Why Regulating Social Media Will Not Solve Online Hate Speech

A violent movement is nourished by the cultural milieu available to it, something that regulating content or fact checks cannot tackle.

After the emasculation of Article 370 by the Government of India, rumour mills about Kashmir have the dubious distinction of becoming the only manufacturing units posting not double, but triple digit growth in the country. Social media platforms are the new fevered battle grounds of hate. However, the trend seems to be global.

After the El Paso shooting, the Donald Trump administration finally woke up to the realty of online extremism. The White House called a meeting of tech companies to discuss whether the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters of the world could fashion magic algorithms that could identify the next shooter and predict the next mass shooting.

It may be easy to berate platforms and demand greater regulation of content, but there is a need to take a closer look at the industry of online hate and understand its real wellsprings.

Like after the Christchurch attack, the El Paso attack too resulted in frenzied calls being made to take down messaging boards such as 8chan and Reddit. After the El Paso shooting, 8Chan actually did go down, but that was only because Cloudfare, the Silicon Valley company that protected it from cyber-attacks, decided to terminate its relationship with the messaging platform.

But all the rants by politicians against media platforms is really just tilting at windmills. The specific social media platform or messaging board no longer matters, simply because the problem resides not with the platforms, but elsewhere. The problem is in the milieu in which hate speech proliferates and acts of terror are staged.

After the El Paso shooting, the White House met tech companies to discuss hate speech. Photo: Reuters

Just how new is fake news?

Fake news or insurgent ideologies online serve to learn from examples closer to our daily world.

On July 21, while the rest of the world was commemorating 50 years of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, a group in England calling itself the Chester Flat Earthers was busy distributing leaflets marking “50 years of the biggest hoax by NASA”.

Surf the internet and you find a thriving community of flat-Earthers. They have their own websites and blogs. On YouTube and Facebook, their tribe grows every day.

As per a LiveScience report last year, only 66% of people aged 18-24 in the US were confident that Earth is round. The others may not be convinced it is flat, but more than 40 in a sample of hundred had doubts that would make them at the very least be open to evidence making contrarian claims. The demography available for flat-Earthers as potential harvest was by no means insignificant.

Also Read: Facebook’s Uneven Enforcement of Hate Speech Rules in India Highlighted in New Study

But flat-Earthers have not been created by social media. They have always existed. After all, it was the Catholic Church that led the charge against Galileo, branding him a heretic.

The difference is that today technology, by making social aggregation boundless and boundary-less, has given any fringe group the ability to build its own global community. If they can grab eyeballs, they can line up potential recruits.

In a way, terror too has also always been about grabbing eye-balls. It is like theatre. The stage and location are important. A public place gives the unique advantage in that victims double up as both characters and primary audience in a brutal experience. There are those who die and many others who live to tell tales of horror.

The difference that tech has made is that post-9/11, acts of war by governments, as well as of terror, have learnt important lessons on the techniques of “shock and awe” from each other. Both are increasingly designed as rock concerts for the small screen: that’s where the wider audience is.

The Christchurch attack was planned by the shooter to draw acolytes within online sub-cultures of hate. Both him and the El Paso shooter left their calling cards on the messaging platform 8chan. The Chirstchurch shooter staged his attack live, the link to his Facebook page as well as his manifesto were posted on the message board.

Remarkably, for all the much-vaunted AI powered proactive detection technologies at the disposal of these platforms, the session ran on Facebook for 17 minutes before it could be taken down. Not that taking it down prevented its dissemination. The footage continued to be replayed on YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit.

In the first 24 hours after the attack, Facebook removed 1.5 million videos related to it. Copies kept appearing, posted on sharing and messaging platforms. Snippets of the same footage were eagerly picked up by the TRP-hungry mainstream media, aired across the world.

Videos of the Chirstchurch shooter’s attack were circulated on several social media platforms. Credit: Pixabay

Why hate speech and terror are inseparable

The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto spoke of the “crisis of mass migration and sub replacement fertility”, calling it “an assault on the European people”. He wanted his example to inspire copycat attacks targeting migrants.

Nineteen minutes before the El Paso shootings, the 21-year-old shooter posted his 2,300 word manifesto, also railing against immigrants. “If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.” In his convoluted mind, mainstream panic about sustainability got linked to Malthusian gloom about immigrants overpopulating the country.

But the fact is that both manifestos, like similar exhortations by insurgents across the world, far from being works of any personal creative endeavour, were replete with so much ordinary commonplace verbiage. Almost every idea in them was copied, paraphrased or drawn from material that had been feeding mainstream media, and then fanning fringe groups in the societies they inhabited.

Not just the sources, but the inspiration for their exhortations included, in the case of Christchurch, politicians like the far right Senator Fraser Anning. He pronounced, “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which (has) allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” Hate speech would similarly have to include the rabid political discourse fanned against Hispanics in the US since 2017.

In the Indian context, add to such lists the Twitter storm that erupted following Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s statement that “the route to Kashmir (was) cleared and now we will bring girls from Kashmir” as one seeking to prove the action on Article 370 as a justly deserved act of majoritarian retribution. Following this lead, online platforms and social media messages overflowed with a triumphalism that directly contradicted the pious pronouncements of the prime minister and home minister in parliament about their decision being an act of assimilating the people of Kashmir into the Indian mainstream.

Just as Trump’s statements condemning the El Paso shooter can never undo the damage done by his tweets, the burden of proving that the emasculation of Article 370 was not an act of majoritarian revenge must also lie solely upon the Union government

Friday prayers with tech giants in the White House do not help. The issue no longer is the platforms. To really fight online hate speech, platforms would need to place many a prominent politician across the world, including several heads of state and parliamentarians, on a “terrorism watch list”, instantly purge their posts from online platforms, and also prohibit their public appearances. Clearly that lies beyond the remit of these platforms.

Hate speech creates the milieu and frames the context which nourishes terror. Like flat-Earthers, there is a prospering community of extremism, not just online, but also in our parliaments and sitting rooms. Instead of closing its eyes and ears to their existence, the burden of dealing with them lies upon the governments we elect.

Like flat-Earthers, there is a prospering community of extremism, not just online, but also in our parliaments and sitting rooms. Photo: Pixabay

The new nationalism

Technology has placed in our hands a power to disseminate and broadcast that which far exceeds our ability to absorb and understand. We end up putting out in the public domain petabytes of ill-digested dubious information.

Technology has also amplified the power of anonymity. As the Joker says in The Dark Night, “Give a man a mask and he’ll become his true self”. Behind this armour of anonymity hide armies of trolls, each following their Pied Piper. There they are, banded together in tribal solidarity, scavenging selectively for any shred of evidence that plays into their Piper’s tune. They compete, gladiators that they are, to prove who can be the funniest, nastiest or bloodiest of them all. We find ourselves in a connected world that accentuates rather than attenuates tribalism. The very fact of diversity magnifies and singles out our differences.

What gets often referred to as the surge of nationalism around the world is not nationalism. Rather, it is out-and-out tribalism masquerading as nationalism. Ant these two being are as different from each other as chalk and cheese.

Also Read: On Social Media, Hate Speech Is Ok – Reporting It May Cost You

Nationalism constructs an identity around norms, values and ideals; around a Constitution. There are structures, institutions and laws that define and construct a particular social aggregation around the idea of the nation.

Tribalism is about the simple fact of loyalty. In its present avatar, it defines the nation by identifying it with a particular group, tribe or individual who becomes more of the nation than others. Instead of allegiance to the structures and institutions of nationhood, loyalty to the tribe is demanded. A loyalty that must be retained even at the cost of sabotaging and destroying the institutions, values and norms that constituted the nation in the first place.

How then can insurgent ideologies be handled? It cannot work simply by using micro targeting strategies to identify individuals on the basis of their search history or their posts to auto-redirect them to sites that can expose them to counter-facts. Fact checks do not work with flat-Earthers, so why should it work with extremists? Cognitive biases are hard to dislodge.

Therefore, to effectively counter online insurgent ideologies and hate speech, one needs to dig deeper and understand the power of narratives.

Tribalism defines the nation by identifying it with a particular group, tribe or individual . Image: Reuters

One ring that binds them all

Rather than quarrel with technology, let us understand the cognitive instruments used to frame other people and groups in ways that justify their exclusion (hate speech) or then progress to incite violence against them (terror) are the same. More importantly, these instruments pre-date Facebook and Twitter and are as old as humankind.

They consist of labelling – battening down the hatches, closing all doors and barricading ourselves within the fortifications of our own tribal beliefs. It is then easier to call the other side the enemy, defined by religion, tribe or nation.

The narrative techniques are not rocket science either. It has always been easy to convert other human beings into targets of organised violence. Find the witch in the tribe. Apportion blame for all problems on a the person or group. Dehumanise the victim so that he or she gets cast out from your own domain of rules, values and ethics. Then burn her at the stake. Violence and brutality get sanction. Should there be other hapless victims caught up in the spiral of violence, treat them as “collateral damage” in the fight for the larger cause.

As Robin Creswell and Bernard Haykel point out, it is not possible to counter jihadism or white supremacism, appreciate its appeal and endurance, without understanding the larger socio-cultural milieu it is embedded in. For any narrative to be plausible and coherent, to be one that attracts people and draws them into its fold, it must tell a story that makes sense to its adherents. It is the cultural milieu available to a violent movement that nourishes and directs it. As Andrew Glazzard points out, the cultural resources available to an extremist organisation is the glue that holds it together. Eventually, it is far more important for sustaining that movement than finances or weapons.

And like all narratives, jihadist and white supremacist narratives also demand the willing suspension of disbelief. This suspension constructs their particular cognitive biases and sets the boundary conditions for the operation of credulity amongst its adherents, which outsiders find so difficult to fathom. The boundary conditions for flat-Earthers, who otherwise seem rational human beings, are set by their comprehension of literalist Biblical theology.

So, counter-messaging on the assumption that terrorist texts or videos can be limited in their reach if a fact check classifies them as false is a strategy that becomes limited in its effectiveness.

Remember, rumour is old as social organisation. Rumour first began when cave men gathered around their fires to discuss the kill of the day. Certain people, places or objects became taboo. Taboos and prohibitions built solidarity within communities.

In ‘A Psychology of Rumor‘, published by Robert Knapp in 1944, he says the most important characteristic of rumours is that they express and gratify deep seated – and sometimes inexpressible emotional needs – of a community. That is why they become viral. They may be false, factually incorrect, but they express at the very least, at a metaphoric or deeply symbolic level, a deeper perceptual truth about how communities view the world around them.

Also Read: Accountability, Not Curbs on Free Speech, is the Answer to Harmful Content Online

So effective counter-strategies cannot just target facts, but rather the larger connection that lies and untruths have as explanations of events in the larger world. This lends extremist narratives their power in the first place, makes their adherents believe in fanciful conspiracy theories.

Therefore, depolarising the social discourse is important. Creating an effective counter culture that seeks to assimilate the divisions and differences that insurgent cultures try to create.

That is where New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won the battle against the Christchurch shooter’s terror. Ardern’s response shunned anger or grandstanding. It chose a simple message of grief, empathy and love. The focus was on values that a civilisation – irrespective of nation, creed or religion – must uphold. The appeal was universal.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response shunned anger or grandstanding. Credit: Reuters/Jorge Silva/File Photo

The Government of India must also take full responsibility for curbing and containing the celebratory whoops of majoritarian triumphalism in the wake its actions in Kashmir. The sanctity and sincerity of their actions and their own eventual success will lie in their ability and capacity to do the same.

Finally to answer the question: is new media polarising societies?

The short answer is no. If the world were indeed one big happy place, the internet would mirror it. The internet only reflect the world, it does not create it.

Today, polarisation in society manifests itself in outbursts on social media; in another time, it led to the Crusades. Flat-Earthers have always been there. Fifty years ago, they may have been tied down by the Gutenberg barrier. They would have languished in their coffee houses and pubs, and formed their little secret societies. But they did influence events, and all too often, inordinately.

The well-springs of hate and terror are the same. The falsities, the hate, the iron in the heart, all reside in us; not in the weapons and instruments we use.

Sunjoy Joshi is chairman of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.