For political dissidents, the Internet is a valuable way to spread messages traditional media demonize or ignore. It can also be used for organizing. The “Arab Spring” has even been called the “Twitter revolution.” Unpopular governments understandably want to clamp down on the Internet, but they are not alone.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has long fought what it considers Internet “hate.” As long ago as 1998, ADL Chairman Howard Berkowitz explained, “We are engaged in a full-blown battle against high-tech hate.” That battle continues under the ADL’s current director Abraham Foxman and its Civil Rights Chair Christopher Wolf, who recently co-authored a book, Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet.
On Wednesday, in a plush K Street office in Washington, DC, Mr. Wolf said the old adage that “words may never hurt me” is no longer true. He was taking part in a panel discussion— “Containing Viral Hate”—about his book.
Mr. Wolf explained that today, women live in fear of being raped because of “misogynistic online threats,” children stay home from school because of cyberbullying, and Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide because of a Tweet ridiculing him for being homosexual. Mr. Wolf said that “in the online world, words and pictures and videos and online games are infecting the world with a virus of hate that is a threat to people and to society.” In such an environment, Mr. Wolf believes free expression “doesn’t trump human dignity.”
Mr. Wolf has a personal perspective on hate. He claims that he has suffered from “hate” attacks, both as a homosexual and as a Jew. He believes, with his co-author, Mr. Foxman, that “the Holocaust didn’t begin with the ovens, it began with words.”
Mr. Wolf says that online “hate speech,” particularly in the comments sections of mainstream websites, is a kind of “pollution” that users consider the cost of free speech. The trouble with this attitude, he said, is that the ubiquity of “hate” gives readers—especially young ones—the impression that these ideas are ordinary and acceptable. Such speech must be silenced—but how?
Mr. Wolf rejects legal solutions—not because of the First Amendment or any principled stand for free expression, but because speech laws are “largely ineffective and even counterproductive.” Mr. Wolf pointed out that in much of Western Europe, it is illegal to question certain aspects of the Holocaust. While Mr. Wolf believes this is symbolically valuable, he says that prosecuting someone under these laws turns him into a martyr and his followers then distribute his work even more vigilantly. Furthermore, there’s no way law enforcement could monitor the torrent of information that goes online.
Mr. Wolf proposed three better ways to manage online “hate.” The first is community involvement and counter-speech. Mr. Wolf cited a Facebook event called “Kill a Jew Day.” In response, opponents formed a group called “One Million Strong Against Kill a Jew Day.”
Mr. Wolf praised another practice that is common on Twitter: Users retweet “offensive” posts, express their disgust, and draw negative attention to the offender. This is especially common when a celebrity or politician tweets something politically incorrect.
Many popular websites have “flagging” functions that let users alert moderators to offensive content. Mr. Wolf endorses this in principle, but noted that users often flag something just because they disagree with it.
The second strategy Mr. Wolf offered is intervention by what he calls “intermediaries”—Internet companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, or even Internet Service Providers that may host material some consider hateful. Mr. Wolf believes that “at minimum, the hosts of online content . . . should have clear terms of service prohibiting hate speech that they should have the staff and procedures in place to enforce.” Mr. Wolf says he respects “free expression,” but there is content “everyone can agree” crosses a line and should be removed.
Mr. Wolf explained that several state attorney generals have called for amending Section 230 of the Community Decency Act, which says Internet companies aren’t liable for offensive, user-generated content, and have no obligation to moderate it. Mr. Wolf would leave Section 230 alone, but says groups such as the ADL are already working with Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and others to get them to police the Internet voluntarily.
As an example, Mr. Wolf mentioned that one of the top Google search results for “Jew” is the website Jew Watch which Mr. Wolf called “virulently anti-Semitic.” The ADL approached Google about this and Google said it would not alter its search results. However, it promotes a free, sponsored link alongside the Jew Watch listing that leads to Google’s explanation of how it displays search results and also points to the ADL website.
Mr. Wolf cited another recent campaign in which women’s groups pressured Facebook to remove content they thought encouraged violence against women. One such posting was a photo of a battered woman with the caption “She broke my heart so I broke her nose.” The women’s groups browbeat Nissan, Dove, and other companies into pulling their advertising until Facebook removed the content. Facebook emphasized that it does not allow hate speech, which it defines as a “direct and serious” attacks against a “protected category of people,” but admitted its censorship was inadequate and promised to beef it up.
The third strategy Mr. Wolf promotes is education: “More needs to be done to teach kids about hate online, and frankly more needs to be done in the world of cyber literacy, period.” Mr. Wolf said he believes the Department of Education should help teach children what to do when they find “hate speech,” but did not add details.
There’s another strategy for combating “hate” that Mr. Wolf promotes, but did not mention in his presentation. He wants websites to voluntarily stop letting people be anonymous. Mr. Wolf wrote in the New York Times that he would like to see real names policies be the “Internet norm.” He says this is particularly important for news-company comments sections where “the benefits of anonymous posting are outweighed by the need for greater online civility.” Facebook already has such a policy, though enforcement is lax. The New York Times website gives priority to comments by registered users, a policy Mr. Wolf likes.
Although Mr. Wolf’s recommendations stop short of a legal ban on “hate speech,” they still border on tyrannical. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have near monopolies in their corners of the Internet, and can have real influence over political events such as the Arab Spring. It’s hard to see how censorship from them is much different from government censorship.
Dissidents would not go to jail but would be silenced, and that is exactly what Mr. Wolf and the ADL want. They want to sit down with Internet bigwigs, throw around phrases like “human dignity,” and get companies to ban anyone who violates egalitarian orthodoxy. And if a company won’t knuckle under, they’ll go after its advertisers.
The prospect of schooling children in “proper ways” to respond to “hate” is just as disturbing. Presumably this would be like the ADL’s “A World of Difference” program or the SPLC’s “Teaching Tolerance” campaign, which bounce around words like “diversity,” “anti-bias,” “equality,” and “inclusivity,” until children’s brains goes numb. Such overt politicization doesn’t belong in classrooms, and shouldn’t be a part of an Internet megasite’s terms of service. But if Chris Wolf and his friends have their way, it will be.