My Fever-Induced Thoughts on The Count Dankula Ruling

Warning: I am currently fighting the flu, which is why I’m posting this here instead of making a video. I’m pretty sure some of the stuff that follows is stuff I’d edit out if I was less ill.

I’ve decided to write out my thoughts here instead of repeating the same things to multiple people who have asked my opinion. The latest “hot take” scorching the internet is the case of a YouTuber who goes by Count Dankula teaching his girlfriend’s dog to do a Nazi salute. He’s been convicted of “gross offensiveness” and “hate speech” under Scottish law, because in 2016 he decided to make a video with the primary purpose of upsetting his girlfriend, complete with images of Hitler and comments like “gas the Jews”.

He claimed this was all just a joke.

Declaration of potential personal bias time: I have a comedy background. I’ve had broadcast standards rulings made against me. But those rulings didn’t involve a criminal conviction – the TV station just had to put up a message between shows apologizing for causing offense. I think that the Canadian system for dealing with this sort of thing seems much more commensurate with the harm caused. Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for YouTube. Perhaps there should be.

I’m also Jewish. Some people think I’m a “fake” Jew, or that I don’t “look Jewish”, but when it comes down to it, I have personal investment in both sides of the fallout of Count Dankula’s thoroughly foolish behaviour.  I’ve heard the family stories of suffering in the Holocaust.

I also tend to get annoyed when people train animals that aren’t theirs to do annoying crap.  It’s disrespectful and rude.  I’ve had people do that with my dog, and retraining the dog is a huge pain in the ass.

So I think that Count Dankula, legal name, Markus Meechan, is a complete asshole. As the sheriff in his case pointed out, he knew what he did was offensive, and he knew why it was offensive. He did it anyway. To be an asshole.

There was no greater purpose to his stupid behaviour, so the people online comparing him to political dissidents with an actual point… you’re assholes too. When entertainers like Howard Stern deliberately cause offense, they’re in service to a higher cause: when Stern got fined over a conversation about masturbating to pictures of Aunt Jemima, but NOT when he said he hoped the FCC chair’s prostate cancer came back, people started to realize that the FCC rules were flamingly ridiculous.

That’s a valid challenge to free speech norms. Sometimes, free speech rules are set by assholes. And that’s how I feel about the laws in Scotland. Serving jail time for bigotry doesn’t make someone less of a bigot. Shit, the gangs in jail organize along race lines.

I mean, just read this law. It’s an asshole law:

Section 1(1) of the 1988 Act (as amended by section 43(1) of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001) provides that:
“Any person who sends to another person (a) a letter, electronic communication or article of any description which conveys (i) a message which is . . . grossly offensive . . . is guilty of an offence if his purpose, or one of his purposes, in sending it is that it should . . . cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person to whom he intends that it or its contents or nature should be communicated”.

Meechan is clearly in contravention of this law. He put the video on YouTube to intensify the distress and embarrassment that his “prank” would cause his girlfriend. Even though he only had eight subscribers at the time, he was creating conditions to have those eight subscribers, and anyone they chose to share with, participate in committing a cruel act against his girlfriend by teaching her dog antisocial behaviours.

I repeat. Meechan is an asshole. And this is an asshole law.
Because it’s an asshole law, the judge in the case is correct: no additional context really matters.  Interestingly, if Meechan had just trained the dog to do a Nazi salute, and NOT used YouTube — an electronic form of communication — the law would not have applied. It’s only illegal because he violated the Malicious Communications Act.

Apparently the law would also have protected the speech of one Anti-Semite talking to another Anti-Semite through, say, private email. If you’re communicating with someone who you know shares your views, you have no intent to offend.

So this guy managed to get convicted of a crime where a legitimate defense would have been that he actually did hate Jews, and was just talking to other people who hate Jews, so he didn’t know he was being offensive.

Seriously, how does someone fuck up THAT badly?  Oh, right, he put his hazarai on YouTube.

Meechan is a grown-ass man living under U.K. law. When a grown-ass man decides to become a YouTuber, he assumes a responsibility to obey the laws where he lives. If that grown-ass man breaks the law, he is subject to the punishments under that law. It doesn’t matter if he AGREES with that law.  Those are the rules, asshole.

In a rational and just world, we shouldn’t need laws preventing giant acts of assholedom. Unfortunately, people throughout history have been such massive assholes that some thoroughly asshole laws have ended up on the books.

The question of whether the law is just, however, is far more complicated. We can’t let unjust laws stand just because the unjust law only applies to assholes. Prison is full of assholes, and all prison often does is makes them into bigger assholes, due to close proximity with other assholes.

At first, I thought this was a simple issue: I couldn’t see a situation where a video that didn’t involve child exploitation, sex trafficking, or blackmail could really be criminal.

But then I thought “Am I just saying this because that video, did, in fact, bother me? So I’m going out of my way to show I can handle it? Am I being a stupid asshole here too?”

So I sat my own ass down and thought about it.

The more I thought about it, the more I started thinking about the purpose of free speech laws, and whether Meechan’s behaviour falls into the realm of a free speech exception: speech with the principle purpose of creating unnecessary panic, otherwise known as “falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater”.

I’m still not entirely sure about this avenue of thought. Like I said, I have the flu. But I can’t entirely shake the idea that there might be something here.

The thinking is that if there actually IS a fire in a theater, you’re yelling “fire” to protect someone from a real threat. If there’s no fire, you’re creating the conditions for a stampede, therefore creating a potentially dangerous situation where one previously did not exist.

The sorts of Anti-Semitic content that Meechan put on YouTube doesn’t just offend people. It makes some people lose their freaking minds. Yes, some people are just too sensitive and look for things to be offended by, but the PTSD suffered by survivors of the Holocaust was found to have biologically altered the stress hormones of their children. So one person’s “too sensitive” is another person’s transgenerational trauma.

You poke at that trauma, you can induce panic. Panic can cause a stampede.

We know that online stampedes can and do occur, and that they cause psychological harm to the people who get trampled. In Meechan’s case, those who see Anti-Semitism, even of the casual kind, as a serious social problem, and those who believe in free speech rights above all else, are currently trampling each other online because they’re panicking over their pet causes. They’re so afraid that their way of life is under threat that they don’t care who they stomp as they race to their moral high grounds.

We need to start thinking about YouTube as a very crowded public theater, because that’s exactly what it is. And it’s not even the sort of theater that can inform an audience of content with disclaimers before you buy your ticket, because of YouTube’s faulty autoplay and recommendation features. I think YouTube’s brain trust is a bunch of assholes too, but I’ve made numerous videos about that. Let’s stay on topic here.

When you do something on a “crowded theater” platform like YouTube that you can reasonably expect to cause an extreme reaction, you’re yelling fire in that crowded theater. You’re doing something calibrated to make people freak out. The interesting thing about Meechan’s case is that he didn’t realize how crowded his theater actually was. He thought there were only eight people in it, but he didn’t realize that was only the row he and his friends were sitting in. Three million views later, he’d caused an online stampede.

Anyone who thinks it’s harmless fun to upload Anti-Semitic content to YouTube is probably living in a pretty serious echo chamber, which is where stampedes are more likely to form. Jews are seen, by both the extreme Right and the extreme Left, as a privileged Other, and both political extremes continue to sweep religious hate crime statistics under the rug. In the US, UK, and Canada, Anti-Semitism is the most common driver of religious hate crime by a sizable margin, more common even than the much ballyhooed Islamophobia. Precisely because discussions of the Middle East are such a powder keg, any fanning of those flames could cause an already simmering conflict to boil over.

So inciting that sort of fighting is profoundly reckless. The police need tools to keep the public peace.

This is why, for many people, the idea that someone could say something Anti-Semitic as a joke while not actually being at least a little bit Anti-Semitic is too big of a leap in logic. In order to understand the dynamics at play, you need to understand the “shitposting” culture of which Meechan claims to be a professional.

Shitpost culture grew out of the frustration that some people had with the perceived speech police of internet culture. They formed communities such as 4Chan where they could “shitpost”, within a complex structure of advance consent to offend. The social conditions on the /b/ board which allowed pretty much everything but child pornography, were not the same as on /pol/ — short for “politically incorrect”, with the racist and sexist speech that came with that concept. The thing about 4Chan was that everyone went to 4Chan knowing full well what to expect.

In 2014, the “shitposting’ culture of 4Chan “broke containment” due to some reactionary changes to the way the various boards were moderated. Disgruntled 4Chan users poured into services like Twitter and YouTube which professed to be platforms devoted to free speech. Unfortunately, Twitter and YouTube had very different ideas of what constituted free speech than users of 4Chan did, and the social media culture wars went crazy. This has – allow me to exercise my free speech right to moderately offend – led to an online environment that shit the bed, ate that shit, contracted dysentery from that shit, has been crapping out liquid dysentery ever since, and is now close to dying like a character in the Oregon Trail.

Returning to seriousness, we are at very real risk of completely losing sight of what free speech protections are designed to do.  If we lose sight of those goals, legitimate authoritarians can claw back our free speech protections by giving us the perception of freedom instead of the real stuff.

Free speech protections serve to create a truly free and open society where people can speak truth to power without government persecution. Free speech protections are designed to create an open marketplace of ideas, so the truth can emerge from diverse opinions. Free speech doesn’t protect threats or defamation because they don’t serve an open marketplace of ideas. They’re the dysentery someone shit into the well.

So think of 4Chan as an online town where the water supply is a well with dysentery. For some reason, the people who go to that town find diarrhea of the keyboard to be fun, so they deliberately drink from the dysentery well so they can fling shit at each other like nuclear powered gorillas.

This is the essence of “shitposting”. Sometimes, it just feels good to have a good shit. On 4Chan this isn’t crossing the threshold of falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater, because everyone’s yelling fire, and everyone knows there ain’t no damned fire. It’s more like watching TV at home, where you can yell at the screen all you want, then yelling in a theater.

Hitler is generally seen as one of those things you can’t yell in an online theater because it causes a stampede. Which is why shitposters LOVE Hitler memes. On 4Chan, that’s fine. Meechan’s problem was that he took his “professional shitposter” routine onto a platform where shitposting isn’t appropriate, and in doing so caused an online panic through a deliberately offensive act.

I agree that it’s a little too easy to cause panic online these days, but we’re all aware it’s a reality. When you’re in a crowded theater and you falsely yell “fire”, then claim you only said it to make your friends laugh, that is NOT a defense.

Now, here’s the catch. Yelling fire is only exempted from free speech if there’s no fire, so if Meechan was a legitimate Anti-Semite, there would have been some defense for his comments.

As crazy as that sounds, it’s true.

The most virulent Anti-Semite, Islamophobe, transphobe, homophobe, or white supremacist has the right to express their views – within the confines of the laws of various lands, of course. Letting people express their hate is the only way that the rest of us can point out the flaws in that sort of bigoted thinking. This doesn’t mean that bigots should be allowed onto various media services, because they’re privately owned and therefore have the right to set their own rules. It just means that we generally agree that someone shouldn’t go to jail just because they’re a bigot.

So if you legitimately hate Jews, if you think we’re an actual fire that will burn your pure goyishe friends and family, have at it. Sound your alarms. That’s free speech. You’re wrong, but perhaps if you’re able to spill your guts, you’ll eventually encounter something that will let you stop being so afraid, and actually, finally, be able to have a conversation and broaden your horizons so you stop being such an asshole.

In fact, I’m religiously required to listen to your hateful nonsense if I think I can help, or if listening will stop you from actually harming another person. The Torah treats speech as a holy gift, so Jews are compelled to speak and hear truth, even unpopular truth. However, gossip and slander are seen as great transgressions, so the minute someone starts spewing bullshit just to “shitpost”, all bets are off.

At first, it may seem counter-intuitive to see legitimate hate as less transgressive than saying hateful things you don’t mean, but that’s the beauty that’s found in the complexity of the Torah. People who are driven by hate and fear can still be part of a meaningful, legitimate, productive conversation. They might learn something. You might learn something about the nature of fear from them.

You can’t, on the other hand, have a productive conversation with someone who is just spewing stuff for attention. It’s a waste of time.

This is completely in line with the purpose of free speech protections: that marketplace of ideas only functions to seek truth if it isn’t poisoned by people spewing lies. Therefore, saying “I’m not an Anti-Semite, I just said something Anti-Semitic as a joke that I didn’t really mean,” is no defence. You’re polluting the free marketplace of ideas with insincere crap.

Now the big question: what to do about Meechan’s utterly stupid and, according to the laws where he lives, illegal behaviour. As I said before, I don’t think it does the public any good to put him in jail: I believe that jail is for mental and physical adults, which is precisely why I don’t think someone who calls himself “Count Dankula” should be in jail for any non-violent crime.

Nor do I think that taking away the internet from him forever is appropriate, because that doesn’t teach him anything. His twitter feed currently reads “going to jail for a joke”, and “I’m not a Nazi but my dog is.” which shows that he’s learned absolutely nothing from his court proceedings.  Stop with the fershnickered Nazi meshugas.  Oy.

In a just world, Meechan will now have to somehow confront the inherent immaturity that made him think that putting openly Anti-Semitic content on a public service was a harmless activity to anyone but his girlfriend. Perhaps if he actually talked to survivors of the Holocaust, or their families, who could tell him about the ongoing trauma they experience because of the Nazis, he would think it was far less funny to claim his dog is one. Mandated community service would be one way to do this.

Or perhaps Meechan should have to compensate other YouTubers who have suffered extreme financial losses because of idiots like him and Pew Die Pie and Logan Paul, due to the YouTube adpocalypse that happened because a relative few YouTubers acted like idiots and YouTube panicked. YouTubers who play by the rules don’t get the public sympathy that comes with huge amounts of press, as well as the accompanying petitions and fundraisers.

The people who are now struggling to make a living because their ad revenue took a hit don’t find any of this funny. If the assholes get fined, YouTube can afford to pay out more in ad revenues to the content creators who play by the rules. Everybody wins. If Markus Meechan or anyone else believes strongly enough in what they’re doing to continue to rack up hefty fines, let them do it. They’re willing to pay the costs of running their mouths. Call it the Howard Stern model.

But I actually think that fines would make these guys behave better than jail time, because fines seem real, whereas jail seems absurd.

Or how about court mandated therapy? That’s probably the most productive option. Something left this guy damaged enough to make a series of truly terrible life choices. Like the people in jail for minor drug convictions, jail isn’t the place for Markus Meechan. It serves no public good, wastes public money, and gives him the thing he seems to crave most: legitimacy. He doesn’t deserve it.

Because he’s an asshole.

On Editors’ Roles in Faulty Games Journalism

There’s a hidden part of the games writing process – all writing, in fact –that creates headaches for both games journalists and fans alike.  I’m speaking of the editing process, wherein a third party, who is essentially unaccountable for their words, has a great deal of power over the content of the final article.  An editor can make changes, deletions, and additions to the original article which can change its meaning, and these changes are then published as the author’s words, sometimes without the author seeing the changes.

The process of working with a skilled, attentive editor is a joy.   It makes a writer’s work better, and every professional writer wants to keep getting better.  However, most editors are rushed, and take shortcuts that eliminate communication with the writer.  Many editors in games end up being an uncredited rewriter, leaving a writer on the hook for views they don’t actually hold.

A simple example from a recent encounter with an editor was a comment I made about superheroes too often turning into Hitler-wannabes, a reference to the Avengers scene with Loki and Captain America where some extra makes a direct reference to World War II.  An editor decided he didn’t want to “Godwin” the article, so he changed the line from “Hitler-wannabes” to “strongmen”.  The resulting comment made no sense.  Why the hell would I complain about superheroes being strongmen?  Superheroes are inherently strongmen.  They’re superheroes!

Had that article gone to print, I would have been stuck with an extremely stupid comment on my record.

One very serious change of this sort did end up in a national newspaper where an editor inserted a gamergate reference I had not made.  When my twitter blew up with people screaming at me, I had no idea what was going on.  It wasn’t until I checked the printed version of the article that I saw the change.  I was, understandably, furious, but it was fairly impotent fury.  All I could do was ask nicely for the comment to be removed.  I had no power.  Fortunately, the comment was removed… from the online edition.  The print copy couldn’t be changed, so it’s still out there.

After the line was removed, accusations started that I was passing off accountability on others.  People thought I was blaming an editor because I caught hell.  There was nothing I could do.  I knew what the truth was, but I couldn’t prove it.  I had no record of the changes because everything had happened so fast.  I’m paranoid, but not that paranoid.

One may wonder what an editor was thinking, throwing a unwitting games journalist into the middle of an ugly fight like gamergate.  And I wish I could say it happened only once.  Depending on the source you check, I’m either “clearly pro-gamergate” or “secretly anti-gamergate”, when in fact I was just a reporter looking to talk to credible sources on both sides.  At some point, the anti-gamergate side determined I was the enemy and refused to speak to me, so I gathered the facts I could because it was clearly a story people cared about.  Some folks on the pro-gamergate side tried to do the same thing, but a core group within those ranks made a point of keeping dialogue open, even though they didn’t like what I was saying a lot of the time.

I think it’s wrong to try to shame and blackmail journalists into backing away from something that requires unbiased documentation.  A journalist’s job is to talk to people.  Sometimes that means talking to people with whom you disagree, or even people you find disgusting.  The only reason to shut that down is if you believe a source is deliberately feeding you false information in an attempt to pollute the public record.

The thing is, editors and activists do these misguided things thinking they’re helping.  Unlike the reporters, they have no direct contact with the information that’s been collected, and in this vacuum, it’s very easy to alter things in a way that makes the story inaccurate.  The editor is then the one that makes the decision to issue a correction.  The reporter can make their case, but ultimately has no say.  A good editor makes a reporter better.  Not-so-good editors crush an eager reporter’s spirit.  This isn’t just true in gaming.  The turnover rate in media is high for a reason.

I’ve been on the other end of this as a subject of articles, especially during my TV days.  When I first took over as co-host of Ed and Red’s Night Party!, a supportive reporter offered to help promote the first female co-host in the history of the show.  In the editing process, a single word was changed in the first paragraph of the article that took a totally benign introduction and turned it into an implication that I’d gotten the job via the casting couch.  I was furious and the journalist was mortified.  He sent me the original story he’d written, which was actually radically different from what went to press.  The offending line wasn’t the only change.  The editor had gutted the article to shorten the word count.

It’s things like this that make journalists so cynical, and so seemingly uncaring when a mistake is made.  There’s nothing we can do about this part of the process.  If we complain too much, we lose work because we’re “trouble”.  Similarly, when you’re ahead of the curve in media, and you become so used to being picked apart that you become deaf to some criticisms that may actually be useful, simply due to the sheer amount of criticism you receive on a given day.  You can’t take all of it to heart.  An editor or producer is supposed to be someone you can trust to steer you in the right direction.  Sadly, that’s not the reality of many people in the media.

These issues are some of the reasons I’ve stepped away from games journalism and became an analyst instead.  I feel like I can do better work when my words aren’t filtered by a revolving door of editors I’ve never met in person.  I still do writing, but now I can walk away if my words aren’t my words, and I have a place where I can publish the original text of what I wrote.

On a human level, I also have empathy for other gamers who feel like they’re being unfairly depicted as monsters by their own enthusiast press.  I’ve found it’s too difficult to offer an alternative opinion under traditional media structures.  I can’t control how the establishment does business.  All I can do is inform people about what actually happens in the games press to the best of my ability.

I’m one of the few people in this business who has been on both sides of the media circus, so I know how infuriating and hurtful it is when the press gets it wrong, or worse, demonizes someone for clicks.  The thing that isn’t talked about enough is the fact that it often happens through broken telephone, not an intent to deceive.  It’s hard to believe how badly something can get warped, just through the intervention of an editor who wasn’t on the scene, or a producer who recuts a segment without sufficient knowledge of the facts.

Unless an editor is willing to explain a change to a writer, don’t make the change.  That sounds simple, but it’s harder than you think when everyone’s terrified of being fired because there are so many games professionals out of work.  It’s a system that’s made up of dogs eating dogs in a shark tank.

Forgive the circular sentence, but the games industry hurting is hurting the games industry.  It’s also hurting the games community, individual developers, and fans, and so we need to do better.  Talking to each other and being supportive professional partners isn’t the terrifying thing it’s made out to be.  Conflicts will happen; that’s okay as long as they’re properly resolved.  People make mistakes; that’s not an unforgiveable sin.

The things we can fix are the parts of games journalism that are structurally unaccountable, and structural issues can be addressed without assigning blame or fault.  The first step towards fixing this is to better inform the public regarding how games are made, and how articles get published.