’ve been compared to Milo Yiannopoulos. It’s ridiculous.
People said, “You haven’t been censored,” and I agree. I haven’t; the reviewer has been. They censored her.
— As told to Kat Rosenfield
Former Google engineer
On being fired for writing “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”
Last year I wrote an internal document calling for a more open discussion of Google’s diversity policies, citing research on average gender differences between men and women. Before it went viral, responses from coworkers ranged from “I totally agree” to “Is this true?” or “I disagree because …”
Once it leaked, rational discussion was impossible: Extreme voices got amplified. It was all about “Oh, this sexist pig” or “Those leftists are all stupid.” One manager said, “I intend to silence these views; they are violently offensive.”
In the real world, you interact with people near you. You might disagree with them, but you still treat them humanely. When you interact with an avatar, that’s not a person anymore. People become objectified. I was objectified as all the racism and sexism in the world.
When whole topics become taboo—like the idea that there are gender differences—many issues become impossible to solve.
An environment where employees compete and talk over one another—what I’d argue is a male-normative one—hurts people who prefer to work together and build each other up. That’s disproportionately women. Many women (and some men) will feel unheard, excluded, and underappreciated, particularly because they aren’t treated as they’d treat others. But people who are unaware of these differences may see employees who don’t thrive in this environment as incompetent.
There was definitely a temptation to recant at certain points. But that would be so harmful to this discussion—because I think what I said was valid, and because it would discourage anyone else from speaking up. And that hurts everyone in the end.
— As told to Sarah Fallon
Writer, activist, author, So You Want to Talk About Race; Editor at large, the Establishment
On being suspended from Facebook
I was in the middle of Montana on a road trip with my two sons, and the only place open was a Cracker Barrel. We were the only black people there, surrounded by Southern Americana that seemed to harken back to a time that maybe wasn’t the best for black people. To blow off steam, I made a quip on Twitter wondering if they would let my black ass walk out of there.
The next thing I knew my phone just blew up. It was surreal. Some clickbaity conservative websites were sharing my tweet as this egregious example of racism against white people. People saw that I was on a road trip and said they hoped I would fall off the edge of the Grand Canyon. They hoped my kids and I died in a car accident. People Photoshopped pictures of my head onto the body of a gorilla. I was seeing images of people being lynched. I tried to report what I could. Twitter actually did a really good job, but Facebook was a different story. I started posting screenshots to show people what I was facing.
I was at Disneyland, getting ready to take the kids out for the day, when I found out that Facebook had given me a three-day suspension for posting images of the harassment that I was getting on Facebook. I started bawling. It wasn’t even all the hate, but knowing that our most powerful social media engines were complicit. I tried my best to explain it to the kids in a way that wouldn’t make them feel like their mom was a target.
After I wrote a post on Medium about it, Facebook called to apologize. But many black activists and writers of color don’t have 115,000 followers on Twitter and 53,000 followers on Facebook, like I do, who can be mobilized to force these platforms to do the right thing. It really is the life of a black woman online.
For weeks after, the moment I got any sort of negative commentary, I would panic, my blood pressure would go up, and I’d wonder, oh God, is this going to happen again? To this day, I still get hate messages about Cracker Barrel.
— As told to Nitasha Tiku
Cofounder, the Daily Wire; conservative pundit
On being the target of anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter
In May 2016, I posted a nice message on Twitter saying we were grateful to God that our son was born. I immediately got a flood of anti-Semitic messages about his birth, ranging from gas-chamber memes of me to talk about cockroaches and the odd racist tweet. The alt-right had been at me since March, when I came out as #NeverTrump. I knew they would come after me when I made political statements on Twitter, but when I’m tweeting out thanks to God for the birth of my baby son? I was taken aback by the insanity of it.
You have a choice when it comes to these things: Are you going to give it more light, more heat? Or do you try to ignore it? At that point the abuse had become so overwhelming that it was like, I can’t let go of this anymore. So we wrote about the tweets on the Daily Wire.
I didn’t file a complaint with Twitter. I am not a fan of tattling to the referee. If I have to choose between receiving a bunch of garbage on Twitter from evil people and Twitter arbitrarily deciding who to ban, I’ll take the evil garbage. What I oppose about Twitter’s policies is that Twitter does not make clear what those policies are, and they are not equally applied. If people are making death threats at me from the right, there’s a pretty decent chance Twitter will shut it down. If they are doing the same thing from the left, I’m not sure they will.
If I were in charge of Twitter, the standard would be: No threats of violence and no implications that people should do violence. That would probably include “You belong in a gas chamber.” Beyond that, have at it.
— As told to Vera Titunik
Civil rights attorney
On censoring myself
Years ago, on Memorial Day, I tweeted about how I feel conflicted around the holiday. I wasn’t sure how to honor people who I believe died in illegal wars. My tweets got picked up by the far right, and twisted into a narrative about how the Council on American-Islamic Relations, where I work, wanted to cancel Memorial Day. My tweets didn’t come close to suggesting that, but Fox News did a story.
It escalated. I got hate mail for days on end. At work, we stopped answering the phone for a week because of the vitriol. Now we get a renewed spate of threats each Memorial Day.
Then, in 2016, at the Democratic convention, Khizr Khan gave a powerful speech. But again I felt conflicted. He was doing incredible work but on a platform that was given to him because his son had fought and died in another illegal war. This time, though, I didn’t say anything. I was worried about fallout. I talked to others who felt as I did, but we all hesitated to voice our concerns publicly. I went to bed that night and had this very distinct thought: “I hope Glenn Greenwald will write about the irony of what the DNC was doing.” I’m a civil rights lawyer, an American Muslim woman, and I went to bed hoping that a white man would say what I felt I couldn’t.
When I was inundated with threats years back, I had been married. Now I was living alone. I look over my shoulder, I make sure all the gates are closed. My apartment complex has security cameras. I live very differently as a single Muslim woman. Some right-wing supporters of the military will say the army men died to preserve my freedom of speech. But if I use that speech, they say they want to kill me.
— As told to Maria Streshinsky
- Tech, Turmoil, and the New Censorship: Zeynep Tufekci explores how technology is upending everything we thought we knew about free speech.
- “Nice Website. It Would Be a Shame if Something Happened to It.”: Steven Johnson goes inside Cloudflare's decision to let an extremist stronghold burn.
- Everything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You: Doug Bock Clark profiles Antifa’s secret weapon against far-right extremists.
- Please, Silence Your Speech: Alice Gregory visits a startup that wants to neutralize your smartphone—and un-change the world.
- The Best Hope for Civil Discourse on the Internet … Is on Reddit: Virginia Heffernan submits to Change My View.
This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now.
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