for legal reasons,

this is a joke

Here’s a bit of a brainteaser: Can you solve the secret phrase?

I know, I know, it could really be anything. Would you like a hint?

You’re still stumped? No worries. Vanna, can we throw a few letters up on the board?

By now, I hope you’ve solved the puzzle.

As an unemployed person who a hiring manager might google, I am going to stop short of saying “I hope he dies” publicly — but I will note that many people whose perspectives I appreciate and often agree with are saying that they hope he dies and are expressing a bit of glee, given the president’s suffering at the hands of virus he chose not to do anything to stop the spread of and which has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and upended millions of lives in this country.

Do you see what I did there? I didn’t say “I hope he dies” but I’m preeettttyy sure you know where I stand on the matter. This is what some experts might call a loophole, and it allows me to maintain plausible deniability.

There are many improvised, user-generated loopholes on the internet. One of the most famous that you’re probably familiar with is a curious phrase calledNo copyright intended.

This disclaimer is at the bottom of, at this point, millions of YouTube videos. The phrase is shorthand for, “I don’t own this content, and I want to acknowledge that I don’t own it before I post it here anyway.” I’m not a lawyer, but speaking as someone who did take precisely one class on online copyright at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society in 2009, I am pretty sure this disclaimer is useless. Copyright is granted automatically upon the creation of a work. The owner doesn’t need to register it (although it helps to do so if you’re a large company). A user does not need to intend copyright infringement to commit copyright infringement. In fact, posting this disclaimer is a literal acknowledgement that the infringer knows they are doing something wrong and has chosen to do it anyway. It does more harm than good.

And yet it persists, partly through the momenutm of years, but mostly because people broadly understand that this country is (supposedly) governed by laws and it’s better to acknowledge that those laws exist preemptively. In other words: it’s handy to let others know that you know that we live in a society.

“Hey, you’re doing an illegal thing.”

“Well, you caught me. I didn’t mean to do an illegal thing but I anticipated this objection. I will stop doing my illegal thing.”

While “no copyright intended” is still going strong on YouTube, I’ve noticed another phrase with a similar function on TikTok: “For legal reasons, this is a joke.” Which is, itself, oddly enough, a joke.

There is a long history of using “just joking” as an excuse to get away with anything online. Maybe someone is just doing a prank, or a social experiment, maybe they are just being ironic for effect. Maybe they are actually a white supremacist and slowly inching that perspective into acceptable discourse by claiming to be joking whenever anyone presses them on it. The TikTok meme of this is particularly illuminating though because the added reference to our legal system points to a particular rot online.

“For legal reasons, this is a joke” was mainly popularized by PewDiePie, the embattled, extremely popular YouTuber who has repeatedly found himself facing credible accusations of anti-semitism and racism over the past few years. He’s apologized many times for envelope-pushing antics, and then immediately undermined those apologies with further antics. Because he is very famous and very rich, his reference to “for legal reasons” makes some sense. It also acts as a nod to the fact that it would be very easy for someone who does not know him well to misinterpret a PewDiePie video.

But why, then, might a relatively unknown TikTok user — who has almost no legal exposure — deploy this phrase? It’s because they are confusing (or at least, equating) TikTok with the government. TikTok is a curated affair more than most other megaplatforms. The company has not been shy about its goal to be an upbeat place, free political strife and harassment. To that end, TikTok’s early community moderation guidelines minimized the visibility of poor users and users who were not conventionally attractive, and these rules reveal TikTok’s friendly environment full of beautiful people to be a work of artifice and discriminatory policy rather than a natural product of a community left to its own devices.

Because TikTok’s moderation is so aggressive, and mysterious, and arbitrary, users have fallen on the “this is a joke” disclaimer. It serves multiple functions. It acts as a limp disclaimer to anyone who might object — particularly third-party moderators hired by TikTok sitting in a depressing cubicle in a non-descript office building — that this might not be a serious statement. It also acts as a warning to viewers that the content might disappear. Whereas YouTube had “no copyright intended,” TikTok has “no offense intended.”

Twitter avatar for @AuschwitzMuseumAuschwitz Memorial @AuschwitzMuseum
He wrote: 'For legal reasons this is a joke' What about moral reasons & respect? Would he look into the eyes of Survivors liberated by @USArmy and tell them this? Nathan, if you see this, take this lesson to learn why you hurt real people & their memory:… Image

Paul Szoldra @PaulSzoldra

2nd Lt. Nathan Freihofer, a popular TikTok influencer with nearly 3 mil followers, posted a joke about the holocaust. “If you get offended, get the fuck out because it’s a joke,” he says. May be contrary to Army's “Think, Type, Post” social media policy, but hey what do I know

It doesn’t help that more than any other platform, TikTok’s relationship to the truth is basically non-existent. Basic contextual information, like timestamps on posts to show when they were created, is hidden from the viewer on the “For You” page. Determining whether a user is lipsyncing to other audio or using their own is a relatively simple process but one that many viewers might not undertake at all. TikTok wants users to keep scrolling, without getting bogged down in superflouous details like “intent” or “context” — and so TikTok is designed to make it nearly impossible to determine intent or context

That platform users feel the need to put joking-but-not-really legal disclaimers on their posts is a result of the platforms themselves. Platforms love to invoke what lawyer Kendra Albert calls “legal talismans.” Twitter and Facebook have no obligation to protect free speech, because they are not the state, and yet they defend leaving awful shit up because of it. They can take things down arbitrarily at any time (and often do), and users have little recourse. They can also leave things up arbitrarily — a behavioral trend that made Twitter’s prohibition against wishing Trump ill instantly laughable, given its track record. Many platforms prohibit defamation, but as Albert points out, it is next to impossible for the hourly content moderator halfway around the globe to determine if something is defamation under U.S. law. Platforms have “borrowed the language of rights to legitimize arbitrary rules,” as John Herrman put it in the New York Times. And so users have developed their own versions of legal talismans to push back, explicitly identifying jokes on TikTok, toothlessly claiming fair use on YouTube, and so on and so forth. If platforms are going to make legalistic arguments, then users are going to throw some right back.

All of this behavior, from platforms and users, is the result of aggressive centralization and subsequent context collapse. Nuance and subtlety doesn’t work on large platforms where anyone might be talking to anyone else about anything all the time — and their comments might then be introduced to different audiences. In private group chats, users don’t usually have to clarify whether or not they’re joking. And when there is confusion, accountable moderators are there to sort it out and make a judgement call.

I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s a lot less of a headache to hope he dies in private than it is in public. Probably. I haven’t done it. I’m joking.


Thank you for reading BNet. Let that sink in.