Freedom of Expression vs. Hate Speech
Freedom of opinion and belief is an essential component of human rights and foundational to free and democratic societies. US Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo in Palko v. Connecticut (1937) wrote that “freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom."
However, lately we have been exposed to many examples of free speech that extend beyond interpersonal sharing and are intended to fuel strife, called hate speech. Hate speech is a type of hostile online communication targeting social groups to insult, degrade, or belittle their members. The popularity of social media has transformed how, when, and whether conflicts manifest because, in addition to being a communication tool, social media is capable of mobilizing and shaping users’ values.
Hate speech thrives on social media platforms, where hostility and agitation are widespread. Many social media users have reported encountering hate speech, although differences in its perception vary among users. Yes, perceptions are highly individual, but research published in New Media & Society suggests that awareness of and indignation toward hate speech decreases as social media use increases.
Analysts from the Council on Foreign Relations say that trends in hate crimes around the world echo changes in the political climate, and social media can escalate ideological disputes. Influencers and political actors on online platforms routinely fuel tensions, as social media rewards identification and connection within a group. You may not recognize the insidious nature of hate speech at first, as famous people at the highest levels use threats and intimidation to target their opposition.
Free speech is an essential US right. How do we reconcile this with the fact that hate speech can be considered a form of free speech? When we hear hate speech, we can feel threatened. Silenced. Emotionally disturbed. Even physically sick. Humiliation or incitement to violence seems contrary to healthy societies. Shouldn’t it be prohibited? Can’t we stifle hate speech in order to keep it from escalating into discrimination, hostility, and violence? But if we do prohibit hate speech, does it mean taking away the right to freely express one’s beliefs and opinions?
Where Does Censorship Come In?
Do you feel that digital platforms have done enough to combat hate speech, misinformation, and other potentially harmful material? Then again, do you believe that freedom of expression extends beyond social justice to protect the rights of individuals?
The desire to diffuse hate speech through censorship often seems a reasonable recourse. In fact, many policy makers and researchers call for increased transparency on how algorithms influence exposure to political content on the powerful Twitter platform. Senators from both parties spoke this week in support of the idea of creating a new arm of the US government dedicated to regulating AI.
Then again, many conservatives charge that the national news media exhibit a liberal bias, despite surface appearances of impartiality. A comprehensive audit of an algorithmic recommender system and its effects on political content unveiled that the political right enjoys higher amplification compared to the political left. Yet accusations of unequal opportunities in the media and of un-American content moderation continue.
According to Aileen Nielsen of the Brookings Institute, Republican politicians and the US public alike believe that platform moderation practices favor liberal messaging, despite strong empirical evidence to the contrary. “Many Americans likely hold such views at least in part due to strategically misleading claims by prominent politicians and media figures,” Nielsen explains, “a particularly worrying form of misinformation.”
Debate over free speech online is also being shaped by fundamentally incorrect understandings of the First Amendment. The First Amendment — with its free speech guarantee — only applies to the government. It can be argued strongly that companies and organizations should voluntarily choose to protect such a quintessential patriotic value as freedom of speech.
Content moderation decisions of digital platforms actually do not violate ordinary people’s constitutionally guaranteed speech rights. That’s because private social media companies are not bound by the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause and, therefore, courts continue to maintain that the Constitution does not limit their ability to restrict user content.
Even though users don’t see them, the people who actually do the content moderating “are the internet’s frontline workers,” according to Thomas Stackpole of the Harvard Business Review, “facing the worst of human nature, one disturbing picture or video at a time.” Stackpole wonders whether social media platforms should really have the power to be such empty vessels for people to fill up with invective, fights over politics, disinformation, propaganda, racism, and misogyny.
On the other hand, preserving freedom of expression from censorship is often invoked to counter efforts to regulate hateful expression, in particular in online environments. Almost all speech, no matter how offensive, is protected by the First Amendment. Banning hate speech without restricting free speech is immensely difficult.
Moving beyond Censorship with More Free Speech
It’s hard to know what to do when we confront hate speech online or in our careers. There are strategies that bring to light how counterproductive hate speech is — these strategies may be tough to embrace, but it’s important that we use our own productive speech to make transparent the consequences of hate speech. We can and should confront hate speech by spreading our own counter-speech to make sure hate is not the dominant narrative.
According to guidelines provided by the UN, whenever possible, do not remain silent when you hear hate speech, even if you are not the person being targeted. Speak up calmly but firmly against hate speech. Call it out to make clear that you do not agree with the content of the statement. When it’s relevant, refute misinformation with facts and provide reliable sources to back up your argument. Undermine hateful content with positive messages that spread acceptance, belonging, equality, and truth in defense of those being targeted by hate.
Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley advises us to be on the watch out in organizations for employees, managers, or team leaders who instigate conflict for their own ends — whether that is money, power, or attention. Such arousal can take the form of spreading rumors, talking behind other team members’ backs to disparage them, or involving unnecessary parties in disagreements. Ripley says to distance yourself from these conflicts if possible, as they are rarely beneficial and generally bring down everyone involved.
Leaders, she says, should try to spend more time with people who relish conflict and seek connections or, failing that, to redirect their energy into something that makes them feel important and meaningful. She also recommends that organizations develop guidelines and procedures for resolving conflict in a productive way, as it's more difficult to seize negative opportunities when everyone already knows the rules of engagement.
Mercy Corp, which has for 40 years served as a catalyst and an advocate for positive change, concurs that online and offline community leaders are important advocates who should counter digital threats, particularly disinformation and hate speech. These leaders have the capacity to stand up against false narratives in real time, flag inflammatory content for removal by social media companies, and provide non-partisan online spaces for intercommunal engagement.
As difficult as this sounds, the most effective way to counter the potential negative effects of hate speech is not through censorship but, rather, through more speech. As Stomp Out Bullying suggests, speak out against hate speech — fight racism and bigotry with love, empathy, compassion, and strength. We may not be able to eliminate hatred entirely, but the more steps we can take to educate and support human beings and speak out against injustice, the better this world will become.