We Need An Internet Court

Picture this. You’ve voiced your opinion on a bill before your state senate on a public forum. The forum is the internet site of a statewide newspaper and comments are flying hot and heavy. A particular interest group takes issue with your stated opinion but instead of continuing to argue the salient points of the proposed legislation, this group begins to attack you personally.

Back in the day, ad hominem attacks were considered tacky if not downright stupid, and always discredited the attacker.[1] Any issue worth debating would naturally draw fire from all sides, but the beauty of a free society is that such debate serves the important purpose of refining the issue down to its merits and drawbacks, and the stronger side wins the day. Anyone veering off to attack the person voicing those points was swiftly dismissed as unfair and unreasonable.

Reasoned debate is the foundation of any free society wherein public policy becomes the law of the land. Without reasoned debate, policy is achieved by mob rule or dictatorial fiat. We’ve crept dangerously close to both in recent years when personal attacks have become the norm. Not satisfied to excoriate you for stating an opinion that disagreed with their own, the interest group mounts a campaign of personal destruction. Hundreds of hateful posts to your Facebook page filled with profanity and threats result in hours spent deleting and blocking such posts. Not satisfied with doxing you personally, the rabid mob also directs its attention to your professional or business Facebook page where again they curse and threaten. Again, you must delete, block, and reconfigure the page to keep future haters from adding more comments.

Clever insightful remarks from the mob aren’t their forte:

  • You are a disgrace to humanity. Glad we have your address. I have shared your comments with literally thousands of people.
  • you’re a PIG Karen!
  • Hateful cunt!!!!

But wait, there’s more. It’s a fine thing that Facebook allows account holders to regulate their pages in this way, but there are many more ways you can be harmed on the internet. For an author (or artist, musician, restaurant, club … the possibilities are endless), the ratings system gives haters a perfect avenue to close in for the kill. One star reviews or ratings for books or products listed on Amazon.com or a café or sports shop can be a fatal wound because people make decisions based on ratings.

Same for the reader/author site Goodreads.com.

On Amazon, if a review violates their guidelines, the victim can report the review. Unfortunately, this is not a one-time effort. In my case where over 50 1-star reviews were posted to my twelve books in a space of five days, it took months of repeated requests before the monitors paid any attention to my request that these reviews be removed. When the review clearly had nothing to do with the book and used hate speech against the author, Amazon removed it. But in cases where the review was more generic, it was not removed.

For example, this review was given the green light: “The author’s incoherent ramblings made watching my dog look for a place to take a dump more entertaining than this read.” Or this: “Mediocre at best. Quite a boring book actually….”[2]

At Goodreads, the staff were even less interested in enforcing their guidelines which include the obvious expectation that the reviewer has read the book. And after six months of repeated requests, they did remove the more egregious 1-star reviews. But like Amazon, there’s a catch in their guidelines. While the wording of a review is undeniable and therefore vulnerable to analysis, a 1-star rating (without a review) has no such qualities. And sadly, like Amazon, if the employee doesn’t have pertinent instruction in the guidelines about how to analyze 1-star ratings, they are powerless to think beyond that box.

In the Goodreads case, a total of 62 1-star reviews/ratings were posted to my books. Ultimately, after no small amount of effort and sleepless nights on my part, the explicitly unrelated reviews were removed. But 21 1-star ratings remain, a result of a platform operating on guidelines and no common sense. One reviewer, for example, posted fifteen 1-star ratings all on one day. That alone should be a clear sign that these reviews/ratings have nothing to do with the books AND that the reviewers never read the books. (My book sales figures also are good evidence that none of these reviewers read the books, but that’s evidence for a court case, not pleas to employees bound to follow inadequate guidelines.)

That’s not all. Special interest groups determined to attack the messenger of any information they don’t want to hear can also mount a petition at Change.org. I have signed plenty of Change.org petitions in these last several years since it came into existence. Social justice is one of my passions and what got me into this situation in the first place. Imagine my surprise to learn that Change.org does not require any evidence of the veracity of the petitioner’s cause. Like the recently publicized flap over Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to remove patently false advertising from Facebook pages, Change.org also refuses to remove petitions even when they are libelous or slanderous.

The interest group in my case worded their petition with false claims about what I said and what I believe. No one from Change.org contacted me to determine if these claims were true before allowing the petition to move forward. The petition went out, misinformed recipients signed it, and the petition resulted in my loss of a statewide award for an article I had written the previous year. (The article had nothing to do with the subject of this particular debate. The purpose of the petition was to harm me personally.) Despite their claim that they take legal issues like libel seriously, repeated requests to Change.org were met with silence.

If these same accusations had been published in my local newspaper, I could have filed suit. But local courts have no jurisdiction in other states, much less a multitude of other states and even internationally, as the internet exists. After visiting with several attorneys and taking my complaints to the local prosecuting attorney, nothing happened. One attorney admitted that this is a black hole in law. Pressing charges against a faceless entity like Change.org or Amazon requires enough money to hire legal representation in each state where a perpetrator of the libel can be identified. That is beyond virtually every person who would ever need this kind of help.

That’s why we need an internet court, a panel of legal professionals who would hear any and all petitions from persons like me who have a case to plead. Globally, such a panel would be needed for each nation with its specific language and laws to be enforced. Instead of relying on generic ‘guidelines’ that can never fully apply to countless unique and compelling situations, the internet court would assess each case on its evidence and render thoughtful decisions based on law.

Payment for internet court attorneys would be assessed to each platform whose members are subject to harm by special interests, hate groups, and other potential attackers. The assessment would be based on the number of members/followers those platforms embrace. The controlling entity would be ICANN, a nonprofit organization composed of stakeholders from government organizations, members of private companies, and internet users from all over the world. As of 2016, ICANN has direct control over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the body that manages the web’s domain name system (DNS).

If you’re in my house and someone causes you harm, the onus falls to me to control the situation. If I allow people to occupy my house without me being present to provide such policing, I’m still responsible. I might leave a set of generic instructions to be followed by anyone who enters my house in my absence, but the responsibility to enforce those instructions remains on me. It’s my house.

Likewise, setting up a platform whether Change.org or Amazon.com and abandoning all direct supervision to a set of generic guidelines is a situation ripe for abuse. Enforcement of the guidelines by employees who have neither the training nor the authority to think beyond the guidelines is a joke. There will always be unique situations that require fact finding and direct analysis by a person with the appropriate skills to make a judgement call.

Internet court. It can’t come soon enough.

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[1] Ad hominem (Latin for “to the person”), short for argumentum ad hominem, typically refers to a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself

[2] Yes, you can sue. Maybe. https://www.howtogeek.com/352302/can-you-get-sued-for-leaving-a-bad-review/

The New Censorship

The latest absurdity to emanate from the Trump White House is the edict to scientists at the Centers for Disease Control that they cannot use seven words in a report that will be part of the 2019 budget request. The words are vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based.

If I were a scientist working on that report, I would be strongly tempted to go through the draft that contains those words and simply black them out. That would remove them from the report, as requested. Let those who don’t want to see those words guess what’s under the black mark.

My second temptation would be to replace the words with a first letter and a following blank, as in t__________. Since all the forbidden words begin with different letters, it shouldn’t be too difficult for the reader to figure out the missing letters.

Alternatively, authors less willing to be openly defiant could resort to lengthy talk-arounds. For example, “vulnerable” could be replaced with “persons who through birth defect, age, illness, or other conditions are less able to resist potential harm from…”

“Entitlement” would become “the condition of having a right to have, do, or get something, or the feeling or belief that you deserve to be given something (such as special privileges), or a type of financial help provided by the government for members of a particular group.” Readers get to choose which meaning they prefer.

No reasons were given for the banishment of these seven words. Observers are left to speculate whether more words might be forbidden in the coming months and what they might be. Already we’ve learned that agencies may not refer to “global warming” or “climate change,” all part of this administration’s fervent embrace of denialism. Such an approach speaks volumes about the close-mindedness of the Republican right.

In the psychology of human behavior, denialism is a person’s choice to deny reality, as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth.  Denialism is an essentially irrational action that withholds the validation of a historical experience or event, when a person refuses to accept an empirically verifiable reality. In the sciences, denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favor of radical and controversial ideas.[1]

Explanation is also missing about who in particular requested these restrictions. No one would be surprised if the proclamation came from the petulant-child-in-chief himself, since he prefers monosyllables. Maybe the four-syllable “diversity” is too much for him to move his lips over as he attempts to read it. With his utter disregard for science as a discipline and the exacting process science pursues in developing “evidence,” he might prefer, in the possible instance of his developing prostate cancer, that his doctor explains “there’s a bigly bad problem in your thingy down there.”

However, advisors whispering at the Big Baby’s elbow surely find political hay to be made from eradicating the word “fetus” in the hopes that report authors would be forced to use a preferred term such as “unborn child.” However, a fetus is not a child, born or not, and scientists would probably be picky about technicalities like that. They might resort to using a phrase something like “a being in the stage of prenatal development between the embryonic state and birth, occurring after the first eleven weeks of gestation.”

If the report isn’t specified to contain a limited number of words, perhaps no one would mind that a concise single-word scientific term like “fetus” would require twenty-two words to replace it.

This points up the deeply ridiculous aspect of the seven-word ban. Our society – and societies worldwide – agree on words like “fetus” to describe a precisely-understood concept. It’s not that the current administration doesn’t understand what a “fetus” is or feels that it needs a bigger explanation. It’s that the word is involved in a political debate about a woman’s right to choose whether to produce a child. The word “fetus” doesn’t trigger the warm fuzzies that make an evangelical want to rush out and murder a gynecologist or chortle over the prospect of an illegal abortion causing a woman to bleed to death.

Similarly, the word “transgender” triggers instantaneous outrage among the more benighted among us. Ready to drag out the Bible to point out where it clearly states that God only made man and woman, these folks aren’t going to listen to reason anytime soon no matter how clearly it’s explained that there’s a whole other world of gender- and sexual identity-reality out there. They still haven’t accepted that men and women can love and desire members of their own sex. Despite their abysmal ignorance and visceral terror over anything other than their mirror image, the prurient interests of these folks prod them to inspect and judge the more intimate details of Other People’s Lives.

Wikipedia:

Transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their assigned sex. Transgender people are sometimes called transsexual if they desire medical assistance to transition from one sex to another. Transgender is also an umbrella term: in addition to including people whose gender identity is the opposite of their assigned sex (trans men and trans women), it may include people who are not exclusively masculine or feminine (people who are genderqueer or non-binary, including bigender, pangender, genderfluid, or agender). Other definitions of transgender also include people who belong to a third gender, or conceptualize transgender people as a third gender. Infrequently, the term transgender is defined very broadly to include cross-dressers, regardless of their gender identity.

Being transgender is independent of sexual orientation:  transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, or may decline to label their sexual orientation. The term transgender is also distinguished from intersex, a term that describes people born with physical sex characteristics “that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies”. The counterpart of transgender is cisgender, which describes persons whose gender identity or expression matches their assigned sex.[2]

It might be difficult to sum up all that in a short phrase in order to replace the word “transgender.”

Our collective intelligence and good will has been insulted repeatedly in the electoral-college victory of Donald Trump. Both before and after the election, he has intentionally incited violence, misunderstanding, prejudice, racism, and division. His performance as president is an international embarrassment. It’s difficult to believe he actually thinks about anything much less reasons. He’s the worst possible person for the role he managed to grab off the gut wagon.

We’ve been forced to accept a presidency of an essentially illiterate man with such a record of abuses, deceptions, insults, sexual assaults, adultery, and overarching greed that it’s difficult to maintain an appropriate level of disgust. While we may hope for a favorable outcome of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election, meaning Trump himself would be found red-handed and subject to prosecution, we face the clear possibility that even this last glimmer of faith in our system will also fall by the wayside. And although we hope for a reversal of Congressional control in the 2018 election, even that will not remove the idiot currently occupying the Oval Office.

But this — this censorship of important words — is alarming evidence of the danger facing our nation.

Whether the seven-word ban is a result of Trump’s petulant desire to get his hands on an easier read—not that anyone thinks for a moment he’ll actually read the CDC report—or his acquiescence to the manipulations of people like Stephen Miller, the remarkably under-investigated wizard whirling the bells and whistles behind Trump’s curtain, no one can say. The most terrifying aspect of the straight-jacket this latest outrage places on scientists is the mentality behind it. Words that describe troubling issues are to be eliminated, as if banishing the word somehow banishes the issue.

These are manipulations of a tyrannical dictatorship, not the supposed world leader in freedom of thought and expression. The very idea of banning certain words from anything violates the fundamental concept of our nation and the stated protection of free speech enshrined in our First Amendment,  facts that are no doubt incomprehensible to this moronic president and the one-track extremists behind his agenda.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denialism

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender