David Scharfenberg, Boston Globe, December 11, 2016
Twenty years ago, when the Ku Klux Klan came to town, everyone knew what to do: Give the imperial wizard a permit to march, but don’t put him on the front page of the local newspaper. Free speech in the public square, but no megaphone.
Now, though, we’re doing something like the opposite. Even as mainstream media outlets scramble to cover hate movements they’d previously ignored, the guardians of the 21st century’s de facto public forum — companies like Facebook and Twitter — are shutting the radicals out.
It is a remarkable shift, one that runs afoul of centuries-old traditions of civil liberties and civil discourse. But in this vertiginous moment for the West — of fake news, far-right unrest, and ISIS-inspired slaughter — it’s gaining currency with a surprising number of legal scholars and people who study hate movements. Our liberal democracy, they seem to suggest, may be in need of an illiberal defense.
The basic argument for free speech is that, in the marketplace of ideas, the worst ideas will wither. But that model depends on old mechanisms for discarding abhorrent ideologies — newspapers ignoring the Klan march or booksellers refusing to stock Aryan Nation screeds.
On the Internet, ugly ideas aren’t discarded, they’re supercharged; one recent report found a 600 percent increase in Twitter followers of major white nationalist movements since 2012. J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague who wrote the report, says social media give extremists some powerful tools for growth: anonymity and an easy way to seek out people with similar interests.
In August, Twitter said it had suspended 360,000 accounts promoting terrorism since the middle of 2015. And just this month, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Microsoft announced a joint database that will help them track and take down “violent terrorist imagery or terrorist recruitment videos.”
Censoring one of the world’s most reviled groups isn’t a tough sell.
Mike German, a former FBI agent who infiltrated neo-Nazi and antigovernment militia groups, says confining dangerous ideas to dank basements and grimy garages empowers the violent elements of extremist groups. “They can say. . . ‘See, that’s why we have to use these criminal methods, because the First Amendment doesn’t work for us,’ ” he says. “‘They’re afraid of our ideas.’ ”
But Gab is no Twitter. Pushing Richard Spencer there means pushing him closer to the margins. And that may be the most compelling justification for suppressing hate speech in the Internet age. In the end, this is a soft censorship — a marginalization, but not a blotting out, of extreme views. And that is something the culture has long tolerated.
Is relegating the alt-right to Gab so different than relegating the Klan to page B3 of the newspaper?
Shortly after Trump’s election, Spencer and a small group of white nationalists gathered at a Washington hotel to bask in their newfound influence. There were panel discussions and after-dinner speeches. Reporters were there in force. And when the Los Angeles Times tweeted out its story on the confab — “Meet the new think tank in town: The ‘alt-right’ comes to Washington” — the Internet revolted. “Calling these white nationalists a ‘think tank’ is atrocious,” tweeted radio and television commentator Roland Martin.
But the actual article was more nuanced than the tweet implied, suggesting that “today’s nationalists [are] picking up where David Duke left off when the former Klan imperial wizard shed his robes to enter politics in the early 1980s.”
“This is how you sneak these ideas into the mainstream,” said Heidi Beirich, who tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the piece.
Beirich, speaking with the Globe a couple of weeks later, said there needs to be more — not less — mainstream media coverage of extremism in the age of Trump. “Given that Trump won, and won on a campaign of vilification . . . we’re probably going to see [other] candidates who are willing to make these arguments in an attempt to win election,” she said.
Editors and publishers have long feared that any publicity for radical movements would encourage their spread. But Beirich argues that social media’s amplification of hate speech and conspiracy theories only reinforces the need for traditional journalists to scrutinize the extremists.
Still, the traditional media’s influence extends only so far. Ultimately, reining in hate may require a public revolt against the social networks where it lives.
Twitter is already feeling a backlash. The service’s basket of deplorables doesn’t just include neo-Nazis. There are many other anonymous trolls, too — misogynists and garden-variety racists — and more and more of their targets are backing away from Twitter.
The loss of those voices is a speech suppression of its own.