CCR Symposium: Risk Perception and Online Speech
I want to join the other participants in this symposium in congratulating Danielle for putting together such a terrific article. As James G. writes, Danielle frames a compelling case for thinking about online harassment as a civil rights problem, an approach both novel and bracing.
Back in March, Danielle put up a post on Trivializing Women’s Harms: The Story of Cyber Gender Harassment. That post attracted commentators, and links, who vigorously disputed both the seriousness of the risk posed by online speech and the (lightness) of the burden that she suggested be placed on anonymous speech. Were we not controlling the comment threads on these posts relatively carefully, we’d see a similar level of skepticism, expressed in vivid, personal, terms. But why would this be? Why aren’t the risks that the online “speech” pose as obvious to our commentators as they are to Daneille and others on this blog?
The reason isn’t because partisans (like the ACLU, whose inconsistency is remarked by Ann Bartow), or free speech advocates, are deliberately conforming their views of risk to their personal interests or ideological positions. Rather, as cultural cognition theory predicts, “individuals are disposed selectively to accept or dismiss risk claims in a manner that expresses their cultural values.” Persons of hierarchical and individualistic orientations will worry more about being rendered defenseless by gun control; egalitarians and communitarians will worry about the legacy of patriarchy and racism associated with guns and thus discount those risks. Similarly hierarchs will be worried about the risks of disorder following flight from the police; egalitarians will be more concerned about the risks of police oppression. And so on.
Applying the group-grid theory to the project of cyber risks suggests that individualists , who value markets and private ordering, might be disposed to discount the risks of online “mobs”, unless those mobs are directed at values of concern, like the right to be anonymous and free from regulation. By contrast, communitarians believe that individuals will interact with one another frequently, depend on one another, and that this mutual inter-dependence is a condition to be celebrated and supported. Thus, people of different cultural views will have distinct views of the risks of conduct & the benefits of regulation, and those views will (significantly) be less likely that you might think to respond to new sets of “facts”. Perversely, arguing from facts my accent, not ameliorate, dissension between individuals holding different values.
What, then, is to be done to convince the individualists that their values aren’t under assault and that the risks of online mobs are severe enough to warrant some form of regulation? Danielle suggests that framing this as a civil rights problem would serve a valuable “normative and expressive role.” The danger, I think, is that many will respond, as does Orin Kerr here, by suggesting that there are competing norms and expressed values in play. It’s a serious problem, and I don’t have the answers. But I do think that being more generous & attentive to those holding different values is an important part of coming to consensus, and thus I’m really pleased with the respect and collegiality demonstrated in this symposium so far.