Time after time, in the wake of shootings and attacks, we see that the perpetrators published and absorbed online hate. The murderer who killed the Holocaust museum guard; the pair that murdered a gay couple and who were linked to the burning of three Sacramento-area synagogues; the killer who went on a racially-motivated shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana over a July 4th weekend all were deeply involved with online hate. And the list of online haters who became real-world menaces does not stop there. The Internet has served to embolden the deranged and to create a virtual community of like-minded haters. It will not be surprising to learn that Loughner was on a denizen of places on the Internet where hate and violence is the mission.
The Internet is awash with hate. In addition to the many web sites of well-known radical, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and otherwise intolerant groups, social networking sites have become gathering points for the intolerant and the violent. Parts of YouTube constitute a veritable hater’s film festival. Even the comment sections to news stories published on mainstream news sites are filled with volatile invective.
The effect on right-minded people who view online hate is disgust. The effect on impressionable children may be to learn that hating is acceptable or worse, to be inspired to act by the words of hate. (The current epidemic of cyber-bulling reveals kids’ capability for cruelty.) The effect on deranged would-be assassins could well be to push them over the brink.
As Congresswoman Giffords explained when she read the First Amendment aloud at the start of Congress just before her fateful trip home, the Constitution does not allow the government to regulate speech. And that is as it should be. The First Amendment protects essentially all speech, even hate speech, except that consisting of direct threats against specific people. But that does not mean we should throw up our hands and simply accept hate on the Internet as a chronic infection. There is a role for Internet users, for educators and for Internet companies to fight online hate speech.
For users of the Internet, the role is to stop tolerating online hate speech. Users should speak up against it with the same online tools used by the haters. And they should report hate speech to Facebook, YouTube and web hosts.
For educators (and those who fund them), it is time for them to see Internet education as a requirement in all schools, to teach kids how to filter what they are seeing and to reject hate online. We need to inoculate rising generations against the virus of hate online.
And for those companies offering Internet services, they need to realize that legal protection against liability for what users say or do is no excuse for sitting on their hands. The First Amendment does not prohibit them from removing offending content – indeed it empowers them. Many companies have terms of service prohibiting hate speech, and mechanisms for dealing with its appearance. But clearly more must be done given the prevalence of hate-filled content online.
As we enter the third decade of widespread Internet use, the time has come to get serious about online hate speech. That would be a fitting memorial to those killed in Tuscon, and an important tribute to those who survived the attack.
Christopher Wolf is an Internet lawyer in Washington at law firm Hogan
Lovells who chairs the Anti-Defamation League Cyber Safety Center