Will social media censorship fix anything? [Opinion]

Over the past year, social media has seen an increase in hateful speech and total bipartisanship. The rise of Donald Trump has allowed masses of hateful people to be proud of their prejudiced and ignorant views. Locally, movements like #FeesMustFall brought a barrage of racist comments and posts all over social media.

Right now, platforms like Twitter and Facebook are cracking down on ‘fake news’ and hate speech. The latter has made it harder for blatantly false articles to make a home on the platform. Twitter has been working tirelessly to engineer a balance between preventing hate speech and harassment without impeding the right to free speech.

This dilemma is not new: censorship has been around forever, and philosophers have been discussing the ethics of it for centuries. But where does that leave us in the 21st century, watching the rise of fascism globally, seemingly unable to stop it?

Freedom of speech: the differing views

The first thing to consider is the total freedom of speech. In places like South Africa, hate speech has been illegal since the birth of our new constitution. In essence, it places the rights of a group of people not to be abused or attacked over another’s freedom of speech. In the US — where most social media networks are based — a law like this isn’t as clear cut.

Over the past year, social media has seen an increase in hateful speech and total bipartisanship

In 1992, the Supreme Court declared that the prohibition of hate speech was unconstitutional, as it contravened the First Amendment. The issue was brought to court again in 2011, when the Westboro Baptist Church’s use of hateful signs was questioned. The court sided with the church, stating that only “violent” or “threatening” speech was not protected by law — and since their homophobic placards only threatened violence in the afterlife, they could not be prosecuted.

The argument, then, is whether or not hate speech and violence can be separated. Young gay kids around the world can testify that they have heard the Westboro Baptist Church’s slogans thrown at them — and it’s not hard to imagine them being spoken before a physically violent act.

The US Supreme Court does not take into account two important facts. The first is that psychological harm can be just as bad — or even worse — than physical violence. Broken bones heal within months. Self-hatred and denial, if not properly addressed, can last an entire lifetime.

The second is that violence stems from hate. To separate the two is to assume that fostering hatred will never become violence — which is inherently untrue.

But the US Supreme Court — in this case, at least — doesn’t really matter. Twitter and Facebook are not the state. They are independently owned businesses that reserve the right to bar anyone they believe is misusing their service.

But because they’re a business, they probably see the danger of blocking a vast majority of their user base. More users means higher revenue — and there’s no reason for them to cull that.

If anyone has tried to report something on Facebook, they’ll know how ineffective it is. I myself have reported comments labelling black people “baboons,” as well as comments that justify rape. Every single report I have made came back with a notification declaring the comment in line with Facebook’s terms and conditions.

According to German youth watchdog organisation Jugendschutz, Facebook only deletes about 39% of what is reported criminal within 24 hours. Twitter only clears 1%. If these are the rates at which they handle criminal reports, it’s difficult to imagine how slowly they must deal with others.

So there’s clearly something stopping them from doing a mass exodus of all those who spew vitriol across their platforms. Even if the issue wasn’t profit (which is unlikely), there’s still the matter of ethics at hand.

Like I mentioned before, there’s no doubt that hate speech leads to violence. Violence is hatred and anger manifested, there are no two ways about it. And while I don’t believe everyone who decried Hillary Clinton with misogynistic chants is going to beat up their wife, I do believe that the normalisation of language like that is enough to validate people who will.

So what if we took the utilitarian approach? What if we looked at what would make the most people happy? Where would we end up?

It isn’t social media’s job to educate

If social media companies deleted every user who promoted violently hateful language, their individual happiness would drop. However, the users who were no longer subjected to language that deplores them for existing would see an increase in happiness.

But this is a short term fix for two reasons. Firstly, hateful users would no longer be opposed on social media. They will likely feel victimised and never get told why what they have said is incorrect. Sweeping these issues under the rug would create a “Rainbow Nation”-like space in which people pretend issues don’t exist before they eventually blow up.

Secondly, Twitter and Facebook would be leaving themselves vulnerable to competitors who could easily snap up the evicted. Eventually people would have to choose sides, pushed to a political extreme. If they aren’t homophobic, but they are pro-life, they’d have to pick the opinion for which they are most vehement. It would allow no grey area for political views at all.

And wouldn’t this ruin the point of the internet? A place for knowledge, discussion and connection?

The internet doesn’t spew hate, people do

The alternative is our reality. A reality that allows hatemongers to become the most powerful people in the world, a reality in which people with slightly different opinions could never come to a compromise. A reality in which there are real people suffering because of words that became actions that became movements.

The easy answer is that it isn’t social media’s job to educate. That this is a bottom-up issue that needs to be solved in schools or with parents.

But if hate is taught, it can also be untaught. So perhaps the role of social media isn’t to silence, but to teach. Twitter and Facebook don’t need ethically ambiguous algorithms to bar users — that isn’t going to end well. They need to acknowledge the important role they play in billions of lives and decide how they will ensure the people using their platform for hatred know where they are going wrong.

If Twitter could teach half its hateful users that what they’re doing is ignorant in a way that opens dialogue (which is key to changing minds) — maybe then the issues social media brings will slowly be fixed. It would even mean not having to lose a chunk of its user base.

Facebook already has a way of connecting people expressing suicidal tendencies with experts or friends who could help. Could the same not be done for those with hateful tendencies? To offer a place for healthy debate and discussion that would lead to a positive conclusion?

I’m not saying this is exactly what social media companies should do, nor am I saying it would solve what feels like a global hatred. But what I know for certain is that silencing people will fix symptoms — it will not fix the cause.

The likes of Facebook and Twitter have the power to change lives. It’s time they accepted the responsibility too.



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