Friday, December 9, 2016

Is Trolling Protected Speech?

Online conspiracy theorists say that pizza shops are just covers for pedophile rings.  If so, then this place must be ground zero.

In my last post, I mentioned how some online "review" sites are blackmailing service providers by posting negative content or low "scores" and then offering to repair their reputation if they pony up some money.   It is pretty low stuff.  But is it illegal?

I suspect so, although no Attorney General has yet to take on these jokers.  I suppose you could set up a company, get it "reviewed" on one of these sites, and then record the phone call where they make the reputation-for-money pitch and then charge them with blackmail.   But that would smack of effort.

Others have tried civil suits, with little success.   The "scores" on these sites are deemed "opinions" and I think judges are reluctant to be seen as censoring free speech.   It didn't help that one fellow challenging his score on an attorney review site had an ethics complaint filed against him.

So long as the "opinions" are not malicious, it is deemed "free speech".  You can say, "Joe Blow's restaurant SUCKS!" and that is your opinion and you are free to have it.  On the other hand, if you say "Joe Blow's restaurant serves dead rat meat" you could be sued for libel, unless of course, they actually serve dead rat meat.  In addition, if you post information with a malicious intent, that may also be actionable.

But what about trolling?   Trolling has reached new heights in the recent elections.   People are posting all sorts of malicious stories online about political candidates.  That is nothing new - back in Lincoln's day, people would publish anonymous pamphlets with scurrilous allegations.  Most folks were smart enough to ignore them.   But more than a few voters - particularly the stupid kind - are persuaded by this sort of nonsense.

The election is over, however, the trolling continues.  And attacking political candidates is one thing, but going after people who are only tangentially related to the candidate?   Going after private citizens just because they support a candidate?  Something isn't right here.  And I don't think libeling private citizens is "free speech" of any sort.

The latest "controversy" fueled by the alt-right is wild and stupid allegations that a pizza shop in Washington, D.C. is actually a front for a child-sex-ring that - get this - is being run by Hillary Clinton, whose job it is to chop up the children.  Now if you have half a brain, you know this isn't true.  Hillary doesn't even live in Washington, and what would her interest in child-sex be?  It just so over-the-top that it is stupid.

Stupid yes, but one of the members of the Trump transition team - who is also the son of our new National Security Advisor, believes this nonsense and perpetuates it.   Like any conspiracy theory, it cannot be proven "untrue" ever, to the conspiracy faithful, so their logic is that so long it is not proven untrue, it might be true but since you can never prove such wild theories untrue (any proof proffered is shot down or said to be manufactured) then the conspiracy is never unproven.   A man armed with an AR-15 went to the pizza shop, shot up the place, searched it, didn't find any children or child sex ring or secret rooms in the basement.  You would think that would settle the issue.  But he isn't sure, so maybe it is true.  Welcome to the bizarro-world of conspiracy theories!

Why would someone start such a weird rumor?  It turns out the owner of the shop is a Hillary supporter, and the owners ex-boyfriend has some connection with the Hillary campaign.   So you now know the real reason behind the attack - to punish someone for their political beliefs.   And punish they have.  Because of the false story, the owner of the pizza shop is getting death threats and of course business is off.   People are scraping photos from Facebook of families at the shop and then posting them online as "victims" of the "pedophile ring".   Now they've gone beyond attacking Hillary supporters and to victimizing random patrons of the restaurant.

The goal of whoever started this rumor is to shut the pizza shop down - put the owner out of business and punish him for his political beliefs.  No doubt the owner offered his opinion online and someone didn't like his opinion.  So they tracked him down and started this rumor.   Trolls use other techniques, such as "Swatting" - calling the police in your jurisdiction and claiming a hostage situation has taken place at your home.  The SWAT team shows up at your house and busts down the door.  So far no one has been killed yet, but this illustrates how powerful we've let the Internet become.   And don't think it can't happen to you, just because it hasn't happened.... yet.

The problem for the victims of these types of online rumor attacks is that if you respond to them, it only makes them worse.   Any response will raise the profile of the attack and pretty soon, people are just taking it for granted that what was said was true.   It is, in a way, The Children's Hour acted out in real life.

The problem also for the victims of these types of attacks is that it is expensive to sue the people who are making these attacks - if you can even find them.   Even if found and criminal charges brought, they may only get a slap on the wrist.  Since most of these types of attacks originate on the Internet, the anonymity of the Internet prevents you from finding out who is behind it.  And it may be Russian trolls behind this stuff, for all we know.   Even if you could find them, you'd have a hard time suing or serving them them - in Russia.

What is interesting about reading the posts and tweets and whatnot related to this case is that the people posting messages seem to know that the allegations aren't true.   That isn't the point.  What they want to do is force this guy to close his pizza shop so that they "win" by crushing the ex-boyfriend of a guy who used to work on the Hillary campaign (or had some tenuous connection to it).

This is the brave new world we have of "free speech" on the Internet.