Is online privacy destined to be extinguished? That very well may be the future we’re seeing, and it might not be a distant one. Following the sick terrorist attacks in New Zealand livestreamed on Facebook and widely distributed across the internet, many fingers are being pointed to social media, chat rooms, and other online forms of communication as both the incubating mechanism and inciting element of online hate that resulted in a real-world tragedy.
We’re faced with a conundrum: If certain types of speech are considered hateful, and certain types of hateful speech can breed the type of real-world hatred that results in massacres like the one in Christchurch, then how do we decide what is considered acceptable? Perhaps the better question is to ask who will be deciding? Our knee-jerk reaction may be to start tracking down groups of haters who could turn into terrorists, but is it possible and if so, where is the line between conscientious objection and hateful rhetoric?
I often find myself concerned about posting my own beliefs on many subjects. It’s not that I believe my perspectives are hateful, but I’ve seen instances where they’re labeled as hate speech and resulted in people being banned from social networks. I’ve even heard of cases (one in particular just yesterday from a friend after I asked what happened to his right-leaning website) where entire publications were essentially ghosted on social media sites because someone deemed them to be hateful.
All of this brings about a certain degree of caution about what I post, and I’m not sure if it’s really all that healthy. For example, I refrain from posting articles about certain topics like sharia law or transgenderism because in both cases, the aforementioned bans or ghostings have happened. Do I think my perspective that sharia law is antithetical to the Constitution is in any way hateful of Muslims? Not at all. If anything, I wish to free those who are being persecuted because of sharia law, but speaking out against it has gotten people banned. Unfortunately, I’ve kept my perspectives rather muted, fearing repercussions.
Things have been changing lately, though. Our site has been picking up steam from multiple sources, including search engines, news aggregators, and social media sites. The diversity of our traffic sources has empowered my writers to be more direct with our perspectives. As a crowdfunded publication, we have a responsibility to speak the truth. As a news outlet that promotes individual rights and freedoms, we have a very clear understanding of where we draw the line on hate speech. It’s one thing to believe transgender athletes shouldn’t be competing against biological females. It’s another thing to call for action or violence against transgenders. The line is clearly drawn in a situation like that; violence or any bigoted action must never be allowed.
But that still leaves the question open about whether the internet in general and social media in particular is enabling the type of hatred that was demonstrated in New Zealand. An article on USA Today asked the question that definitely deserves an answer in light of these events:
"The attack on New Zealand Muslims today is a shocking and disgraceful act of terror," says CEP executive director @dlibsen.
— CEP (@FightExtremism) March 15, 2019
The answer to the question is, “yes.” There can be little doubt that social media sites, chat rooms, and the “dark corners” of the web played a major role in fostering hatred, bringing together like-minded haters, and encouraging real-world actions.
So, the real question is whether or not this should be censored, monitored, or both. It would be easy to take the liberty-minded stance that such censorship or monitoring harms the masses for the sake of an isolated minority, but instead let’s look at the practical implications. Is it even possible to prevent this?
4Chan went through an awakening some time ago when they became more mainstream. Doing so prompted censorship that yielded 8Chan, the new home for those who felt 4Chan had become too restrictive.
Reddit cracked down on free speech by policing many of the subreddits where people would post offensive, bigoted, or even illegal content. Some of the users and frequenters of the banned subreddits established Voat where free speech is essentially absolute.
Twitter made a similar move by getting rid of offensive accounts. Gab was born as a result.
The trend is very obvious. One could say that the government(s) should step in and go after 8Chan, Voat, and Gab. They could even be more devious and allow these venues to continue unabated, but monitor them closely for activities that were suspicious enough to warrant action by the authorities. In fact, this is probably already the case. But how does any agency make the distinction between a person like the terrorist in New Zealand and an overzealous 10-year-old spouting anonymous threats with no way of actually acting upon them?
Some would argue that we should keep cracking down, driving them further and further down into the dark web where such things are more common and acceptable. But that still doesn’t solve the underlying problems we’re facing. Like-minded haters will find like-minded haters regardless of how deep you force them into the web. The only way to truly stop it is if you eliminate the internet altogether. By its very nature, anonymity and carelessness create a multitude of trolls, among which will be the guy who turned his guns on people worshiping in their mosques.
Every solution yields a new problem.
The real answer
Short of eliminating the internet, the only solution is diligence at all times. This doesn’t just apply to the internet. The San Bernardino massacre could have been thwarted by neighbors who noticed men bringing in suspicious boxes late at night that, as it turned out, contained the weapons used in the terrorist attack.
Sometimes, the signs will be there. Other times, we’re caught completely off guard with no way to know ahead of time that someone was planning an attack. But by remaining diligent, we can thwart many of the potential attacks.
I was acquainted with a lady who operated a flight school where participants in the 9/11 attacks learned to fly. She told me in confidence that she thought something was strange about them, but didn’t see enough to compel her to talk to the authorities. She told me she regrets it every day.
Does that mean we need to report our neighbors every time we think they’re acting strange? Should we be combing the free-speech-absolutist social networks for signs of a terrorist? Where do we draw the line between paranoia and righteous concern? Between seeing what we believe to be fishy and seeing what our prejudices want us to see? There is no set scale for what to report and what to ignore. There shouldn’t be.
In this crazy world in which we live, one that’s getting crazier every day, all we have is our wits and our discernment. As long as we stay diligent, we can help make the world a bit safer. But if we succumb to knee-jerk reactions following heinous acts of terrorism, we’re going to make mistakes in how we address these issues.
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