Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
This article originally appeared in The Miami Herald on January 29, 2010
With tragedy unfolding in Haiti, a relatively unknown blogger and self-appointed YouTube pundit took to the "airwaves'" with a message for the people of Port-au-Prince: Earthquake victims beware!
His warning was as bizarre as it was outrageous: That the Israelis involved in rendering humanitarian assistance and manning a mobile hospital unit were possibly "harvesting organs" for profit as part of the rescue operation. After all, he insinuated in a deadpan delivery, the Israelis had done it before and could do so again.
There was once a time when this kind of unfounded conspiracy theory would have found no audience beyond the small cadre of followers of the messenger, identified only as "T. West." But today's Internet is a kind of Wild Wild West, where any unfounded or outrageous accusation has the capability of reaching a global audience -- and of assuming a patina of truth.
The Israeli "organ harvesting" conspiracy theory YouTube video was picked up and reported as fact by, among others, such far-flung entities as the official state-funded news channel of Iran and the news site of an armed wing of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
This soapbox has made it easy for anyone to "broadcast yourself," as the YouTube slogan goes, and many do with nefarious intent and without fear of the consequences. Within minutes, any spurious allegation or rumor posted online is repeated, spread and embraced as fact.
The Internet's increasingly user-driven social-networking sites are a boon not only to those who put them to use for positive purposes -- for sharing news and video from the recent anti-government protests in Iran, for example -- but to those who spread incitement, malicious rumors, extremism and hatred.
Yet the question of how to handle controversial or bigoted speech on the Internet is fraught with tension. On the one hand, the world has never seen a more vibrant, compelling marketplace of ideas. On the other, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this remarkable marketplace can be extraordinarily harmful and offensive, and even serve as a recruitment tool for violent groups.
Internet providers continue to grapple with the issues of how to deal with offensive speech. One wonders, for example, why the enormously popular Facebook, with a community of about 300 million and growing, refuses to block groups that deny the reality or scope of the Holocaust, but retains a policy against hosting pictures of women breastfeeding.
Similar issues confront every platform built to facilitate communication and community.
James Von Brunn, the 88-year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist, anti-Semite and Holocaust denier who carried out the shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last June, was no neophyte when it came to using the Internet.
Over six years Von Brunn changed his site registration 61 times and changed hosting services five times. The changes may have been administrative, attempts to hide the true ownership of the site, or in response to violations of the terms of service of those Internet providers that at one time provided him a platform.
Extremists were among the first to recognize the Internet's potential as a powerful megaphone for recruitment and for spewing hatred, and have continued to be on the cutting edge of exploiting its use.
The social networking technologies of Web-2.0 have created new perils in society too, especially among young people. The proliferation of online social networking has led to the growing and troubling phenomenon of cyberbullying, or the ability to use (and abuse) the fairly new technologies of instant messaging, cell phones, texting and online networking to harass and intimidate.
Cyberbullying can damage reputations and destroy lives. Last November, the problem hit close to home for Floridians, when a group of students in north Naples were suspended for allegedly organizing a "kick a Jew day." It was reported that some students had used the Internet and text-messaging to spread the word.
While the First Amendment protects essentially all hate speech, except that of direct threats against specific people, it does not mean that we should accept hate on the Internet as something that we are powerless to confront.
There is a role to play for Internet users, Internet companies, educators and parents. We need to identify and develop practical solutions to the pressing issue of online hate, so that the extremists do not get the upper hand.
The challenge is how to tame the Wild Wild West while adhering to the First Amendment.