Something devastating happened to me the other day. As with most devastating things, it happened with little warning, and swiftly took something very valuable from me in the blink of an eye.
I’m still reeling from the shock of it, and it’s shaken what sense of security I felt over my capacity as an artist, academic, and writer — for the faith I had that the work I produce may or may not be well-received, and may or may not reach a large audience, but will always be protected by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America.
I express my disdain over the scenario not just on a personal level, but also in terms of a Constitutional grievance, because my singular story here is the story of many around the world; but no matter what, it’s not supposed to be the story of anyone in America.
Sadly, that has changed. I don’t consider myself to be exaggerating when I say that in the year 2018 — over two and a quarter centuries since the passage of the American Bill of Rights — the right of the people to have an uncensored voice has been denigrated to the point of irrelevance. Surprisingly, the censorship of which I speak — that which is of the greatest threat to the freedom of speech in this moment — is not coming down from our Federal or State governments.
This threat is coming from corporate entities who have become complicit in granting protection to the offended or inconvenienced, at the expense of the offender and inconveniencer, and also at the expense every single other person who saw the same thing and had no such negative reception to the content in question, and the countless others who never had the chance to have a reaction to that content because it was hidden or destroyed before they came across it.
Terms and Conditions. That’s the problem.
The iron fist of censorship does not act in plain sight. That iron fist of censorship hides behind the provisions in implied agreements everyone has no choice but to agree to. The social infrastructure of the modern era exists now only in part through traditional print publications like newspapers, magazines, and network radio and television.
The modern and clearly still emergent digital infrastructure that has arisen through innovations in the private sector, solidifying as essential hosting platforms for online content — from videos on YouTube, to posts on twitter and facebook, to newer delineations of content on emerging platforms such as that which I will now recount — are the new methods of human communication being censored.
To say “you agreed to the terms” is the universal defense for any site with which a creator of content finds themself silenced, but when one has no choice but to accept blanket terms and conditions (which few if any even have the technical expertise and patience to review in full to begin with) there is no true choice. The only choice to be made is do I want to be heard and seen or not? Because let’s face it, these bodies of communication and exchange of thought and idea have become the modern town square.
The platforms are remarkably transformative town squares that add an incredible dynamic to the process of human communication, and platforms which have become essential for millions of people to reach, maintain, and grow audiences. Symbiotic relationships form between users and platform facilitators have come to sustain both parties, and through the integration of targeted advertisements, for some being able to supplement their incomes and even fully provide for themselves through the creation of unique content consumed by people all around the world, new economic ecosystems emerge.
These processes will presumably continue to develop to the point many commentators, artists, thinkers, speakers and creators of every sort can find a niche and put their talents and passions to work in a win-win-win sort of way.
Unfortunately, the rampant rise of these corporations running the infrastructure’s tendency to censor content broadly deemed “inappropriate” or “offensive” or “spam”, by other users, has reached troubling degrees. Furthermore, there seem to be no signs these trends will self-correct. To use the quintessential modern example, just the other month, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones found himself ousted from YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter all at once.
This is unprecedented in that not only was some of his “most controversial” content taken down, his entire body of work — several years and millions upon millions of views worth — was destroyed overnight, in a manner clearly analogous to a book burning.
While Alex Jones may be dismissed as a lunatic who believes or makes up all kinds of crazy things, he actually has a history of getting some things right — to include proving the existence of the formerly dismissed clandestine, cult like gatherings at Bohemian Grove, which included a mock human sacrifice attended by world leaders; and the existence of “The Bilderberg Group”, an annual conference where billionaires and politicians gather for an elitist gathering of the minds.
I cite these examples just to point out that even if the man is wrong 99% of the time, he’s actually demonstrated the capacity to prove some things that could have easily been considered worth of online censorship.
I don’t even need to defend Alex Jones, or any of his ideas though, to defend his right to express his opinions and have his voice heard. The fact that he could build up such an enormous following, and be listened to by so many people all over the world, then literally overnight see everything he’d built on those platforms erased is of tremendous significance; it indicates to me that it does not matter how many people agree with or consent to hearing you anymore, ultimately it is the choice of a handful of executives whether that person is allowed to be heard anymore.
This is what happened to me the other day on the site/app Quora.
Ironically, I had become one of Quora’s dream users. For those unfamiliar, Quora is essentially a way better version of Yahoo! Answers, combined with upvote/downvote features that sort content’s viability through democratic process, and on which comment threads and direct messages are integrated capabilities.
Unique to Quora is the platform is the access it gives any random person direct and unmitigated access to experts in name the field, who can answer questions they are asked at their own discretion, or any questions they want to answer as they browse and receive suggestions based on smart algorithms that pair interests and expertise with the users most likely to take interest in the content provided.
Despite not being paid to answer anyone’s questions, over the past year or so, I spent untold amounts of time on the site, answering over 300 questions, asking several hundred, and having my content viewed over 400,000 times. And I was excited about it! For the first time ever, it seemed, my work was finding an audience.
I had hundreds of followers, who opted in to receiving notifications when I answer questions, thousands of upvotes, I had been published in the “Quora Digest”, and thanks to the site I was able to help tens of thousands of people on a weekly basis, as my answers continued to be shared and circulate through cyberspace.
I specialized in answering questions about bipolar disorder (which I have), mental illness, and American history. My work had been featured in email publications they put out, and among my greatest hits was my iteration of a Socrates anecdote about decision-making and a related commentary, and advice on how to handle the ups and downs of being in a relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder.
As of the other day, if you go to my Quora page, it indicates I have written one answer, to one question, that is one sentence long. Before it said 0. But as if to add insult to injury, it’s someone’s question about how they can unblock porn websites.
I have no idea why they put that up there.
What I do know, is because of a series of policy infractions I inadvertently made, within the course of a few hours, related to my linking to similar answers I’d given to related questions, including links to my book and podcast, I was banned. I appealed their decision with fully rational and heartfelt responses, promising them I would take every step possible to avoid any of my content being deemed “spam” again, and urging them not to remove everything I’d written that was helping people — particularly everything I’d written on the subject of mental health.
Nevertheless, all I got in response to that appeal was a stock response informing me I violated one or more of their policies and was permanently banned from the site. Not only did they make it look like I’d never written anything, I’m blocked from even logging in and asking questions anymore. It’s insane.
Despite my having spent inordinate amounts of time contributing to their body of work, promoting their site through tweets and facebook posts and even in person interactions all the time, and even being made a member of their new “partner program”, through which I was about to start getting paid for ad clicks on questions I asked, I was treated like someone conquered by ISIS, and everything I created was destroyed.
I still find it hard to process how anyone could be so cruel and ruthless toward a user who was so passionate about helping build the site and app into the next Wikipedia.
The most messed up part is I have no idea whether any substantial amount of users really were upset by anything I’d written. For all I know, all the “spam” complaints may have come from one or two people, or in some coordinated effort to take me down. It could have been a hit job from some powerful corporate or governmental or religious entity I was making look bad through content critical of their practices. It could have literally been anyone, for any reason.
Maybe even this guy…
Was it someone with a personal vendetta against me? Was it people in the Republican party? Was it some government agency I’d been critical of? Was it anti-gun activists?Was it simply someone who worked for Quora and thought my ideas were dangerous?
The simple truth is, I don’t know. And unless I were to successfully sue them and they were forced to reveal related details to my case, I never will know.
I get no day in court. I don’t get to face my accuser(s). My reasonable requests to resolve the matters in a fair way then go on with my work were ignored. I am a nobody.
I have been digitally assassinated, and now I don’t exist.
Thanks to what may have literally just been one or two people, my name — and anything I’ve done through Quora — has been wiped from the expanse and history of cyberspace. I can’t even log in to inform my followers of what happened and give them some other means of reading my work on another platform.
I’m not even being offered a way to privately access books worth of my own content.
This is, in my opinion, and I’m sure the opinion of every rational person reading this, wrong. It would be wrong to do to anyone. And the fact that it’s happening to me is proof that it’s happening to others. Quietly. Heartlessly. Overnight.
Just like with Alex Jones, even though I’m not Alex Jones.
This spread of an anonymous micro-minority’s capacity to destroy the work of people who have done nothing in violation of any actual laws, is out of control. Do I really have a voice when Twitter can shadow ban users with whom the company’s employees or investors are politically opposed?
Do I really have the freedom of speech if the capacity that speech has to be heard can be made impossible with the stroke of a key, or worse yet, at the decision of an inhuman algorithm? How am I supposed to make my voice heard, as it relates to the most important matters of our times, when what I say only remains so long as people don’t complain?
What is ultimately needed, I believe, is a modernization of the Bill of Rights, to clearly apply to the new digital age. We should have our privacy online. We shouldn’t be silenced if someone doesn’t like what we said. We should have an external means of litigating grievances between users and moderators, with powers that extend beyond the scope of the internal decisions made by corporate employees with whom no human contact is even made possible.
I am extremely frustrated right now. I’m about as pissed off as I’ve ever been.
I feel I am one of what I expect already are, and surely will be, many casualties to the mob and the algorithms and the button pushers. My freedom of speech has been completely discarded; I am suffering right now; and the world has been deprived of everything I spent so long contributing for the benefit of others.
I never set out to piss anyone off.
I didn’t maliciously argue with strangers in the comments or call anyone names. I never tried to promote myself beyond the extent of a link to related content I’d produced off-site, or what amounts to a writer’s one sentence bio, as you’d see in any print editorial. I never intentionally broke a single rule, and I offered in good faith to calibrate my behavior to better conform to expectations only clarified to me after it was too late for me to do anything about it.
I was of value. Not only to Quora. But to a lot of people.
I was saving relationships. I was preventing people from killing themselves. I was teaching people things I had learned through life experiences and vigorous studies in both formal and informal settings. I was entertaining people. I was giving them hope. I was inspiring others.
I wasn’t being paid, but I had purpose. I had a place I could plug in and be of significance and value to people all around the world. That’s all I’ve ever really wanted as a writer and creator.
I was making contacts and forming friendships and finding creative collaborations through the site, now I’ve been banished and can contact no one. I was building a body of work I could point to when someone’s considering hiring me; I had proof I could write and people would read… now I don’t.
Now I’ve been reduced to a guy who wrote a one-sentence answer to a question about how someone can watch porn. That’s who I am to the world now. A nobody. And according to Quora’s cold standard copy and paste messages, there ain’t a damn thing I can do about it.
Out of out of the hundreds of thousands of people who read my content over many months, a tiny tiny tiny minority of them (a single person, for all I know) took issue with me. That’s all it took. Because of an anonymous decision I’m no good, I’m dead.
Is this fair? Is this just? Is this America?
No. No. No.
Perhaps there’s a legal case to be made here. I’d ask someone on Quora, but yeah…
The reality is, we’ve been losing our rights since I can remember. Gradually. Slowly. And sometimes, all at once. Right now is a seminal time. We’re either going to stop speaking our mind, because we know it’ll get us digitally assassinated, or we’re going to fight back.
I hope I maintain the heart to fight back, because as far as I’m concerned, once the 1st Amendment goes, so too will the 2nd… then, we’re in a country where we can’t speak our minds or defend ourselves.
At that point, America itself will have been assassinated too.