Free Speech

Robby Soave on the New York Times / Slate Star Codex Controversy


I thought the piece ("The New York Times's Inconsistent Standards Drove Slate Star Codex To Self-Cancel") was thoughtful and sober, and I suspect correct, so I thought I'd pass along a link.

Note that there isn't anything tortious or otherwise illegal about the New York Times' plan to identify Slate Star Codex's author. There's no general law against "doxxing," which is good because there's no really clear definition of "doxxing" (at least outside the narrowest ones, which focus on publishing highly private and almost always irrelevant information, such as social security numbers or bank account numbers). But it is good to think about when identifying a pseudonymous author is the right call.

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  1. That’s not…exactly…true..all the time in all situations.

    So, the ability of supporters of a position to hide their identity to avoid persecution is not an unknown position. The most famous case here of course is NAACP v Alabama.

    This protected the privacy of those who supported the NAACP from government demands for their identity. The fear here was, of course, that revealing their identity would subject its members to threats, reprisals, coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility.

    Likewise, in today’s “cancel” culture, those individuals who are insufficiently shielded from the ability of a select few twitter mob members from “shutting them down” may need their privacy to secure and maintain their livelyhood. “Doxxing” promises to reveal them, and provides a threat, thus suppressing free speech. Like NAACP v Alabama, it may be that they should be protected from the mob.

  2. This situation is a little odd. Scott Alexander’s real name isn’t hard to find on the Internet. But starting with Scott ______, the psychiatrist, there’s no ready path from the real name to the blog and pseudonym. So right now, Scott’s patients don’t have a good way to make the connection (unless they’re SSC readers and suspect he might be that guy). But as soon as the connection shows up in a NYTimes piece, that’ll be one of the first google hits on his real name and it’s over. So this is as much signal boosting as doxxing — which something that he wrote about on SSC:

  3. Slate Star Codex was a pretty mild blog. Usually dedicated to really really long form articles that were borderline unreadable unless you had some type of attention disorder. Could find the occasion gem in there though. The comment section was similarly unreadable, but again if you had the mental capacity to focus on reading 700 of them you could find the occasional diamond in the rough. More then once a comment in that blog led me to a primary source I would have never found.

    Many will miss the SSC. Probably I will miss its archives the most. Lots of great stuff in there. If I was stumped on a research project I would give it a search and usually find at least one useful lead.

    1. Some of the old comment sections were jovially hilarious. A lot of people got the banhammer, rightfully, but were monarchists. Which is fun to read about in the abstract.

      1. Some good insomnia reading was his ban log. It was unclear as to why about 60% of the people ultimately were banned. But the other 40% were pretty hilarious.

  4. “There’s no general law against “doxxing,” which is good because there’s no really clear definition of “doxxing” (at least outside the narrowest ones, which focus on publishing highly private and almost always irrelevant information, such as social security numbers or bank account numbers.”

    There have been various laws regarding intentional intimidation of speakers, and/or attempts to harm somebody’s livelihood…though it’s unclear where the lines are, as boycotts themselves can be free speech. It does seem different when it’s against an individual rather than a company, but perhaps there’s a better limiting principle than that…

    It raises an interesting broader question: In what respects could “cancel culture” be legally restrained? Could employers be banned from firing people in response to social media campaigns? Could social media companies be banned from showing posts about identifiable non-public individuals without their consent?

  5. “But it is good to think about when identifying a pseudonymous author is the right call.”

    A prominent writer’s real name?

    An actor’s real (or assumed) age?

    What is the meaningful distinction?

    1. The meaningful distinction is that in the case of the actor’s age, we were talking about a state government ban on publishing that information. With Scott Alexander, we’re talking about social norms — nobody is arguing that it is (or should be) illegal for the NY Times to publish his real name.

      1. That is a good point.

        I have not seen a substantial fraction of the criticism directed at the Times being aimed at IMDB, though.

        1. I feel partially that the loss here is a source of speech, and by this publishing (itself speech) we have a conflict of freedom of speech. And some circles believe that such publishing is absolutely crucial provided it doesn’t shut down speech.

        2. That’s probably because all the actors in the IMDB have public biographies, so if you’re even slightly curious about their age you can find it without any trouble. Makes prohibiting one particular platform from stating it kind of pointless, and pointless restrictions of speech are inherently unconstitutional if on the part of state actors.

          Quite different from the level of work you’d have to put in to find this blog publisher’s full name just starting from the blog.

  6. Given the extreme and universal condemnation of doxxing in today’s culture, it might be sufficient nowadays to qualify as behavior “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”

  7. “almost always irrelevant information, such as social security numbers or bank account numbers”
    How in the world can EV say that thee are largely irrelevant given the many instances of identity theft based on exactly such information?

    1. I think he means irrelevant to the story being told, not irrelevant, obviously, to the person bring exposed.

      1. Nonstopdrivel: You think correctly.

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