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Why Regulating Social Media Won’t Solve Online Hate Speech – Analysis

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

By Sunjoy Joshi

Post the dexterous emasculation of Article 370 by the Government of India, the rumour mills about Kashmir have the dubious distinction of becoming the only manufacturing units posting not double, but triple digit growth in the country. All sides are leaving no stone unturned to push their version of the Kashmir story. Social media platforms are becoming the new fevered battle grounds of hate. However, the trend seems to be global.

After the El Paso shooting the Trump Administration finally woke up to the reality of online extremism. On 9 August, Friday within a week of the shooting the White House called for 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. The faith of Governments’ in technology can be as naive as their fears.

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

As happened after the Christ Church attack, so too after the El Paso attack, frenzied calls to take down messaging boards such as 8chan, Reddit re-surfaced. The aftermath of the El Paso shooting did see 8Chan actually 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 raving and ranting by politicians against media platforms is really so much 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.

How new is the brave new world of fake news?

Whether it be Fake news or insurgent ideologies online it serves to learn from examples closer to our daily world.

On 21 July 2019, while the rest of the world was commemorating 50 years of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon – in Chester, England a dedicated group calling itself the Chester Flat Earthers was busy distributing leaflets marking the 50th anniversary of the big hoax of man having landed on the moon.

Surf the internet and you find a thriving community of Flat Earthers. They have their own websites and blogs. Their tribe on YouTube and Facebook grows by the day.

As per a Live Science report last year, only 66 percent of 18 to 24 year olds in the US, were confident that the world was round. [1] 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 as potential harvest for flat-earthers was by no means insignificant.

But Flat-earthers have not been created by social media. They have always existed. It was the Catholic Church that led the charge against Galileo after every one else had him branded a heretic.

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

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

Where tech has made the difference is that post 9/11, acts of war by Governments, as well as of terror have learn important lessons on the techniques of “shock and awe” from each other. Both come more and more designed as rock concerts for the small screen, for that is where the wider audience is.

The Christchurch attack was constructed by the shooter to draw acolytes from within online sub-cultures of hate. To reach them it sought to ride the storm of hashtags to broadcast Brenton Tarrant’s message.

Both Tarrant and Patrick Crusius, the shooter of El Paso, left their calling cards on the messaging platform 8chan inviting adulators to follow their manifestos. Tarrant was staging his concert live – the link to his face book page as well his manifesto posted on the message board.

Half an hour later he began his gruesome show on Facebook Live.

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 replay on YouTube, Twitter and Reddit. In the first 24 hours, Facebook removed 1.5 million videos of the attack. Copies kept appearing, posted on sharing and messaging platforms. Snippets were eagerly picked by TRP hungry mainstream media and aired across the world.

Why hate speech and terror are inseparable

Tarrant’s manifesto spoke of anguish over 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 21 year old Patrick Crusius posted his 2300 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 endeavor they were replete with so much of ordinary commonplace verbiage. Everything in them, almost everything, copied, paraphrased and drawn from material that had been feeding mainstream media, and then fanning fringe groups in the societies they had 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 who pronounced that “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 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 was a justly deserved act of majoritarian retribution. Whatever be the context of that unfortunate statement, following the lead, online platforms and social media messages overflowed with a triumphalism that directly contradicted the pious pronouncements of the Prime Minister and Home Minister about their actions being an act of assimilation and integration aimed at irrevocably joining the people of Kashmir to 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. For to really fight hate speech online, 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, 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.

The new nationalism

Technology has placed in our hands a power to disseminate and broadcast that 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 the rat-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, the gladiators that they are, to prove who can be the funniest, nastiest or bloodiest of them of 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, the two being as different from each other as chalk and cheese.

Nationalism constructs an identity around norms, values and ideal; around a Constitution: which means the structures, institutions and laws that define and construct a particular social aggregation around the idea of the nation.

Tribalism is about none of the above. It 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 nation hood what is demanded is loyalty to the tribe. A loyalty that must be retained even at the cost of sabotaging and destroying the institutions, the 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-check does not work with flatearthers so why should it work with Jihadists?

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

The one ring that binds them all

Rather than quarrel with technology let us appreciate that the cognitive instruments used to frame other people and groups in ways that justify their exclusion in the first instance (hate speech) or then progress to incite violence against them (terror) are the same. More importantly the instruments pre-date social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter; they 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 mass the other side as the enemy defined by its 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 contemplated or organised violence. Find the witch in the tribe. Apportion blame for all problems on a particular person or group. Dehumanise the victim so that he or she is cast out from our domain of rules, values and ethics; then burn her at the stake. Violence and brutality gets sanction. Should there be other hapless victims caught up in the spiral of violence, just treat them as “collateral damage” in the fight for the larger cause.

As Creswell and Haykel Point out [2], 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 work as plausible and coherent, to be one that attracts people and draws them into its fold, it must tell a story that makes sense to the world of its adherents. Because, that is how it sucks them in. It is the Cultural milieu available to a violent movement that nourishes and directs it.

As Andrew Glazzard points out [3], the cultural resources available to an extremist organisation are the glue that holds it together. This cultural context eventually is far more important for sustaining that movement than finance or weapons.

Jihadist narratives take root because they provide answers and explanations to help its members make sense of the world and their lives, their deprivation. They satisfy fears buried deep in their collective conscious, resolve their feelings of inadequacy as a group.

And like all narratives, jihadist and white supremacist narratives also demand the willing suspension of disbelief. This suspension of disbelief constructs their particular cognitive biases. It sets the boundary conditions for the operation of that naïve credulity amongst its adherents which outsiders find so difficult to fathom. The boundary conditions for flat-earthers, who otherwise seem very logical rational human 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 fact-checker classifies them as false is a strategy that becomes limited in its effectiveness.

Remember rumour is as 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.

The “Psychology of Rumour” was published by Robert Knapp in 1944. He describes its most important characteristic as being the fact that rumours express and gratify deep seated and sometimes inexpressible emotional needs of a community and that is why they become viral at times. They may be literally wrong and factually incorrect, but then they express at the very least, at a metaphoric level or even at a symbolic level a deeper perceptual truth about how communities viewed the world around them. [4]

So effective counter-strategies cannot just target the facts, but rather the larger connection the lies and untruths have as explanations of events in the larger world. That is what lends extremist narratives their power in the first place, that is what makes their adherents believe in all kinds of fanciful conspiracy theories – some of them as equally wild, but none wilder than Flat Earth theories.

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

That is where New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacenda Ardern won the Battle against terror whereas the US response to 9/11 only ended up exacerbating the problem of global terrorism.

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.

So, just after the Christchurch Shootings, the way Jacenda Arden took charge of the situation, the Union Government must also take full responsibility for curbing and containing the celebratory whoops of majoritarian triumphalism rearing their ugly head in the wake of 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.

Conclusion

Finally to answer the question – is the New Media polarising societies?

The short answer is no. If the world were indeed one big happy place the internet would also be the same. The internet only mirrors the world, it may reflect it, but it does not create it.

Today, the polarisation in society manifests itself in outbursts on the social media; in another time another place 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, churches and kings – often and 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.


The edited version of this article had appeared on The Wire.


[1] https://www.livescience.com/62220-millennials-flat-earth-belief.html

[2] Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel, June 1, Battle Lines: Want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry, The New Yorker June 1 2015)

[3] Glazzard, Andrew, Losing the Plot: Narrative, Counter-Narrative and Violent Extremism, ICCT Research Paper, Hague, May 2017.

[4]  Knapp, Robert: A Psychology of Rumor, The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring, 1944), pp. 22-37)



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