August 25, 2013 6:53 pm

How to hit back at the digital haters

‘Viral Hate’ by Abraham Foxman and Christopher Wolf is a call to balance free speech with curbs on online hatred

Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread On the Internet, by Abraham Foxman and Christopher Wolf, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£17.99, $27

 

Twitter and Facebook have become the arbiters of cultural trends: the power of the crowd can elevate a fleeting cause. Alternatively a mob – or just an amplified few – can take over, pushing a flood of abusive language into the public sphere.

Both social networks have recently fallen foul of the latter phenomenon, forcing them to balance corporate policies aimed at limiting abuse with the values of free expression they hold dear. The case of a feminist activist in Britain deluged with rape threats on Twitter, and the subsequent outrage, forced the site to revise its policy on abusive language this month.

The role of technology companies in setting the limits of free speech is explored in a distinctly opinionated book by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, a civil-rights group fighting anti-semitism, and Christopher Wolf, also of the ADL and a prominent internet lawyer. Their stance is clear: neo-Nazi sites denying the Holocaust and Facebook pages dedicated to rape “jokes”, and intolerant content in general, have no place on the internet.

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The authors describe the tools proponents of hate speech – whether racist, sexist, anti-semitic or homophobic – use to spread their messages. These include cloaked sites such as martinlutherking.org, a top-ranking site in Google search aimed at disparaging the civil rights leader, and KZ Manager, a video game that puts the player in charge of a concentration camp. “Turn over a single rock in this netherworld of the internet and you may be amazed at the number and variety of repellent attitudes and threats that suddenly become visible,” they write. “Links, viral emails, and ‘retweets’ enable lies to self-propagate with appalling speed.”

They contend that the amplification and spread of such speech online results in acts of physical violence. Here they strain to make a solid case, relying on the correlation of a white power site promoting racist attacks and the killing of three west Africans in Massachusetts, rather than demonstrating causation. In fact, the number of hate crimes in the US has fallen 29 per cent in the past 15 years, according to the most recent figures released by the FBI.

However, recent incidents where individuals have been threatened or harassed online – such as a US student who killed himself after a roommate recorded him on a date with a man then tweeted about it, or a 14-year-old British girl who committed suicide after being taunted on question-and-answer site Ask.fm – create a clear need to address the unique role the internet plays in such tragedies.

Though laws are evolving to address cyber bullying specifically, the authors acknowledge that blanket laws aimed at curbing online hate speech are imperfect: the line between that and censoring dissident political views is too fine. The borderless nature of the internet, and disparate legal systems, also make it nearly impossible to establish a unified approach. Several European countries have tailored laws banning particular kinds of speech. In Germany, for example, selling Mein Kampf is banned but residents can easily buy it from overseas e-commerce companies.

Most companies that host the hate speech under discussion are based in the US, where the right to free speech is heavily defended – and their corporate policies aim to mirror this. Rather than laws, “terms of service” agreements define appropriate online behaviour, with staff given the task of policing content. “The sense shared by many Americans that freedom of speech and of the press are (almost) absolute rights is absent in Europe and elsewhere,” the authors say.

Foxman and Wolf propose the creation of a co-ordinated advocacy lobby that would prevent the spread of hate speech online, while also respecting the principles of free speech. The ADL, along with other civil rights groups, engages with Silicon Valley executives. It has pressed Google to remove bigoted sites from near the top of search results, for example, and calls on news and social media sites to prohibit anonymous posts to reduce the inflammatory content that tends to accompany pseudonyms – with sometimes disastrous consequences, as in the Ask.fm case.

They also call on the online citizenry to fight back with “counter-speech”. UK women’s groups deployed this strategy in a Facebook campaign, sending screen shots of sexist pictures on the site to the companies whose adverts appeared alongside them, hitting the social network in the wallet.

Viral Hate is itself clearly intended as an act of counter-speech. It often reads like an impassioned appeal letter to potential ADL donors. Nonetheless, Foxman and Wolf have written a thorough, accessible work on how societal ills – and those fighting them – are adapting to the internet age.

The writer is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

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