Media, Free Speech, and Violent Extremists
Free expression sometimes enables horrible crimes. How does a free society deal with that tension?
Friday morning’s terrorist attacks by a white supremacist group against mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand have reignited a welcome if frustrating debate as to what the role of responsible media outlets ought be.
One controversy is how to treat the aftermath. Buzzfeed (“The Daily Mail Let Readers Download The New Zealand Mosque Attacker’s Manifesto Directly From Its Website“) points to one concern:
The Daily Mail’s website uploaded the Christchurch mosque attacker’s 74-page “manifesto”, allowing readers to download the entire document just hours after the massacre on Friday which left at least 49 people dead.
The Mail was one of several British news outlets which defied requests from New Zealand police on Friday not to spread the terrorist’s first-person footage, which had been repeatedly shared across social media platforms in the wake of the attack.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Reddit said they were working to remove the attacker’s videos from their platforms. The footage kept appearing and disappearing in search results.
But as footage of the attack continued to be uploaded across the platforms, Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party, criticised the tech companies’ response.
“Failing to take these videos down immediately and prevent others being uploaded is a failure of decency,” he said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “I will be writing to social media companies to ask how, in this hour of international tragedy, they failed the victims of this attack and all platform users so lamentably.
“I will also be speaking to my Conservative counterparts in government to discuss how we can act together in order to deal with the unaccountable wickedness of the Silicon Valley oligarchs.”
I don’t really have an answer to this one. We certainly don’t want to glorify the violence or spur on potential copycats. At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with pressuring media companies to censor content.
In terms of the specifics here, I see little downside to publishing to perpetrators’ manifesto so that scholars and interested citizens can examine it. While one imagines that there are those out there who will see it as a call to action, the overwhelming number of people who see it will find it nutty and repulsive. More importantly, it allows us to have conversations about the limits of acceptable speech. More on that later.
My sensibilities on publishing video of the atrocities have evolved over the years. In the very early days of this blog, I was among hundreds who posted videos of Islamist terror groups beheading Western citizens on the principle that people should see the horrible acts in all their glory. Now, I tend to shy away from posting even non-grisly, ubiquitous news photos from the scene on the grounds that we should do our best to shield the loved ones of the victims from those images. Still, I can see no reason why my sensibility ought govern news outlets or social media companies.
More broadly, though, I think social media companies do have a responsibility to take reasonable measures to stop hate groups from leveraging their platforms—even as a recognition that “reasonable measures” and “hate groups” are incredibly fuzzy concepts. At a minimum, accounts, groups, “chans,” Reddits, and the like where advocacy of violence against domestic racial, ethnic, or religious groups are routine ought be shut down.
The larger debate is even more complicated. In this morning’s news roundup, I observed,
It’s a slippery slope, indeed, to include the Fox News propaganda machine in the same category as those who commit acts of terrorism. But, certainly, they render some of the white supremacist agenda more mainstream. And, in the minds of the right individuals, it’s not too difficult to go from seeing people as a dangerous “other” and seeing their extermination as not only just but necessary.
Admittedly, I don’t watch much Fox News content these days; indeed, I hardly watch any television news anymore. Still, some of the commentary that routinely circulates from the likes of Ann Coulter or Jeanine Pirro is over-the-top. If it’s not white supremacist, it’s white nationalist. And it seems to be aimed at stirring up a like-minded core audience rather than at informing debates over complex issues.
As the same time, we have to be careful about de-legitimating that debate. For example, a national commentator of some renown made this snark on Twitter this morning:
In hard-to-see corners of the internet, white supremacists feel safe arguing that diversity is damaging their West and they have a right to defend white identity https://t.co/pkmsY0xVHs
— Tom Scocca (@tomscocca) March 15, 2019
He links, respectively, to articles by David Frum and The Atlantic and Ross Douthat in the New York Times.
Obviously, his point is that these are the opposite of obscure platforms. He’s trying to make a corrective to the narrative that white supremacists lurk only in the dark corners of the Internet. And that’s an important point.
But it’s absurd to point to Frum and Douthat as white supremacists. Indeed, the very columns Scocca links point to the valuable contributions made by recent immigrants from outside the West. Rather, they’re trying to reconcile the benefits from immigration and diversity from the challenges of assimilation.
Frum quotes that noted white supremacists Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Barack Obama:
But large-scale immigration also comes with considerable social and political costs, and those must be accounted for. In November 2018, Hillary Clinton delivered a warning to Europeans that mass immigration was weakening democracy. “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration, because that is what lit the flame,” Clinton said, referring to the upsurge of far-right populism destabilizing countries such as France and Hungary. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken, particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message—‘We are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’—because if we don’t deal with the migration issue, it will continue to roil the body politic.”
Clinton’s assessment of the European political situation is accurate. According to recent poll numbers, 63 percent of French people believe too many immigrants are living in their country. One-third of the British people who voted in 2016 to leave the European Union cited immigration as their primary reason. In Germany, 38 percent rate immigration as the most important issue facing their country. Thanks in great part to their anti-immigration messages, populist parties now govern Italy, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
And of course, anti-immigration sentiment was crucial to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
Immigration on a very large scale is politically stressful. Yet acknowledging that fact can be hazardous to mainstream politicians. The New York Times story on Clinton’s remarks quoted four scathing reactions from liberal interest groups and academics—and then for icy good measure balanced them with a single approving quote from an Italian politician who had hosted Trump’s former campaign chair, Steve Bannon, in Rome.
It wasn’t always this way, even on the left. As recently as 2015, the senator and presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders defended at least some immigration restrictions in language drawn from the immigration-skeptical tradition of organized labor. “What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy,” Sanders said in an interview with Vox. “Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country.” Even the famously cosmopolitan Barack Obama, in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, lamented, “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”
Douthat’s column is rather incoherent, frankly, but he’s mostly arguing that we can’t delegitimate a wide swath of the American electorate if we’re to come up with a workable policy:
And it’s also clear that many immigration restrictionists are influenced by simple bigotry — with the president’s recent excrement-related remarks a noteworthy illustration.
This bigotry, from the point of view of many immigration advocates, justifies excluding real restrictionists from the negotiating table. You can give them a little more money for border security, some promises about reducing illegal entry. But you can’t let them play a large role in shaping policy. The limits of this strategy, though, are evident in the repeated failure of “comprehensive” immigration reform over the last decade and more, doomed each time by the gulf between the plans of Republican negotiators and the actual preferences of their voters.
The present view of many liberals seems to be that restrictionists can eventually be steamrolled — that the same ethnic transformations that have made white anxiety acute will eventually bury white-identity politics with sheer multiethnic numbers.
But liberals have been waiting 12 years for that “eventually” to arrive, and instead Trump is president and the illegal immigrants they want to protect are still in limbo. So maybe it would be worth trying to actually negotiate with Stephen Miller, rather than telling Trump that he needs to lock his adviser in a filing cabinet, slap on a “beware of leopard” sign, and hustle out to the Rose Garden to sign whatever Durbin and Graham have hashed out.
My point here isn’t to engender a debate about these columns in particular or immigration policy more broadly. Rather, it’s to add context to the “slippery slope” comment from earlier. We ought be able to differentiate actual hate speech from speech which is merely hateful from intellectually honest discussions about controversial topics—including race, ethnicity, religion, LGBTQ status, and others—and treat them accordingly.
There’s no debating those who advocate violence against their fellow citizens. They should be treated as pariahs and, if they step over the line into illegality, treated accordingly.
The David Frums and Ross Douthats of the world should be engaged. They’re amenable to honest exchange and enhance the debate considerably.
I’m increasingly unsure of those who reside in the middle. They’re mostly intelligent folks who have figured out that pandering to the lowest common denominator is a lucrative racket. I’m not sure how much of what they say they actually believe. Certainly, though, they should be called out as fellow travelers and enablers of the haters.