Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance technology culture columnist.
It was a week of horror in America: First, two African-Americans in Kentucky were allegedly murdered by a man who exclaimed “whites don’t kill whites.” Then, a series of explosive devices were sent to public figures vilified by President Donald Trump, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Then, as if that weren’t terrible enough, 11 Jewish people were massacred in the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in the country’s history.
Accompanied as it was by news of another far-right leader being elected in Brazil, it was a hard week to shake the feeling that we are entering a dark, regressive shift in world history. And in awful times, we can sometimes be comforted by certain principles: For example, that each person is sacred regardless of identity, or that the bedrock of liberal democracy is the idea of universal rules, universally applied.
But looming in the background of the Pittsburgh massacre, the letter bombs and the rising tide of reactionary, bigoted politics is the spectre of the internet. No sooner had the suspect of the Pittsburgh massacre been apprehended than his online anti-Semitic messages were discovered on Gab, a social network that prizes free speech and is home to bigots of all stripes. The suspected mail bomber also spent significant time online posting hate memes.
This is part of a growing surge of hate online that has seen an uptick in white-supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, among others. Following the shooting, Gab was quickly shut down by its service provider GoDaddy, which followed similar reactions from companies who shut down other hate sites, such as the Daily Stormer, following acts of violence.
The owners of Gab quickly objected on Twitter, suggesting that free speech is an inherent good. Indeed, free speech is a vital, necessary part of a healthy liberal democracy. But as times change and as the internet increasingly becomes a vector of hate, radicalization and reactionary politics, one is left with the discomfiting sense that liberal principles such as free speech alone may no longer be up to the task of guaranteeing a just, healthy society in the digital era.
Gab’s hardline take on free speech is not new. It is part of a long line of starkly libertarian communities that have been drawn to the internet’s lack of censorship and ability to find the like-minded. It continues on from spaces such as 4chan and Reddit, each of which was notorious for communities of extreme rhetoric – although the latter has since begun to slowly crack down on its worst offenders.
But hate online is not limited to dark corners of the web; it also exists on the most mainstream of platforms including Twitter and Facebook, where finding prejudice is easy and shutting it down is not. When the President of the United States uses Twitter to peddle conspiracy theories or demonize asylum seekers, it’s clear the problem of how to balance free speech and its sometimes violent consequences is not a niche idea. It is a fundamental issue of our time.
In a statement after its shutdown, Gab’s owner stated that the only antidote to bad speech was more speech. But such a view is profoundly naive in the 21st century. Free-speech absolutism prioritizes an abstract concept over the real effects on the world. The answer to hate isn’t more speech; it’s drawing a line in the sand and refusing to accept that the public proliferation of speech that vilifies, harasses and endangers already oppressed people is ever acceptable. Free speech as a kind of floating principle, divorced from the reality on the ground, overlooks how digital media actually work.
Social media in particular are structured to prey on feeling, tribal instincts and quick reaction, and thus cater to our basest instincts. It also provides a pathway to people who have been radicalized to find each other and then reinforce those extreme views through community and numbers. It is, in short, a cauldron for cooking up and reinforcing extreme views.
Making matters worse is that those communities can then act as lenses to focus in hatred on specific groups, such as in the many harassment campaigns that have occurred online. And of course, the existence of hate communities can radicalize people such as the Pittsburgh shooter to disastrous, tragic consequence.
Free-speech absolutism is thus an anachronism in the era of the web. Instead, although free speech is still both fundamental and crucial, we also need a far stronger and unified set of principles over the kinds of speech that can be allowed on online public platforms. Those countries that already have hate-speech laws provide a model: Speech is still protected, unless it incites hate or violence against protected classes. Such an approach needs to be also adopted by the companies that form the infrastructure of our digital lives.
One cannot be flippant about challenging the basic ideas of our society. For example, that bedrock of liberal democracy – universal rules, universally applied – has been enormously powerful. It’s that concept that has enabled the expansion of civil rights to women, and racial and sexual minorities, not to mention forming the basis for our legal system under which everyone is equal – at least in theory.
But in the same way that legal equality doesn’t neatly translate into social equality, the nature of the internet make uncritical acceptance of liberal ideals such as free speech dangerous. Instead, it’s time to accept that the arrival of the digital era will force us to make difficult choices about what we hold most dear: an ideal rooted in history, or protecting the lives of those already oppressed. If not, one fears that we will only see more weeks of horror.