When it comes to free expression, the rule of thumb I assume most of us apply is “the more the merrier,” and this is certainly my own default position. But there’s no question that there is a prickly side to this principle that goes beyond mere aesthetics. After all, this principle was the central argument made by Justice Scalia in writing his opinion as part of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC. And in the age of social media, of course, one of the downsides of abundant free expression, especially when combined with anonymity, is the spawning of several species of trolls. When trolls go beyond the bounds of mere buffoonery and actually coordinate attacks on named individuals, expressing desires to see said individuals killed, commit suicide, raped, maimed, you name it, the victims of these virtual attacks have reason to be concerned in the real world. We’ve seen too many cases in which these infantile wishes have, in one way or another, been tragically granted. As such, the cyber utopians who defend systems that allow anonymity and do not moderate this kind of behavior on their sites should not be allowed to hide behind the First Amendment as justification. To do so is to be blind to the fact that even in virtual space, bullies can have a more profound chilling effect on free expression than any form of regulation.
And that brings me to this story from The Guardian reporting that famed novelist Anne Rice has just added her name to a petition containing the signatures of over 1,000 demanding that Amazon change, or in some cases merely enforce, its policies with regard to personal attacks on authors in the “reviews” sections on the site. The petition was started by freelance editor, Todd Barselow, who says he’ll submit the document to Amazon as soon as he gathers a few thousand signatures; and other authors are speaking up about the tangible effects this particular brand of trolling can have on the writers and even on the communities where they connect with fans online. Rice herself identifies these trolls as a small minority, but a little harassment can go a long way for any individual, and I’m hard-pressed to see where society is served when I read this quote from the article: “True Blood author Charlaine Harris was in a similar situation last May, when she received death threats for ending her series in a manner unpalatable to her fans.” Ah, the new, broader definition of fan in our times — someone who may or may not pay to view, read, listen to your work and then might threaten your life if he doesn’t like it.
At best, even the world of professional criticism is comprised of a great number of hacks and a small handful of reviewers who do their jobs exceptionally well. Those who write criticism best always add something to the experience that is generally positive, even while writing negatively about a particular work. As the saying goes, “anyone can write a bad review,” and crowd-sourced reviews certainly proves this in spades, if we very broadly define the word write. But the purpose of review isn’t like Consumer Reports, meant to warn against the reading of a certain book or seeing a certain movie. Good criticism complements the larger experience of all media and, I believe, comes from a place that understands somewhat humbly that the crafts themselves are mastered with great difficulty. At the opposite end of the critical spectrum, therefore, I find it hard to understand Amazon’s tolerance for such cultural insights as, “I hated your book. If I see you in the street, I’m going to punch you in the face, Bitch!” This adds nothing the world needs, and Amazon’s failure to mitigate this kind of lashing out actually supports a chilling effect on the author’s speech, giving her legitimate grounds to be concerned for her safety. Or, if not safety, even Anne Rice’s example of leaving a meaningful dialogue with her readers after the trolls arrived like locusts to consume the thread constitutes a chilling effect on speech.
Those who extoll the virtues of artists connecting with fans online and the preservation of meaningful free expression should be among the more vocal to support this kind of petition; but they are consistently silent on such matters in favor of defending the world against theoretical threats to free speech — like enacting or enforcing rules for behavior on certain sites. The truth is voices of free expression are often silenced by ham-fisted thugs. The problem here lies in putting too much stock in systems that can’t tell the difference.
ADDENDUM: Well, thanks to some readers here and at least one friend in the publishing industry, it appears that this matter deserves further investigation. While the subject of trolling by review is one that deserves attention, it’s possible that Ms. Rice makes an imperfect poster child inasmuch as she may well be dishing out as good as she gets. More anon.