Saddened by the hatred. Sickened by the violence. Filled with grief, and despairing of our ability to soothe these tensions and heal these divides. How can people come together when their starting frames don’t share even the slightest shred of commonality?
To be clear -- because these times require us to make no assumptions -- I denounce, unequivocally, neo-Nazism, the alt-right and white supremacy.
Denouncing these things is easy (for most of us). Figuring out what to do about them is hard.
What should we do, for example, about hate speech?
We could shut it down. We have the technology. The giants of the internet don’t want to be known for bringing out the worst in us. Why provide a platform that makes it easy for hate groups to organize and raise money?
It’s already happening. The Washington Post reports, “Google, GoDaddy and PayPal are now reversing their hands-off approach about content supported by their services and making it much more difficult for alt-right organizations to reach mass audiences.” Airbnb has canceled the accounts of people connected to the Charlottesville rally. Spotify is removing racist music from its platform.
Sounds reasonable, in practice. Private companies are certainly under no obligation to amplify objectionable content.
In reality, of course, it’s not so simple. First of all, given the scale and reach of these platforms (more than 2 billion people on Facebook alone), this solution means our civil liberties are now arbitrated and adjudicated by a small handful of private companies, ones that are likely to reflect a certain worldview and cultural framework. Should they be in charge of what is and isn’t considered objectionable?
In addition, eliminating hate speech from one platform doesn’t eliminate it altogether. As WaPo points out, “in response [to the crackdown by Facebook et al], right-wing technologists are building parallel digital services that cater to their own movement.” Instead of quenching the flames, all we do is fuel them further, exacerbating our filter bubbles and polarizing us even more.
Finally, online platforms may amplify the problem, but they don’t cause the problem. I wrote about this six years ago, following a series of riots in the U.K.: “The fact that Facebook was nearly 40 years in the future didn't prevent 34 people from being killed in the Watts riots. The absence of Twitter didn't prevent a fresh wave of L.A. riots following Rodney King's infamous beating in 1992… Public communication tools provide sunlight for the seeds of dissatisfaction, unrest, and violence within us -- but make no mistake, those seeds must first be within us if they are to grow.”
Suppressing, hiding, marginalizing… all of these completely understandable responses have the potential to provide fuel to the fire, to offer proof that yes, these people are misunderstood and yes, these people are pushed around and yes, these people are not welcome in polite society and what other choice do they have but to fight back?
So what could a company like Facebook do instead?
It could suppress the reach of posts algorithmically flagged as hate speech. It could supplement our news feeds with stories from other points of view. It could go beyond amplifying that which is basest within us and encourage the better angels of our nature.
All this wouldn’t be close to enough, of course. Those who gathered with their torches and their anger will not be dissuaded by a few posts encouraging them to see others as humans just like them.
Which brings me to the most important point: no matter what the response of the tech industry, this problem belongs to all of us. The call is coming from inside the house, and yes we must denounce it and not give it airtime — but we must also offer alternatives to those whose way of life is dying and who see hate as their only option. We must offer education and economic opportunity and hope that there is enough for all of us.
The tech industry talks about solving wicked problems, things like hunger, education and poverty. This problem is one of the wickedest. But it’s definitely one worth solving.