4600 words

Free speech, social networks, and misinformation

This is slavery, not to speak one's thought.

It's basically a cliché these days, but if you're not paying, you're not the customer, you're the product.

But what happens when the service which sells your attention is something that you find that you need to use to remain connected to a community, to friends, to family? What happens when you reach a critical mass of people and coordination and consensus are too elusive for you all to collectively decide that enough is enough, and it's now time for you to move on to somewhere else?

If you're new to my blog, it's a little awkward that this is probably the only "serious" and non-wanky post. But also... well, meh. It's my blog.

There's this weird idea that speech should be free, that it should be unencumbered. Heck, there's another idea that most things should be unencumbered and you should only need to be honest in your dealings and not harm other people. Of course, those are probably the bare minimum for a respectful and civilised society, but it doesn't stop there.

Freedom of speech, on the other hand? It's something that some idealistic people in the colonies made up - not our colonies, mind you, but in the much older, "United" States of America. Why? Because when it boils down to it, you need to be able to discuss and critique your government for a healthy society, and so "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech".

We have a similar provision in the Australian constitution which represents an implied freedom of political speech, but the explicitness of the American constitution is often lauded by its citizens and those who hold the American model of government up as an example for the world to follow, and to be exported to other lands on the planet.

But you know what? They got it wrong.

Not the part where the government should be prohibited from restraining criticism of itself, but really, in the way that "freedom of speech" has essentially become a thought-terminating cliche.

Instead of teaching people and making clear the rationale for the first amendment, instead people are told that the United States has this thing called "freedom of speech". What does that mean? Well, most people seem to think that it means that you can say whatever the hell you want without consequences (not true), and not only do other people have to listen to you (also not true), your speech and your ideas must be maintained, unchallenged, ad infinitum - and how dare a social media company curtail your right to say whatever you want, whenever you want.

In reality, the First Amendment is not unfettered. There's a whole list of exceptions to free speech in the USA, and that's only in the USA - you don't even really get that much consideration in Australia, nor most other countries.

And you might not like it. You might wish for a world where no-one can tell you what you can and can't say, but that's not the world you live in now - or at least, it's not the case that you can say whatever you want and risk some punishment, based on laws that have been passed wherever you say it.

Some people might believe that it's their right to disregard laws that they don't agree with, consequences be damned. If I want to spread lies about someone or something, why shouldn't I be allowed to?

Recently I've heard two arguments against restraining expression: one is that you should be free to express whatever you want, and that social media companies (namely, Facebook) shouldn't be permitted to stop you from doing so, and that it's up to each individual person to make decisions for themselves based on these expressions - personal responsibility. This was said in the context of Facebook taking down a video from a group of doctors claiming that hydroxychloroquine is a safe and effective remedy for COVID-19, citing anecdotal evidence in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus that establishes no such thing.

This would take the argument for free speech too far, in my view - why should a private corporation (keeping in mind that the forbearance on restricting expression applies to the government, and even that has boundaries) be bound not only to allow you to post things which are demonstrably false (which they do anyway), but also to maintain it in perpetuity? Don't companies have a right to curate public perception of them, and the content that they deliver?

That's a bit of a moot point, since Facebook doesn't give you an unfiltered, neutral stream of content - it gives you a very-much algorithmically-curated stream of content with the objective of keeping you on the site or in their apps for as long as possible, because they sell your attention for profit (see above). So, while they're promoting some posts and quietly suppressing others (an unavoidable consequence of us having limited attention spans and finite time each day) to maximise the amount of time you spend looking at those posts, what is their responsibility to the truth, or at the very least, to avoid being complicit in spreading lies? None? If Facebook can spread lies, why can't I? If Facebook needs to not only display lies to me, but to spread the more salacious ones, then why should I be punished for doing the same?

And since I don't (and probably can't) claim to be completely original, why should I be punished for any lies at all? Aren't I just reinterpreting and regurgitating ideas I've heard elsewhere?

The other view I've heard is that you should be able to express your views any time, place, and way you want, but you should be able to deal with the consequences, ranging from praise to physical violence. Somewhat confusingly, this was in the same context as the previous view. I'm not convinced that the two can be held at the same time, by the same person, without contradicting each other inherently.

If you should be able to express anything you want, anywhere you want, in anyway you want as long as you're prepared to deal with the consequences, then... doesn't this mean that if someone decides to fact-check or remove your content (on their platform, mind you; you're in their house), that's a consequence you just need to deal with? Isn't this just them asserting a response to you?

There's a simple explanation - perhaps slightly overly-simplistic - of course, and one I'm worried will be considered... offensive. It's a failure of critical thinking, with some conspiracy-thinking tendencies sprinkled in.

It's not about thinking about the consequences of applying your rule on what should and shouldn't be allowed more broadly and from behind a veil of ignorance, it's that I can't do what I want, and instead of just saying that, it needs to be a principled stand because those are selfless instead of self-serving.

It's the same sort of thinking that finds patterns where none exist, and where it seems like everyone is out to suppress the truth. Of course, some conspiracies do exist, but you know what? Probably fewer than you think, and those that do exist probably affect fewer people than you think. Not convinced? How many conspiracies are you a part of? Now extrapolate.

The problem with today's world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion AND have others listen to it.

The correct statement of individual rights is that everyone has the right to an opinion, but crucially, that opinion can be roundly ignored and even made fun of, particularly if it is demonstrably nonsense!

12: The Third Law

Sometimes the world is a shitty place full of shitty people.

And sometimes it's not. You know, there are probably some long-term effects of being raised by excessively demanding and withholding parents. I don't know. Maybe I read it somewhere? But it definitely lines up with my own experience.

The thing with parents who always expect more from you is there you end up always wanting to do better, and maybe having some perfectionist tendencies. This is probably not entirely a bad thing.

The problem with parents who don't provide some praise every now and then is that... well, maybe you're never sure that you've done enough, and this can be crippling. This has probably followed me into my professional life - I'm not happy unless I'm doing better than I have to, and even then I'm not happy.

So finally being in an environment where people praise me when they think I've done a good job is... still unsettling. I'm constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, or wondering why they're doing what they're doing, or ... I don't know.

I don't quite know how to counteract this, either. I should be able to trust people more, and I should be comfortable with being recognised for my work, but for some reason, I'm not.

There's no lesson here, just notes and reflections.

11: If you're failing to plan, you're planning to fail

But then, if you're planning to fail, you're not failing to plan, so you're not planning to fail; but then...

There are a couple of different ways to fail, I think. Well, no, there's many, many ways to fail. But one of the greatest failures in business might just be relying too much on people, or more specifically, on people's memories.

Especially for annual projects (and at the risk of sounding like a whinger to people I work with - also, if you've found my blog, hi!), it's easy to think that it's over once it's over and you don't then need to think about it again, for another year.

I think there's actually a lot of value in keeping a diary of sorts during a project, because you can then iterate on it - you can do it better next time and not forget what you could've done better this time.

This might not be anything original as a whole, but it would seem to be new to some people.

10: Double digits!

When the facts change, I change my mind.

Some time ago, a friend - well, I don't know if she'd call me a friend, but I'd definitely say that she was one of the kindest and most intelligent people I knew, or know - wrote a book, and I didn't think much of it.

It was about sexual assault, why it's so rarely reported, and what happens because of systems of invisible - or at least, not openly comprehended or spoken of - bias. No, let's call it what it is, sexism. As an attempt to preserve some anonymity, that's about all I'll say about it, but the story was harrowing.

It's crazy that this happened, but it's crazier that it still happens. I know that there's not much that I can do about this, personally. But I think I can try to do what I can.

I can call out inappropriate behaviour when I see it - whether or not someone else sees me do so.

I can make sure that I treat everyone with respect and act with integrity - and hopefully, by doing so, help create a space where people can confide in me.

I've had setbacks in both of these areas in the past. I think that's okay. I don't think I can forgive myself - not because I like living with guilt, but because I think it's a bit meaningless to do so - and I think that's fine, because the guilt, and to some extent, the shame (which, yes, misses the point of the book somewhat but), it reminds me that I need to do better.

I need to be better than I have been in the past.

I need to - and have tried to - be okay with being wrong sometimes, and to be able to admit it.

9: Certainty

Uncertain times, the new normal, dealing with it all.

It's easier for some than others, and if you've lived your entire life without being worried about where the next meal is going to come from, or how you'll get to work, then you're lucky.

You shouldn't be, of course. But I suspect it's a feeling that many more people will have to come to terms with.

How do you prepare for the unknown? Planning for it. You can't, of course, plan for all unknowns, but there are known unknowns that you can insulate yourself against.

These are questions like:

  • Will I have a job in three, six, twelve months?
  • Will I have some kind of accident?
  • Will I be in good health?

There's an industry built on this uncertainty, insurance. It plays on your fears, but there's a massive conflict of interest - it is in the commercial interests of insurance companies to pay out as few claims as possible. The thing you are paying for, they have a vested interest in making sure you never receive it.

Some premiums are unavoidable. Others are just plain dumb.

8: SovCitiots

A friend of mine alerted me to the existence of this right to know request.

I'm not the biggest fan of bureaucracy, but very little compels me to sympathise with them faster than Sovereign Citizens, free-men, or whatever else we want to call them

Under normal circumstances, they're an annoyance and should be dealt with expeditiously and with no nonsense (aside from the nonsense inherent in claiming to be sovereign citizens). During a pandemic, they should probably be restricted in movement, speech, or association, as is necessary to safeguard public health.

I'm not a lawyer and I don't feel like litigating this issue again, but I need to vent, so here I am:

  • If you really knew how laws were made, you would know referenda are not always required and that laws can grant certain discretionary authority to governing bodies, such as to restrict movement

  • If the government tells you to wear a mask, don't be a dick, wear a mask or stay at home

  • Your magic words have no power over actual police, who will arrest or fine you as permitted by law.

Wear a mask, stay home, social distance, unless you're fortunate enough to live somewhere that is free from this and experts (this means people who study and research epidemiology for a living, not people who read a blog or watched a few hours of YouTube and now know all there is to know about vaccinations) have said that you can move about freely.

7: Figuring things out

The problem with definitions is that you don't know what you don't know. Maybe not definitions, but expectations, certain

There are few things as frustrating in life as wasted time; all the money in the world never bought a second of time.

And then, you learn and do it again. And you swear to yourself that you won't make the same mistake again, but the truth is, we make this mistake all the time.

We have trouble assuming that we're not really knowledgeable about things. We forget to question whether what we know is enough for what we need, and the crazy thing is, the more we learn, the worse this gets.

Only through rigorous rationality and meta-cognitive awareness do we stand a chance of overcoming these stupid biases.

The next step for me, of course, is trying to figure out exactly how I can do that...

6: Just do the right thing

Okay, I'm not a fan of handing over my rights or freedoms. I get the instinct to curl up and protect them, and you might get high-minded about dying for your freedom.

You might be in ordinary circumstances, and have no reason to read on. You might be reading this later, when things are more normal.

But right now, there are some restrictions in place around the world - it might be that you're to stay home, or wear a mask, or limit the size of gatherings.

And you might be happy to die for your freedoms, but right now, you're not making that choice just for yourself - you're making it for everyone you come into contact with, and so are they.

Refusing to wear a mask when you're asked to isn't just selfish, it's dangerous. Refusing to stay at home, or holding gatherings isn't just being stupid, it's potentially fatal. Maybe not to you, but to someone else.

There's no bravery or valour in someone else unknowingly sacrificing their lives for your comfort or benefit.

5: Some things you plan, others you just do

So I guess if you don't plan things, you end up just reacting to them.

And for the longest time, I punished myself because I didn't plan things enough - I thought that I found myself reacting to things so much because it wasn't something I'd accounted for, in my plans.

A lot of it was to do with my financial security - there was a period where I was making decent money, but failed to plan for the future, because I thought it would never end. Then, when it did, I was totally unprepared, and there was a much longer stretch where I couldn't prepare for the future, and so life was just... so much harder than it needed to be.

I think though, that while I was right to regret not planning and preparing while I was able, every moment of regret after recognising that - when it wasn't possible for me to do otherwise - was effort wasted.

Learn from your lessons, yes, but don't be a slave to your mistakes. The difference is whether you feel guilt - which you should - and whether you can do something about it.

Feeling guilty about not preparing for the future while you were able to is fine, but if you keep regretting not doing so while you can't do anything about it, it just becomes... draining. You end up punishing yourself, and it's just... exhausting. Tiring.

And to some extent, it's not possible to block this out completely. If you find yourself in a rough patch, and you could've prevented it, you'll think back to that time, and maybe resent past you for not doing so. The trick is to notice when this happens, accept that it's happened, and then try to do something better with your time.

And then to remember, next time you have the chance to prepare for the future, do it.

4: Palm Springs

Palm Springs perfectly encapsulates so many of the feelings that characterises 2020 for so many of us.

A feeling of isolation, of nihilism. That you're doing the same thing over and over and over again.

Andy Samberg's character, Nyles, comments that we don't really have a choice in whether we live life, or not. You might be trapped in an endless cycle that feels just... pointless, but you don't really have a choice.

At least you have each other. Nothing worse than going through this shit alone.

But later on, he mentions something pretty crucial, that we need to remember, even if we think there's no point in doing the right thing, because we don't think there's any consequences.

When Cristin Milioti's Sarah (Sara?) decides that she can be as cruel as she wants, inflicts whatever pain she wants, because everything's going to reset anyway, he tells her that that's not the point - she, Sarah, will remember. The pain they cause, the cruelty they inflict, matters, because it's the wrong thing to do.

And later, Nyles's nemesis, Roy (played by the incomparable J K Simmons), who's also in the loop, has come to terms with things. He knows that life in this kind of situation is far more palatable with someone than without.

As much as it seems like we're stuck in a loop, we will get out of it.

Even if it seems like there are no consequences, we should do the right thing, because it's the right thing to do.

And remember, things are easier with a buddy.

Some other thoughts:

  • By the way, not only is Cristin Milioti in this (and I just adore everything she's in, from A to Z 😏), the casting was done by Alison Jones, which marks yet another show I absolutely love that she's had a direct role in casting, The Office and Brooklyn Nine-Nine being some others.

  • On the other hand, I'm reminded of the series finale of Angel: "Those who don't care will never understand those who do." "Yeah, but we won't care."

3: Reflecting on Coronavirus

I managed to have a brief catch up with people I know today, in Europe. Things there are... not great. I wonder though, whether the ability to travel in Europe will ultimately see a stronger recovery there.

Moreover, I wonder whether Australia's relative success thus far in keeping cases and deaths down has worked against us. Here's the thinking:

  1. In Australia, we have managed to keep deaths low such that we can identify those who die due to COVID-19 by age: a 60-year old, a 50 year-old, and so on

  2. Since we keep hearing these, and more often than those who are younger, younger people don't fear the effects of the virus enough to reinforce the behavioural measures needed to suppress the virus

  3. Additionally, the ongoing pressures from loss of income or mobility are causing a pent up desire to do normal things

Still, I guess we should be grateful with the low case and death rate we've experienced thus far.

2: Why Standard Notes?

... and general thoughts on paying for things.

In a lot of ways, the internet is to blame for many problems. This might be vague, bordering on pointless, but it's true. Talking specifics, it's the promise, and delivery, of "free" content, which has resulted in the erosion of wuakity journalism, diverse and broad voices in media (though, the internet has also provided a platform for voices thst would otherwise be unheard; it's unclear whether that's a good thing, overall, or not).

For the longest time, too, I was not a fan of paying for things on the internet. To this day, there are some things which I'll try to obtain for free, or at a discount, if I can.

But more and more, I've come to appreciate that I should be paying for things, not just because otherwise it's my data that becomes the product (though this too is a compelling reason), but also because, well, people deserve to get paid for their work.

Whether it's a webcomic, or a podcast, or, yes, a notes/blogging platform, someone had to work on that thing, and, well, even if it's a labour of love and they don't expect to become rich from it, isn't offering to help sustain them the best way to ensure that they continue to do what they do, and that they put my needs, as a user, before those of some sd company, or some other third party?

This isn't a panacea, nor is it an original thought; certainly, using a centralised means of supporting creators (read: Patreon) means that someone's still tracking me. But the goal here, with paying for things, is not for me to become invisible. Indeed, if I wanted that, I'd not be blogging publicly, or likely online at all - my notes would be in paper form, only, or at the very least hidden from the world.

The goal with paying for things is to make sure that people are justly compensated for their work, at least to my reasonable and proportionate ability.

1: Private browsing and how easy it can be

Let's see how many days in a row I can write things.

Why here and not on Twitter? This is... text. Just writing. And a bit more reflective, I think, for that reason.

I use an Android device, and for a very long time, I've touted Firefox Focus for how easy it makes private browsing. Set it as your default browser and your browsing is incognito by default.

Firefox Beta (and maybe stable?) lets you open links in private browsing tabs, though, which is just a bit easier and better, in my view.

What's more, though - and what convinced me to reassign my default browser to Firefox Beta - is that you can enable Dark Reader on Firefox proper, and even in private browsing.

The number of times I've had to scrunch my eyes shut against the white glare of a website when I'm reading in bed (okay, that's a different problem, but one thing at a time) is enough to persuade me to switch over.

Add this to the built-in reader mode, and I'm a convert. This would've been the case even if Firefox Focus weren't randomly glitching and giving me black screens after task switching (I would guess some kind of a memory bug?)

Coronavirus Diaries

It's been... 130 days since the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, and things are starting to... well, look bad, again.

I don't like the situation in Melbourne... it's not nearly as bad as other parts of the world, and although things can always get worse, as a friend said, saying that is pretty vapid.

And it's true, I guess. It doesn't really mean anything on its own.

Let's track how I feel about things. This might be a hundred days too late, but better late than never... right?

Sydney/NSW: 7/10

Let's say that maybe three or four weeks ago, this might've been an 8, or maybe a 9, out of 10.

The whole Crossroads situation has wigged me out a little, not to mention reports of stupid people having crazy parties with 30+ (or maybe 60+?) people.

I don't think I'm more worried about the state than I am about the city, probably a little less overall. Hopefully people are being sensible in more regional areas, though there's lower density, so the risk might be lower there... then again, access to health is an issue.

Australia: 6/10

Let's say that this would've been about a 7 or 8 a few weeks ago.

  • Melbourne: 😥
  • Everywhere but NSW and Vic: 🙂

Problem, though, is that Melbourne and Sydney together account for most of the people I'd call family and friends.

Other things, little things, like... PAX and OCC almost certainly not going ahead this year, also weigh on me.

The World: 6/10

Probably about the same as it has been, over the last few weeks.

The US is a mess, though I actually now feel better about the situation there than I did a few weeks back - mainly because of what it might mean in November, though. The increasing deaths and cases are still pretty devastating, and knowing people over there doesn't help.

The situation in Brazil is just depressing, since... well, it's pretty plain that the president is just blinding his eyes to the reality of the situation.

The situation in the rest of the world - Europe, Asia, Africa... it seems all a bit distant. I guess it's not as volatile, and it doesn't seem as relevant to me here. Again, I know people in those parts of the world, but things don't seem to be getting markedly worse.

What I've been doing

  • Rewatched Community a couple of times.
  • Watched Buffy and Angel (for the first time - well, finished Buffy, almost done with Angel)
  • Uni! This first-year stuff has been mostly easy, but I always wonder how much to talk about it being easy for me.