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How Do You Stop Racism on Twitter?

Not by shaming or prosecuting users, for starters

Ben Avny

Last week, France embarked on a new frontier of hate speech prosecution: Twitter. Figuring that racist and anti-Semitic tweets are the same as making such remarks on TV—which is banned in the European Union—a French court demanded that Twitter turn over what it knew about users responsible for the offending tweets, so they could be tracked down and prosecuted. Meanwhile, France’s minister of women's rights wants Twitter to develop its own filters that will stop all kinds of hateful remarks from ever emerging in public.1

In America, where free speech protections are nearly absolute, we have a different approach to noxious tweets: vigilante justice. In recent months, a number of media outlets have rounded up 140-character gripes from people dismayed over the reelection of a black president, or furious that a black hockey player scored a game-winning goal, or eager to share how the Red Dawn remake really makes them feel about Asians. The blog Jezebel even pursued some of the culprits, publishing whatever biographical details it could find online. The operational theory is a twist on the Twitter-as-truth-machine model that emerged during Hurricane Sandy: Twitter as moral scold, democratically correcting against speech that violates the norms of civil society.

“Because the First Amendment basically takes the prosecution of nearly all speech acts off the table, shaming is becoming a quintessentially American response to offensive speech online,” explains Deen Freelon, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communications.

So which approach works better? Shouldn't we be able to tell, empirically, whether prosecuting hate speech in court or exposing it to public scrutiny leads to less hate—or at least less hate speech—overall?

Surprisingly, given the resources already devoted to combating racism online, nobody's tried to find the answer. The researchers and advocates I talked to couldn't name a single study that attempts to quantify how people react to having their racist remarks—whether they show up on Twitter or more conventional hate sites—censored outright versus mocked on the Internet.

There's lots of anecdotal evidence, of course. The Amsterdam-based International Network Against Cyber Hate (INACH), which advocates for stronger laws against online hate speech, proffers a list of incidents in which virtual racism set the stage for crime in real life (the Holocaust, which occurred after a sustained period of violent propaganda, remains a motivating precedent). Still, Middlebury College professor Erik Bleich—author of a book on racism and free speech in the U.S. and Europe—says that even the Germans, who routinely ban racist organizations, haven't studied what effect that has on the prevalence of racism overall. To them, the approach just seems logical.

“For anti-racists, restricting easy access to racist information and symbols deters the spread of nasty ideologies, and decreases the probability that the young or the gullible will be pulled into the orbit of hard-core racists," Bleich says.

On this side of the pond, Twitter shaming has come under a fair amount of criticism from people who theorize that kids won't react well to finger-wagging from the media. On the other hand, maybe it's just that people need to be shown the error of their ways. "I think there's this vast middle ground of people who are just casually racist in a way that they never get called out on in their day-to-day lives," says Hunter College's Jessie Daniels, who wrote a book about cyber racism. "And when they start putting that online, and get called out, and it's like 'Oh, wow, I didn't realize.'" But, again, nobody knows for sure how shaming impacts online bigotry.

So the disparate European and American approaches to ridding the net of hate are not driven by real analysis of how they affect the aggregate amount of racism in a society; they're driven by their respective values and laws. Attempting to bridge the divide, the Anti-Defamation League—the only American member of INACH, and the only one that doesn't favor the criminalization of hate speech—is trying to get Internet service providers and search engines to filter it out of their own accord.

"What the ISPs tell us is, they're seeing an overwhelming amount of hateful postings, and they can't keep up with it," says ADL spokeswoman Deborah Lauter. "The fact is, if they want to keep their pipes clean, they are going to have to step up with resources to monitor their terms of service. These companies rely on First Amendment principles, but it's their First Amendment right to decide what they publish and don't publish."

That, however, is an equally frightening approach. Theoretically, in a competitive environment, I should be able to pick a different search engine or ISP if I found its filtering objectionable. But I'm no more comfortable with corporations deciding what does and doesn't get said than I am with the government doing so. Advertisers already pay to put certain information in front of consumers. What if other interests could pay to have other information not appear?

In the absence of concrete evidence on how racists respond to prosecution or public shaming, at least consider this: Twitter is valuable not just for sharing information, but also as a mirror for society, showing us how far we’ve come—and how far we have to go. Not long ago, overt racism was largely sealed off from the wider public, in living rooms and parking lots or discrete corners of the Internet that most people never stumbled upon. Now, using keywords, we can dredge the errant slurs that without Twitter’s immediacy might never hit the Web, slicing through the layer of soundproofing that usually allows us to pretend that racism—or at least unabashed, public racism—is just an historical artifact.

Forcing racism underground, rather than holding it up for the world to see, just allows it to fester out of sight. And that would be a great loss for democratic discourse. The rest of us could go on pretending that we've left all that ugliness behind, while the ways in which racism continues to create real barriers in America—such as the wildly disproportionate incarceration rate for black men, or the enduring suspicion of Muslims, or the persecution of undocumented immigrants—are less likely to be recognized and addressed.

Ideally, racism online should be countered by real, in-person conversations between the offender and a more enlightened friend, family member, teacher, neighbor—someone, anyone who can explain what’s wrong about hating someone for being different than you. Oftentimes, however, those people don’t exist or aren’t around at the right moment, and the rest of the Internet-using public is all a racist’s got. But that’s not necessarily the worst outcome. Thinking prejudiced thoughts, even letting them slide out into the world, isn't an unforgivable offense. The real tragedy would be allowing them to go undiscussed.

  1. Besides the technical challenges of doing so—its Chinese equivalent, Weibo, employs a small army of censors to comply with government speech restrictions—Twitter sees its open platform as a competitive advantage.