The Blog

America's Bigotry and Hate Speech Problem Can't Be Ignored

In an age where being politically correct and standing up for social justice are seen as weaknesses, those that are victims of social injustice are often berated with slurs, insults, and threats through social media.
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In an age where being politically correct and standing up for social justice are seen as weaknesses, those that are victims of social injustice are often berated with slurs, insults, and threats through social media. Twitter, which considers itself the "free speech wing of the free speech party," has come under fire from both ends of the political spectrum (for simultaneously doing too much and too little to police hate speech on its platform).

This summer, conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos' attacks on SNL and Ghostbusters 2016 star Leslie Jones were well documented. While Twitter decided to permanently ban Yiannopoulos for his racist and sexist comments against Jones, this response did little to slow down the hateful army of the "alt-right" - an aggressive group of conservative racist nationalists. Those informed on the incident regardless of political leaning will tell you that removing abusers and instigators like Yiannopoulos is not enough to stop hate speech. While the alt-right rally behind those like Yiannopoulos - decrying that Twitter is no longer a beacon of free speech - most decent human beings plead with Twitter to do more to combat the pervasive and overtly racist and misogynistic hate speech that runs rampant on its platform.

Twitter has said that it is committed to updating its software to both detect abuse and make reporting it easier. The problem is, Twitter's abuse system already relies too much on reporting from its users, and most people feel that Twitter does not do enough when abuse actually is reported. Indeed, previous Twitter updates have done little to remedy the situation and have even been criticized for minimizing the seriousness of online abuse by seemingly portraying it as nothing more than a minor annoyance. Twitter's "Rules" state that "You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease." While the policy itself sounds like a step in the right direction, with no concrete enforcements, it amounts to nothing more than mere words.

Public divisiveness is common for election years, but the 2016 election (complete with a reality star and real-estate tycoon leading a campaign of hate and fear-mongering) has added plenty more fuel to this dumpster fire of an online political landscape. Indeed, the past year has been one marred by disturbingly racist, xenophobic, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic attacks, much of which found its footing on Twitter. It was on Twitter where Leslie Jones was berated with abhorrently racist and misogynistic attacks simply for having the gaul to be a successful black woman. Twitter was also home to the racist attacks hurled at 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the apparent crime of bringing attention to our country's institutionalized racism and our severe need to reevaluate how black men and women are treated in America. Twitter also served as host for racially-charged hatred spewed at Malia Obama (for being a black woman who was accepted in Harvard), antisemitic threats and images tweeted at a New York Times Editor, and of course violent misogyny and rape threats directed at not only a feminist columnist for The Guardian, but at her 5-year old daughter as well. The hatred taking root on Twitter is abundant and seemingly unending - just this past week, Anderson Cooper (the first openly gay moderator of a presidential debate) was bombarded with homophobic insults and slurs on Twitter. And that's just a small handful of some of the year's more high-profile cases - these incidents represent a very small number of the never-ending hatred that seems to run rampant on Twitter. It can be very difficult to express any facet of a liberal opinion online, let alone dare to be a person of color, a woman, a non-Christian, or a member of the LGBTA community. Even the most benign and seemingly apolitical tweets run the risk of opening oneself up to hatred, abuse, and even threats of physical violence.

It's clear, Twitter needs to effectively address its hate speech problem. It should go without saying, but the alleged preservation of free speech cannot be used to justify pure and unadulterated hatred and bigotry (i.e., free speech ought not permit unmitigated abuse and threats). Indeed, spewing hatred and threats of violence in order to silence the opinions of others is in itself antithetical to the very tenets of free speech (and anyone claiming to support free speech while using it to silence others is both a hypocrite and a danger to meaningful dialogue and free and open expression itself).

Aside from an appeal for basic moral decency, although Twitter likes to proport itself as a haven for free expression, it is a private company that can quite frankly limit speech however it sees fit - it has no obligation whatsoever to protect free speech. Everyone who uses Twitter must first agree to its terms of service, which despite widespread misconceptions and a gross lack of comprehension of the application of The Bill of Rights, are not in any way bound by the First Amendment (which only protects the right to articulate opinions and ideas without fear of government reprisal and prohibits the enacting of any law that would interfere with that right). Let me just say this again for those in the back - the First Amendment applies to the government and its enaction of laws, not individuals, not private companies. Twitter can therefore create its own rules regarding hate speech. That said, if Twitter wants to continue to be a platform where anyone can freely express their views, then it actually ought to start standing by its users and seriously reevaluate how it handles hate speech (and particularly those users who launch assaults, join in on attacks, and threaten others for simply speaking their mind). Indeed, if Twitter continues to allow unrestricted hate speech to permeate its platform, then it will undoubtedly fail to be the free speech mecca it claims to be. With it continuing to prioritize hateful abuse over those actually being abused (for simply trying to express their ideas), it should come as no surprise that many are leaving Twitter altogether.

Although 2016 has beared witness to a critical mass of bigotry and hate speech (with much of it festering on Twitter), it's important to remember that this is not limited to Twitter and is not a new issue, nor is it one that will simply slip back under the surface and fade into irrelevancy. If there is one thing the past year has made abundantly clear, it's that our attitudes toward one another need a massive overhaul. Speech is never just speech - it's unfortunately an accurate reflection of the longstanding and deep-seated hatred and violence that still pervades our society (i.e., deeply-ingrained racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia).

Hatred underlies the prevailing attitudes of millions of Americans. While many of us may have been able to comfortably dismiss our country's rampant bigotry as a problem of the past and nothing more than the views of a few backwards individuals, that is no longer an option any moral actor can take. Hillary Clinton may be leading by double digits in the polls and might be guaranteed victory this November, but the Trump campaign has irrevocably emboldened and amplified a once whispered bigotry into one that is shouted and impossible to drown out. The toxicity (the deeply disturbing and most hateful qualities of our nation) has risen from the depths to the surface, and we simply cannot go back to pretending it does not exist. We need to deal with it.

We need to educate Americans on why social issues matter, why they should care about people that look, worship, or love differently than them, and we desperately need to learn empathy as a nation.