Index on Censorship: Don’t Feed the Trolls

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In September, an anti-Muslim video demonstrated how politics of fear can dominate the online environment. In an essay that I co-wrote with my dear friend and former colleague Ethan Zuckerman for the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine, we argue that concerted action must be taken to dis-empower and discredit those in the global information and media ecosystem who profit from fear and hate. Here is how the piece begins:

In September 2012, the trailer for the film The Innocence of Muslims shot to infamy after spending the summer as a mercifully obscure video in one of YouTube’s more putrid backwaters.

Since then, there has been much handwringing amongst American intellectual, journalistic, and political elites over whether the US Constitution’s First Amendment protections of freedom of expression should protect this sort of incendiary speech, or whether Google, YouTube’s parent company, acted irresponsibly and endangered national security by failing to remove or restrict the video before provocateurs across the Islamic world could use it as an excuse to riot and even kill.

Supporters of internet censorship argue that posting The Innocence of Muslims online is the equivalent of yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. The analogy is not entirely off-base – the director of the video hoped to provoke violent reactions to his work. But we make a mistake if we focus on the man yelling fire and not on the crowded theatre.

The Innocence of Muslims was successful in sparking violence not because it was a particularly skillful – or even especially offensive – piece of filmmaking. Instead, it had a dramatic impact because it was useful to a small group who benefitted from a violent response, and because it exploited the ugly tendency of media outlets to favour simple narratives about violence and rage over more complex ones.

Increasing censorship in the name of fighting hate speech will do nothing to address the broader environment in which hate is incubated and nurtured.

Even if the US had a more narrow interpretation of the First Amendment, or if YouTube and other internet companies had more expansive definitions of ‘hate speech’, combined with more aggressive censorship practices, that would not have solved the more deep-seated problems which made it so easy for people – most of whom had never even seen the video – to riot outside the US embassy in Cairo. And any number of offensive videos or web pages could have served the authors of violence as a convenient flashpoint.

The danger of increased control of online speech is that we will not guarantee the elimination of flashpoints of violence, but we will almost surely make it a more difficult environment for those who use the internet to reduce hate and increase understanding. But if the argument for free speech is to be won, we must make more concerted and deliberate efforts to strengthen the world’s immunity against the virus of hate – both on social media and in the mainstream media.

Click here to read the rest.

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