July 12, 2013
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For the past few years speech has moved online, leading to fierce debates about its regulation. Most recently, feminists have led the charge to purge Facebook of misogyny that clearly violates its hate speech code. Facebook took a small step two weeks ago, creating a feature that will remove ads from pages deemed “controversial.” But such a move is half-hearted; Facebook and other social networking websites should not tolerate hate speech and, in the absence of a government mandate, adopt a European model of expunging offensive material.
Stricter regulation of Internet speech will not be popular with the libertarian-minded citizens of the United States, but it’s necessary. A typical view of such censorship comes from Jeffrey Rosen, who argues in The New Republic that,
"...given their tremendous size and importance as platforms for free speech, companies like Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Twitter shouldn’t try to be guardians of what Waldron calls a “well-ordered society”; instead, they should consider themselves the modern version of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s fractious marketplace of ideas—democratic spaces where all values, including civility norms, are always open for debate."
This image is romantic and lovely (although misattributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who famously toed both lines on the free speech debate, instead of John Stuart Mill) but it’s worth asking what this actually looks like. Rosen forwards one example:
"Last year, after the French government objected to the hash tag “#unbonjuif”—intended to inspire hateful riffs on the theme “a good Jew ...”—Twitter blocked a handful of the resulting tweets in France, but only because they violated French law. Within days, the bulk of the tweets carrying the hashtag had turned from anti-Semitic to denunciations of anti-Semitism, confirming that the Twittersphere is perfectly capable of dealing with hate speech on its own, without heavy-handed intervention."
It’s interesting to note how closely this idea resembles free market fundamentalism: simply get rid of any coercive rules and the “marketplace of ideas” will naturally produce the best result. Humboldt State University
compiled a visual map that charts150,000 hateful insults aggregated over the course of 11 months in the U.S. by pairing Google
’s Maps API with a series of the most homophobic, racist and otherwise prejudiced tweets. The map's existance draws into question the notion that the “twittersphere” can organically combat hate speech; hate speech is not going to disappear from twitter on its own.
The negative impacts of hate speech do not lie in the responses of third-party observers, as hate speech aims at two goals. First, it is an attempt to tell bigots that they are not alone. Frank Collins —the neo-Nazi prosecuted in National Socialist Party of America v Skokie (1977) — said
, “We want to reach the good people, get the fierce anti-Semites who have to live among the Jews to come out of the woodwork and stand up for themselves."
The second purpose of hate speech is to intimidate the targeted minority, leading them to question whether their dignity and social status is secure. In many cases, such intimidation is successful. Consider the number of rapes that go unreported. Could this trend possibly be impacted by Reddit threads like /r/rapingwomen or /r/mensrights? Could it be due to the harassment
women face when they even suggest the possibility they were raped? The rape culture that permeates Facebook, Twitter and the public dialogue must be held at least partially responsible for our larger rape culture.
Reddit, for instance, has become a veritable potpourri of hate speech; consider Reddit threads like /r/nazi, /r/killawoman, /r/misogny, /r/killingwomen. My argument is not that these should be taken down because they are offensive, but rather because they amount to the degradation of a class that has been historically oppressed. Imagine a Reddit thread for /r/lynchingblacks or /r/assassinatingthepresident. We would not argue that we should sit back and wait for this kind of speech be “outspoken” by positive speech, but that it should be entirely banned.
American free speech jurisprudence relies upon the assumption that speech is merely the extension of a thought, and not an action. If we consider it an action, then saying that we should combat hate speech with more positive speech is an absurd proposition; the speech has already done the harm, and no amount of support will defray the victim’s impression that they are not truly secure in this society. We don’t simply tell the victim of a robbery, “Hey, it’s okay, there are lots of other people who aren’t going to rob you.” Similarly, it isn’t incredibly useful to tell someone who has just had their race/gender/sexuality defamed, “There are a lot of other nice people out there.”
Those who claim to “defend free speech” when they defend the right to post hate speech online, are in truth backwards. Free speech isn’t an absolute right; no right is weighed in a vacuum. The court has imposed numerous restrictions on speech. Fighting words, libel and child pornography are all banned. Other countries merely go one step further by banning speech intended to intimidate vulnerable groups. The truth is that such speech does not democratize speech, it monopolizes speech. Women, LGBTQ individuals and racial or religious minorities feel intimidated and are left out of the public sphere. On Reddit, for example, women have left
or changed their usernames to be more male-sounding
lest they face harassment
for speaking on Reddit about even the most gender-neutral topics.
Those who try to remove this hate speech have been criticized from left and right. At Slate, Jillian York writes, “While the campaigners on this issue are to be commended for raising awareness of such awful speech on Facebook’s platform, their proposed solution is ultimately futile and sets a dangerous precedent for special interest groups looking to bring their pet issue to the attention of Facebook’s censors.”