Social media and the hate-speech slippery slope

Banning hatemongers and Holocaust-deniers seems like a no-brainer for Facebook. But do we really want big tech to be the arbiters of free speech?

Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Someone I know once told me that if his elderly mother ever wound up on Facebook, it would mean one of two possible things had happened: Either the social-media giant had become passé or literally everyone on the planet would have acquired a Facebook account. Several years later, it’s clear that even if not every human being has an account, those who don’t are clearly out of step with the rest of society.

Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

With more than 2 billion users worldwide and the number growing daily, Facebook, and to a lesser extent, Twitter, aren’t so much private social networks as they are what must be considered the moral equivalent of a public utility. Perhaps a majority of Americans appear to be now getting most of their news from their Facebook feeds—something that ought to scare us for a lot of reasons, but also demonstrates the site’s ubiquitous nature. And, like it or not, the best way to find out what’s on the mind of the president of the United States is via Twitter, not the filtered analysis provided by even the most reliable news outlets.

But the popularity of these sites brings with them some unwanted responsibilities. We already know that bots and fraudulent campaigns were  the attempts to influence the 2016 election with “fake news.” While the impact of those efforts on the election was probably negligible, it still raised questions about whether social-media companies can or should police their sites.

Just as worrisome is the spread of hate speech on the Internet. That problem came into focus last month when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that while as a Jew he was personally deeply offended by Holocaust denial, he wasn’t sure that censoring it was his job or even the right thing to do.

The massive pushback against that statement led to a cowed Zuckerberg issuing an apology. But the issue of what to do about hate speech is not as simple as the swift verdict of a social-media mob’s kangaroo court. Moreover, it is one that Jews must think seriously about before jumping to the conclusion that Zuckerberg should ban Holocaust-deniers or other hateful anti-Semites.

The Internet has provided extremists with platforms that have given them the ability to insinuate themselves into the national conversation in a way that would have once been impossible. That is something those of us who monitor the rising tide of anti-Semitism that has spread across the globe must view with alarm. A world in which both Holocaust denial and crude anti-Semitic libels that target Israel is prevalent is one in which violence against Jews is inevitable.

So it was hardly surprising that the organized Jewish world would react to Zuckerberg’s reluctance to play the censor on Holocaust denial (which he improbably claimed might in some cases be “unintentional”) with anger. The Anti-Defamation League made it clear that it felt that Zuckerberg had a “moral and ethical obligation” not to allow Holocaust denial to be spread on his website.

Outright Holocaust denial is indefensible. So, too, are the rants of a person like Alex Jones, who runs the Infowars conspiracy theory website. Facebook, YouTube and Apple all acted this week to shut down his social-media accounts. The public shunning of a repugnant figure like Jones, whose attacks on the families of the Sandy Hook shooting victims should forever ban him from decent society as well as any credible news venue, was hard to argue with.

Yet the problem is not whether we ought to be outraged by hate speech, but whether we are really comfortable with people like Zuckerberg and their underlings using their power to shut some people or ideas down.

Private companies like Facebook have every right to ban anyone they like from their sites. But we should be wary of cheering such decisions because once you start down that slippery slope, the objects of such bans can quickly expand from those with odious and false views like Jones to the merely controversial or unfashionable.

Social-media companies have already flirted with banning users whose views they don’t like, and the result has led to bans or “shadow bans” on Twitter. Many conservatives believe that tech-company personnel have disproportionately targeted them. Some on the left challenge that assertion, but political bans can never be limited to just one side. Moreover, when unreliable and partisan groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center are used to label some entities as controversial yet entirely defensible conservative organizations as hate groups, the result is a politicized purge, not a defense of the truth.

As scholar Deborah Lipstadt—who famously had to defend the truth of her scholarship in a British court when David Irving, a notorious Holocaust-denier, sued her—has said, criminalizing hate speech is not the answer. Such bans undermine rather than aid the fight against anti-Semitism, which rests on exposure and highlighting the truth, as opposed to suppressing hateful speech.

What then do we do?

Perhaps the best answer comes from writer David French, who recommended that social-media companies should rely on a process that rests on facts proven in court, such as libel and slander judgments, and not arbitrary and often biased decisions rooted in smell tests about unpopular ideas. As it stands now, the same process that might sweep up undeniably bad actors could also wind up affecting pro-Israel advocates if prejudices against Jews or others out of step with intellectual fashion gain more traction in Silicon Valley.

While we must be vigilant in calling out hate and anti-Semitism whenever it rears its ugly head, Jews should think twice about cheering on the Internet thought police. If Facebook has truly become the world’s public-information highway, then efforts to censor it by either the tech giants or the government should be something thinking people should worry about it, even when the intended objects of such bans are exactly the people we wish to expose as liars and hatemongers.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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