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You have the right to remain silent

Blake J. Graham | Tuesday, October 23, 2012

There’s nothing like a good election season to bring out the best in pseudo-intellectual political commentary published in the form of tweets and Facebook status updates – I mean this in the least condescending way. It really is a good thing. People with access to tools like Facebook and Twitter have assumed the role of micro-reporters, mini-commentators and nano-journalists (in that order.)

Everyone has a vehicle of distribution and some form of audience, whether it’s 50 friends or 50,000 followers. The trajectory is common: Someone sees or reads or listens to something that strikes them with high impact, be it positive or negative, and then they interpret it and post it to their audiences via social media. It doesn’t really need to be factual or relevant or well thought-out to have their audiences respond to or engage with it. It just has to be out there. And most people, i.e. Americans, who do this, consider it their right to express whatever they like online. They’re simply evoking their freedom of speech and expression.

Online, it seems, people are more inclined to extend their understanding of freedom of expression beyond what it actually protects, a practice which has hurt many, ruined careers and even cost lives.

In the last couple weeks, a major controversy has erupted around social linking site Reddit.com. For the uninitiated, Reddit is a website were users can submit links to different categories called sub-reddits. Users can up- or down-vote links pushing them to wider audiences on the site. There are currently 10,000 active sub-reddits with their own audiences, and the site drove 3.4 billion pageviews in August alone. Further adding to the site’s legitimacy, President Barack Obama held a Q&A-type discussion on the site to reach voters in August. While most of the site is dedicated to amicable pursuits with sub-reddits in topics of inquiry in academic fields, random cat pictures, local politics or the mildly off-color pooping sub-reddit, there also exists a seedy and dark underground to the site driving a huge portion of traffic in and out of the site.

As Reddit gains popularity, its dark side – which includes the recently shuttered “creepshots” sub-reddit where covertly shot pictures of women are uploaded to the site for its users to ogle – is expected to be eradicated from the site.

But creepshots isn’t the first unseemly sub-reddit to gain notoriety and it certainly won’t be the last. Many of the site’s users hide behind its anonymity and cry out about the obstruction of free speech whenever particular sub-reddits are threatened.

The concept of being able to speak freely online is very important to its denizens.

And, unfortunately, companies like Reddit are only as useful as their active users are present, which is why it is their policy that the creator of any sub-reddit acts as its moderator and, by definition, more-or-less its dictator. The creator of a sub-reddit called creepshots isn’t likely to ban much of the unseemly content that gets put there.

In most realms things like libel, slander, obscenity and sedition limit the freedom of expression. But online people operate under a veil of anonymity and the boundaries constantly are pushed. Currently there hasn’t been a cause to transplant moral standards onto online communities which has created toxic environments within larger systems, like Reddit as a whole. Reddit has constantly refused to issue blanket bans on types of content that include compromising photos of women and hate speech. They base this decision on fundamental premise of supporting free speech, but the nature of that claim is nebulous at best.

Currently no legal action has been taken against Reddit, or other sites like Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook which all have similar content spread on them. But if Reddit can’t ultimately get its act together, there will be cause for the government to come in and intervene on behalf of the people who are threatened by the images and language posted online – much of which is incredibly damaging. The problem is any regulation is bound to also stop the growth of all the good coming out of these sites as well.

Blake J. Graham is a sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @BlakeGraham.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.