Free speech is lauded as a vital cornerstone of our country’s democracy. How are we to mobilize ourselves and facilitate political discourse without it? It is important to allow others to speak their truths, even if what is said is incompatible with my views. Diverse perspectives serve to enrich our democracy. Our right to free speech has its limitations, of course. From slander to libel and fraud to obscenity, free speech is not an absolute.
What I don’t advocate for, however, is when speech is used to advocate for violence against others. Social media has made hate speech all the more accessible, playing a larger role in the crimes we see today.
The recent tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is considered the deadliest act of anti-Semitic violence on American soil, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The shooter was radicalized by the social media platform Gab, an extremist-friendly online community.
Gab, which is no longer in service, is said to prioritize free speech. As it was stated on the now defunct home page of the site, “We are the most censored, smeared and no-platformed startup in history, which means we are a threat to the media and to the Silicon Valley Oligarchy.” According to the Independent, Gab has stirred the pot by becoming a “haven for extremists kicked off mainstream websites.” Through posting on Gab, the Pittsburgh shooter’s opinions were further validated by the community’s acceptance and encouragement.
Just as violence has been normalized for us through entertainment media and the frequency of news reporting on violent acts, social media can make extremist views seem more commonplace than they really are. Social media runs on an algorithm that make news feeds feature the most engaging content, meaning that more sensationalist and extremist posts have the opportunity to come to the forefront.
When something is perceived as mainstream, the ideas become more acceptable.
In spreading these views and shaping people’s perceptions of the real world, social media becomes a tool for harm.
Jewish-American journalist Jonathan Weissman reported in the New York Times “The Daily” podcast on Oct. 30 that the alt-right has even wielded social media as a weapon against Jewish Americans. They have tagged the names of Jewish-American journalists with three parentheses “((( )))” on Twitter to target them and harassed them with phone calls, hateful comments, offensive images and threats. Due to social media’s large reach, the effect it can have on our public discourse is unsettling.
Censoring extremist views may not be the answer, nor, with the vastness of the Internet, be possible. Freedom of speech is necessary for the functioning of our democracy, and defining hate speech in the context of our legal system has always been a topic of unease. Even if Facebook and Twitter were able to make it possible to censor extremist views, there will always be other avenues through which extremists can conduct their discourse.
Freedom of speech is more than simply being able to express your opinion without the fear of legal retribution — it is a responsibility. We need to use social media justly. We have the power to engage in conversations that unite rather than divide, to increase awareness in the places that need more attention and to defend the disenfranchised by denouncing fake news, drowning it out of the mainstream.
Now more than ever, we must speak up against those promoting hate speech and refuse to normalize it in our national narrative. That’s the beauty of free speech — we wield that power.