It’s no accident that the New York Timespublished a piece by Frank Bruni this week titled, “The Internet Will Be the Death of Us” directly following the murders of the 11 Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue. In its concluding paragraph, the column noted: “I don’t know exactly how we square free speech and free expression with a better policing of the Internet, but I’m certain that we need to approach that challenge with more urgency than we have mustered so far. Democracy is at stake. So are lives.”
We can no longer ignore the direct line that runs from Internet hatred to the loss of life. But neither can we claim ignorance anymore that the haters, trolls and agitators with mendacity on their minds and fingertips are something to be tolerated. Our targeted communities, rise of hate crimes, and online rage have been around long enough for us to know that something must be done sooner rather than later.
The Net provides us with a vast array of weapons of mass destruction that are available to everyone. Indeed, the weaponization of social media has become one of the great phenomena of the modern era. The moment someone picks up a semi-automatic rifle, loads a bomb in an aircraft or prepares chemical weapons, they know exactly the dangers such items pose.
But we never sensed that when, initially, we installed Twitter, Facebook and many other platforms that we could become the assaulted or even the assaulters. That is what is now happening and we know it. It’s not just about hate-speech, but public shaming of individuals and groups for things of little consequence just because it can be done with impunity.
There is this ongoing rationalization going on that continues to give a pass to online hate by defended the right to free speech. That’s fair to a point. But as the death rate from guns in America continues to soar to stratospheric levels, the argument that everyone should have the right to bear arms while ignoring the mounting death rates from those very weapons grows more ludicrous by the day. At some point it will have to stop or abate. That’s not happening with guns and it isn’t occurring with online hate either.
Yet there is increasing movement against those companies and their executives who built the platforms that now carry the hate. Author John Batelle, an insider on the tech industry, put the responsibility where it belongs:
“What’s changed my mind is the recalcitrant posture of these companies in the face of overwhelming evidence that their platforms are being intentionally manipulated to undermine our democracy. This is an existential crisis, both for civil society and for the health of the businesses being manipulated. But to date the response from the platforms is the equivalent of politicians’ “hopes and prayers” after a school shooting: Soothing murmurs, evasion of truly hard conversations, and a refusal to acknowledge the core problem: Their automated business models.”
We now understand that, just like guns, social media platforms can be automated to devastating and, at times, fatal effect. That means there’s little control, little oversight on what people with twisted minds can do when such lethality is put at their fingertips. While groups such as Twitter acknowledge the potential for widespread damage, they refuse to provide more accountability for the simple reason that their money is accrued through the automation and to tamper with it would mean a loss of revenue. It’s an argument, to be sure, but it’s increasingly becoming an irresponsible one.
Let’s be honest: The Internet excels at destroying the very thing it was designed to uphold – the responsible use of free speech. An expression of affection or a diatribe of hate against another are of equal opportunity on the Internet. The outcomes, however, are as different as love or death, of devotion or destruction, of honour or of hatred.
Social media is most frequently effective as a reaction rather than an action. It can spew hate or it can provide remarkable messages of condolence to a congregation in Pittsburgh. That’s because people feel more empower reacting to something that spending time to build something of meaning. The Internet can speak poignantly to a tragedy, but can actually provide the tools that created that devastation in the first place.
Some will say that social media is just a tool. Surely it can’t be blamed for what people do with it? That is the same argument that is used for the possession of guns and as we have come to understand the fallacy of that argument, at such a great cost, the time has come to acknowledge the wrecking ball on communities that is the Internet. It isn’t enough to merely blame an irresponsible gun owner or a lecherous troll; the platforms themselves must bear some of the responsibility.
The Internet knows neither love nor hate and it most often grows comfortable with shame. It can build communities and enhance democracy over the long haul, but can tear it down in a matter of minutes – or tweets.
It is time to acknowledge that hatred at the speed of the Internet can be just as devastating as a semi-automatic in a sanctuary or a stadium. Real solutions will require effective legislation and corporate accountability, along with citizens respecting one another. We have been at this long enough to understand that an unaccountable Internet is more destined to destroy communities than bring them together. We have little time left to create change before it becomes impossible. Social media could help with that cause – greatly – but not if their corporate owners continue in their practice of putting money over madness or revenue over responsibility.