Is free expression online threatened by content removal?
U.S. laws regulating online speech offer broad protections for private companies, but experts worry free expression may be threatened by "better safe than sorry" voluntary censorship.
The Charles Koch Foundation seeks to identify programs and scholars working to understand how to move toward a society of equal rights and mutual benefit, where people succeed by helping others improve their lives.
We also partner with non-profit organizations that help people improve their lives and communities. Our main areas of funding include criminal justice and policing reform, free expression, foreign policy, economic opportunity, and technology and innovation.
- U.S. laws regulating online speech offer broad protections for internet intermediaries.
- Despite this, companies typically follow a "better safe than sorry" approach to protect against legal action or loss of reputation.
- Silencing contentious opinions can have detrimental effects, such as social exclusion and negating reconciliation.
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. At the tender age of five, she joined her parents on Westboro's now notorious picket lines. She held up signs reading 'God Hates Fags' to protest the funerals of homosexual men. She thanked God for dead soldiers at the funerals of Afghanistan war veterans. In 2009, she took the church's vitriol online and began tweeting for the congregation.
If one organization seemed primed to be deplatformed online, it's Westboro. The church is considered a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, and others. Its radical opinions seem patently designed to insult those on the left, on the right, and with common decency. Although Phelps-Roper no longer tweets for the church — we'll return to her story later — the church maintains various Twitter accounts (though others have been suspended.)
How is it that an organization as universally despised as Westboro can maintain an online presence? The answer lays in the United States' cultural traditions of free expression, and the complex interplay between U.S. laws, public opinion, and online intermediaries attempting to navigate these new digital public spaces.
How U.S. laws regulate online speech
The Free Speech Wall in Charlottesville, VA.
All online content arrives to our screens through intermediaries: ISPs, DNSs, hosts, search engines, social media platforms, to name but a few. Their responsibilities differ when it comes to regulating content, but for simplicity we'll be considering them as a single group.
Intermediaries maintain some degree of obligation for the content published or shared through their service, yet U.S. liability law grants them broad immunity, even when compared to other Western democracies. They remain legally safe as long as the content originates from the users, and they remove any illegal content once it is made known to them.
Daphne Keller is the Director of Intermediary Liability at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. In a Hoover Institution essay, she notes that intermediary liability falls mostly under three laws. They are:
The Communications Decency Act (CDA). This law effectively "immunizes platforms from traditional speech torts, such as defamation, and other civil claims." But platforms lose that protection if they create, edit, or collaborate with users on the content.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA ensures intermediaries can avoid liability without resorting to monitoring user speech. It also adds due process protocols, allowing defendants to argue against "mistaken or malicious claims."
Federal Criminal Law. Keller points out that intermediaries are also bound to criminal law. With regards to terrorism and child pornography, for example, intermediaries are not held liable if they remove the material and follow reporting requirements.
Of course, as private organizations, intermediaries have their own policies as well. Hate speech, for example, is not illegal in the United States; however, Twitter enforces a policy against hateful conduct. The policy prohibits inciting violence or harm against other people, but also the spread of fearful stereotypes, symbols associated with hate groups, and slurs designed to dehumanize someone.
The threat of over-removal
Despite these broad immunities, over-removal of content and speech remains a reality on today's internet. Size is part of the problem. As Keller notes in her essay, Google received "a few hundred DMCA notices" in 2006. Today, the search engine receives millions per day. Under such a strain, intermediaries can find it difficult to assess the validity of takedown requests.
A Takedown Project report undertaken by researchers at UC Berkeley and Columbia University found that intermediaries "may be subject to large numbers of suspect claims, even from a single individual."
The researchers argued that the automated systems used by large intermediaries to assess claims were in need of more accurate algorithms and human review. Due process safeguards were also found to be lacking.
Small intermediaries, who may not possess the resources and time to litigate claims, follow "better safe than sorry" polices, which can lead to compliance of all claims as a matter of course.
Platforms can also be motivated to remove extreme content over political worries, loss of customers or investors, and to create more inviting online spaces. Even if contentious speech is legal, platforms may remove it just to be safe.
Network service CloudFlare faced such a reputational dilemma in 2017. The organization dropped far-right message board the Daily Stormer from its services after claims were made by Stormer staff that CloudFlare supported its ideology.
CloudFlare co-founder Matthew Prince called the decision necessary but dangerous. In a release, he said, "We're going to have a long debate internally about whether we need to remove [the claim] about not terminating a customer due to political pressure."
What we lose when we over-regulate
Former Westboro Baptist Church Member Megan Phelps-Rope of 'The Story of Us with Morgan Freeman' speaks onstage during the National Geographic Channels portion of the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour.
(Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
CloudFlare's dilemma shows the difficulties of private organizations, which are not bound by the same laws as government entities, regulating services that have effectively evolved to become public spaces. Given the growing ubiquity of online spaces, finding the proper balance will be imperative.
In the search for responsible regulation, we must be careful to not silence free expression. Whether by accident or design, such actions will not change the minds of the people holding these ideas. It instead leads to emotions like anger and alienation, in turn creating a sense of prosecution and profound injustice. Unresolved, these emotions are considered to heighten the risk of extremism and political violence.
Lee Rowland, American Civil Liberties Union senior staff attorney, explains the difficulty of navigating the benefits and risks:
It's not a comfortable thing to talk about, because nobody wants to see Nazi ideology, but I will say that I do want the ability to see and find speech that reflects actual human beliefs. That's how we know what's out there. It doesn't benefit us to be blindsided by the private organizing of white supremacist. […] Enforcing that kind of purity only hides those beliefs; it doesn't change them.
We also run the risk of losing an important tool for personal development, both for ourselves and those we disagree with. If people are unable to engage in conversation with bad ideas, we'll lose remedies for extreme ideological thought, such as debate and forced examination.
This is exactly what happened to Megan Phelps-Roper. After she started tweeting for Westboro, she encountered much hostility for the views she espoused. But among the bellicose voices, she also met people willing to engage her in civil debate.
"There was no confusion about our positions, but the line between friend and foe was becoming blurred," Phelps-Roper said during her TED talk. "We'd started to see each other as human beings, and it changed the way we spoke to one another."
Over time, these conversations changed her perspective. Her relationship with Westboro and its hateful ideology ended in 2012.
"My friends on Twitter didn't abandon their beliefs or their principles — only their scorn," she added. "They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain, and violence."
There is definitely a need to regulate speech online. But Phelps-Roper's story is a warning of all we'll lose if free expression becomes threatened online.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Brain cells snap strands of DNA in many more places and cell types than researchers previously thought.
The urgency to remember a dangerous experience requires the brain to make a series of potentially dangerous moves: Neurons and other brain cells snap open their DNA in numerous locations — more than previously realized, according to a new study — to provide quick access to genetic instructions for the mechanisms of memory storage.
The extent of these DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) in multiple key brain regions is surprising and concerning, says study senior author Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, because while the breaks are routinely repaired, that process may become more flawed and fragile with age. Tsai's lab has shown that lingering DSBs are associated with neurodegeneration and cognitive decline and that repair mechanisms can falter.
"We wanted to understand exactly how widespread and extensive this natural activity is in the brain upon memory formation because that can give us insight into how genomic instability could undermine brain health down the road," says Tsai, who is also a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a leader of MIT's Aging Brain Initiative. "Clearly, memory formation is an urgent priority for healthy brain function, but these new results showing that several types of brain cells break their DNA in so many places to quickly express genes is still striking."
In 2015, Tsai's lab provided the first demonstration that neuronal activity caused DSBs and that they induced rapid gene expression. But those findings, mostly made in lab preparations of neurons, did not capture the full extent of the activity in the context of memory formation in a behaving animal, and did not investigate what happened in cells other than neurons.
In the new study published July 1 in PLOS ONE, lead author and former graduate student Ryan Stott and co-author and former research technician Oleg Kritsky sought to investigate the full landscape of DSB activity in learning and memory. To do so, they gave mice little electrical zaps to the feet when they entered a box, to condition a fear memory of that context. They then used several methods to assess DSBs and gene expression in the brains of the mice over the next half-hour, particularly among a variety of cell types in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, two regions essential for the formation and storage of conditioned fear memories. They also made measurements in the brains of mice that did not experience the foot shock to establish a baseline of activity for comparison.
The creation of a fear memory doubled the number of DSBs among neurons in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, affecting more than 300 genes in each region. Among 206 affected genes common to both regions, the researchers then looked at what those genes do. Many were associated with the function of the connections neurons make with each other, called synapses. This makes sense because learning arises when neurons change their connections (a phenomenon called "synaptic plasticity") and memories are formed when groups of neurons connect together into ensembles called engrams.
"Many genes essential for neuronal function and memory formation, and significantly more of them than expected based on previous observations in cultured neurons … are potentially hotspots of DSB formation," the authors wrote in the study.
In another analysis, the researchers confirmed through measurements of RNA that the increase in DSBs indeed correlated closely with increased transcription and expression of affected genes, including ones affecting synapse function, as quickly as 10-30 minutes after the foot shock exposure.
"Overall, we find transcriptional changes are more strongly associated with [DSBs] in the brain than anticipated," they wrote. "Previously we observed 20 gene-associated [DSB] loci following stimulation of cultured neurons, while in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex we see more than 100-150 gene associated [DSB] loci that are transcriptionally induced."
Snapping with stress
In the analysis of gene expression, the neuroscientists looked at not only neurons but also non-neuronal brain cells, or glia, and found that they also showed changes in expression of hundreds of genes after fear conditioning. Glia called astrocytes are known to be involved in fear learning, for instance, and they showed significant DSB and gene expression changes after fear conditioning.
Among the most important functions of genes associated with fear conditioning-related DSBs in glia was the response to hormones. The researchers therefore looked to see which hormones might be particularly involved and discovered that it was glutocortocoids, which are secreted in response to stress. Sure enough, the study data showed that in glia, many of the DSBs that occurred following fear conditioning occurred at genomic sites related to glutocortocoid receptors. Further tests revealed that directly stimulating those hormone receptors could trigger the same DSBs that fear conditioning did and that blocking the receptors could prevent transcription of key genes after fear conditioning.
Tsai says the finding that glia are so deeply involved in establishing memories from fear conditioning is an important surprise of the new study.
"The ability of glia to mount a robust transcriptional response to glutocorticoids suggest that glia may have a much larger role to play in the response to stress and its impact on the brain during learning than previously appreciated," she and her co-authors wrote.
Damage and danger?
More research will have to be done to prove that the DSBs required for forming and storing fear memories are a threat to later brain health, but the new study only adds to evidence that it may be the case, the authors say.
"Overall we have identified sites of DSBs at genes important for neuronal and glial functions, suggesting that impaired DNA repair of these recurrent DNA breaks which are generated as part of brain activity could result in genomic instability that contribute to aging and disease in the brain," they wrote.
The National Institutes of Health, The Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, and the JPB Foundation provided funding for the research.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
- A new study proposes the "babble hypothesis" of becoming a group leader.
- Researchers show that intelligence is not the most important factor in leadership.
- Those who talk the most tend to emerge as group leaders.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by Freethink Media, Inc. All rights reserved.