We all know that the Internet and social media, that wonderful technology that burst onto the scene, and which seems to burst more and more every day, with such promise and excitement has also spawned a darker side, a piece that is nasty and brutish and which is contributing to hatred, intolerance and, in the most extreme of cases, actual violence. No, not everything posted online and shared is of this ilk, but a lot of it is and we are collectively struggling to figure out what to do about it.
Before I go on I need to address the ‘free speech’ aspect to this. First and foremost I am Canadian, not American, so I don’t have the First Amendment tattooed on my heart. I am 100% behind the freedom to express yourself, provided that this does not include incitement to actual violence. We can all agree to disagree on a whole bunch of things, but when you call for someone to be killed because s/he hold a position you dislike that is not free speech, that is incitement to violence, unacceptable and should not be allowed.
One group of actors that is under particular pressure these days are the companies that created and administer the platforms we have come to rely on (become to be obsessive about?) but which have been hijacked by the players described above. Governments are getting in on the act, threatening to sue these media providers if they do not do a much better job at removing this violent material from their Web sites: the European Union, for instance, has said it will fine Google, FaceBook and Twitter if they do not identify and scrap violent content within an hour.
We could argue whether these media giants took too long to get their act together in this regard, but it sure seems now that they are indeed taking action. After years of wavering about how to handle the extreme voices populating its platform, Facebook on Thursday evicted seven of its most controversial users — many of whom are conservatives — immediately inflaming the debate about the power and accountability of large technology companies. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and extremist black preacher Louis Farrakhan are among those kicked off FaceBook. We can argue about the merits of what these people say and write online but I for one will miss none of it (full disclosure: I have never read or watched a single thing these men have created and do not fell less for their absence in my life).
So, kudos to FaceBook! Hip,hip….hmmm. Although I support this move it does not solve the problem of hate and violence online and fails to address some fundamental issues:
- Who decides what is hate? FaceBook? Google? Twitter? On what basis? We may all agree that an Islamic State beheading video should never be viewed but what about Alex Jones? I happen to have zero respect for individuals like him but is EVERYTHING he produces hateful and violence-inciting?
- If these actors no longer have access to FaceBook et al will they simply not move somewhere else? 4chan? 8chan? Whatever-chan? And if the ‘chans’ collectively remove them will they not go somewhere after that? I suppose lacking access to the big players will limit their reach but the message is still there, will still find an outlet and will still attract a following. Besides, there is an argument to be made that having it out in the open allows for better monitoring and possible legal action rather than allowing it to reside in the darker corners of the Web.
My biggest hesitation, however, lies with the fact that these moves are surface and do little to address the real problem: why so much hate? If we merely displace it we are not really getting at the underlying causes are we? I have a sneaking suspicion that hate and incitement to violence predate the Internet and we continue to struggle to understand it and prevent violence from breaking out. It is this that should be our focus.
I guess the decision by these companies to proactively shut down accounts by hate-filled people is nevertheless a good move even if it does not resolve the issue entirely. The downsides alluded to above are probably outweighed by the upsides. So allow me to truly give three cheers to FaceBook – or should that be three thumbs up?