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Op-Ed

The Challenge of Cyberhate

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on February 11, 2014

Earlier this week the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee held a hearing on online hate speech.  ADL and other organizations were invited to present their views on the best ways to effectively combat the growing presence of anti-Semitic and other hate filled content on the Internet.  The hearing was timely, and the issue warrants even greater public attention. 

The Internet is a magnificent, enormously powerful tool, and it has been a tremendous positive force for scientific research, for medicine, for scholars of all kinds, for educators, for journalists, for artists – for most of us.  But the Internet also has a sinister side, and for an organization like ADL with a mandate to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of hate, that sinister side is cause for considerable concern.

Today, all Internet users, including children who lack the critical judgment to recognize and understand hate, are regularly confronted with it.  They can access hate music on iTunes, watch videos produced by anti-Semites on YouTube, easily and unwittingly wind up on Holocaust denial pages on Facebook, and find themselves in gaming environments where on-screen violence is coupled with the real-time bigotry brought about by instant communications with strangers.  Add in the surge in cyber-bullying, the power of smartphones to access online content, and the ubiquity of texting, and our kids are more vulnerable than ever before.

Today’s technology has also enabled terrorists and haters to spread their messages more broadly.  If the hate were contained within the virtual world, it would, of course, still be a cause for concern.  But even more alarming is how the dissemination of hatred on the Internet spawns violent real world behavior.   Extremists are using new technologies to recruit and to plan rallies, gatherings and terrorist acts, and they are able to coordinate their activities in ways unimaginable even a few years ago.

It might be tempting to look to the law to address the broad problem of Internet hate, but the international nature of the Internet makes that option largely impractical.  Hate speech is hard to define, the line between hate speech and honest dissent is blurry, and any laws passed in an attempt to limit hateful content on the Internet would be virtually impossible to enforce. However, parliaments and legislatures can play an important role by holding hearings which provide forums to highlight the dangers to society from the unbridled spread of hate on the Internet and to learn from experts in civil society and the internet industry about the tools available and best practices being developed to stem the proliferation of hatred on the Internet.

ADL's mantra has always been that sunlight is the best disinfectant and the best response to bad speech is more speech – counter-speech. That requires education, with an emphasis on critical thinking. We must teach our children to approach content they encounter online with the same careful consideration they would use in the “real world”—and we must empower them with the tools they need to respond, sometimes by reporting it, sometimes by responding online themselves, and sometimes both.

The need for such tools prompted us to create a Cyber-Safety Action Guide that provides links to the relevant Terms of Service of all of the major Internet companies, and makes it easier to file complaints.

Because the volume of content is so enormous, most of the major companies depend upon their community of users to flag offensive content.  For that reason, it is vitally important for people to flag offensive content they encounter online, to speak out, and to applaud positive messages.

We have also been working directly to encourage Internet companies to pursue stricter enforcement of provisions in their Terms of Service.  The bad news is that the virus of bigotry is proving to be as pernicious online as it is in the real world, and finding an effective treatment remains elusive.   The good news is the industry seems finally to be coming to grips with the scope of the problem and showing a willingness to explore strategies to confront it.

Civil society and governments should continue to encourage Internet companies to develop and expand those strategies.

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"...parliaments and legislatures can play an important role by holding hearings which provide forums to highlight the dangers to society from the unbridled spread of hate on the Internet..."

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