Jewish Journal

How you can counter hate on the Web

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Jun. 12, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Abraham Foxman. Photo by Justin Hoch

Abraham Foxman. Photo by Justin Hoch

Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, is the Paul Revere of our era, and his latest call to arms is “Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet” (Palgrave Macmillan: $27). Co-written with Internet law expert Christopher Wolf, the book alerts us to the sewer of hatred that runs through cyberspace and exhorts us to do something about it.

“With each advance of Internet technology,” they write, “we have seen how anti-Semites, racists, anti-Islamists, homophobes, misogynists, anti-immigrants, and other kinds of haters have embraced the new technologies to spread their lies, to recruit, and to mislead.” 

The scale and speed of online hate speech have never been seen before. Hitler nurtured ambitions so ugly that they defy the imagination of civilized people, and yet the authors point out that “Hitler and the Nazis could never have dreamed of such an engine of hate.”  Precisely because, as they point out, “[e]veryone can be a publisher, even the most vicious anti-Semite, racist, [or] purveyor of hatred,” and “it takes just one ‘friend of a friend’ to infect a circle of hundreds or thousands of individuals with weird, hateful lies that may go unchallenged, twisting minds in unpredictable ways.”

That’s the real danger.  Online hate speech “does not kill directly,” they argue, “but…its effects can be lethal.” The man who murdered a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. in 2009, they point out by way of example, maintained a Web site “where he touted and provided excerpts from his self-published book denying the Holocaust and lauding Hitler.”  And he was connected by hyperlinks, bulletin boards, and chatrooms with “a virtual online fan club that cheered on his vicious thinking.”

Not all of the examples cited by Foxman and Wolf are rooted in the hatred of Jews.  They also explore the notorious anti-Islamic video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which figured in the riots and demonstrations that spread through Egypt, Iran, Libya and Yemen in the days and hours before the terrorist attack on the Bengazi consulate.  Indeed, it was only after loss of life in Bengazi that YouTube finally decided to pull the video from its global website, and Google soon followed. By then it was too late to debunk the lies that have attached themselves to the video in hearts and minds across the Middle East.

The agonizing problem at the heart of “Viral Hate” is the friction between the cherished traditions of the First Amendment and the unsettling new opportunities for hate speech on the Internet.  Foxman and Wolf carefully construct an argument that some forms of expression on the Internet should be viewed as “a form of impermissible conduct, not just speech,” which would empower the U.S. government to do something about these excesses just as some other countries have done.

Ironically, the First Amendment frustrates the efforts of those foreign governments that are willing to censor the Internet. “The borderless nature of the Internet means that, like chasing cockroaches, squashing one offending website, page, or service provider does not solve the problem,” the authors write. “Moreover, given that the United States, with its First Amendment, is essentially a safe haven for virtually all Web content, removing content or shutting down a website in Europe or Canada through legal channels is far from a guarantee that the contents have been censored for all time.”

Foxman and Wolf prefer a private-enterprise solution to online hate speech, which neatly avoids the First Amendment, and they call on the “gatekeepers of the Internet” — Web hosting companies, search engines, social media sites, and Web site operators — to “cease providing a technological platform to purveyors of hate.” If Google, for example, used its famously powerful algorithms to identify and block sites where hate speech is offered, “in a short while hate filled messages would all but disappear from our collective consciousness.”

Above all, and happily, the authors are advocates of what they call “counter-speech.”  They envision a new era in cyberspace in which “unbiased, fact-based” content is made readily available “on the same basis and in the same location as the hateful speech to which it responds,” a strategy that draws on search engine optimization and thus requires the cooperation of private enterprise but does not censor hate speech per se. Indeed, “Viral Hate” ends with a call to action in which every reader can participate.

“Each of us should take responsibility to combat hate-filled content,” they conclude. “Freedom of speech doesn’t include freedom from disagreement or even public rebuke — and those who peddle hate speech deserve public rebuke, ridicule, and condemnation.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).  Kirsch will be featured in conversation with Louise Steinman in the ALOUD public lecture program at the Los Angeles Central Library on Tuesday, June 18, at 7:30 p.m.  For tickets and information, visit http://www.lfla.org/event-detail/859/A-Boy-Avenger-a-Nazi-Diplomat-and-a-Murder-in-Paris.

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