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Op-Ed

Why We Wrote "Viral Hate"

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

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on June 4, 2013

There is an epidemic of Internet hate.

With each advance in technology over the last two decades, from the appearance of web sites and the interactivity of AOL through the blossoming of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and the recent explosion in mobile computing and texting, we have seen how anti-Semites, racists anti-Islamists, homophobes, misogynists, anti-immigrants and other kinds of haters have embraced the new technologies to spread their lives, to recruit and to mislead.

From the earliest years of the Internet era it became clear that the haters would be among the first not only to recognize the incredible potential of this technology, but successfully exploit it for their own ends.

Today, while it is a marvelous medium for education, communication, entertainment and commerce, the ways in which the Internet is being used to disseminate and promote hateful and violent beliefs and attitudes are astounding, varied and continually multiplying.

In an effort to look more closely at the extent of the problem -- and to probe for possible solutions -- I recently joined together with my longtime friend and colleague Christopher Wolf, an expert in Internet law and Chair of the Anti-Defamation League's Civil Rights Committee, to explore these issues and to offer a blueprint for the Internet industry, the world community and societies to work together toward a solution.

The result of this collaborative effort is our new book, Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet (Palgrave Macmillan), available in bookstores and for download to e-readers today.

Facebook's announcement that it would tighten its policies on hate speech posts in response to complaints from users about misogynistic posts, including pictures of women being beaten and messages promoting violence against women, was the most recent reminder of the problems posed by online hate speech.

In a letter in today's New York Times, we commend Facebook for tackling the issue head on, and will be working with them in the coming months as they see to develop new tactics to address hate speech on their pages.

There is certainly much more work to be done.

Our book offers an in-depth look at the extent of the problem from the unique perspective of two individuals who have dedicated much of our lives to fighting hate. Chris and I have each experienced and witnessed, in different ways, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other forms of hate. And we have each worked on the frontlines in raising awareness of the problem of hate speech on the Internet.

In the book we share our combined professional knowledge of the issue of Internet hate, raise awareness of the seriousness of a rapidly growing societal problem, and propose ways in which good people - including the leaders of the Internet industry - can address the problem without compromising our vital historic commitment to freedom of expression.

We acknowledge and explore the delicate balancing act between freedom of speech as enshrined in the First Amendment and the obligation of Internet providers to provide a safe environment for users.

One key challenge is identifying hate speech. Our book enumerates the myriad examples of hate speech: racism, anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, promotion of terrorism and cyberbullying are among those materials that fall under the broad heading of hate speech.

We also look at the real-world impact of online hate, and show how the Internet has changed the ability of bigots to reach thousands of followers with the click of a mouse. James von Brunn, the self-proclaimed white supremacist and anti-Semite who was charged with first-degree murder in the 2009 shooting of a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, was a garden-variety hater of a kind that, sad to say, has existed for centuries.

In the old days he would have been relegated to using mail to communicate his rage to like-minded individuals, and the only place for him to have his benighted views applauded might be in a secret meeting hall down a dark alley somewhere. The Internet changed all that. Like so many bigots, von Brunn discovered that electronic communications could be a boon to his warped causes. On the Internet von Brunn found validation for his rage.

But defining hate speech can be profoundly complicated. For this reason, decisions concerning the regulation of online content that are made by one or a few people, behind closed doors, and announced as fiats by corporate or government officials are likely to be controversial, widely rejected and ultimately unsustainable.

The only practical solution, we believe, is a collaborative approach - one that brings a wide array of stakeholders to the table to discuss the challenges and opportunities openly and to strive to craft solutions that everyone can live with.

It is absolutely fundamental not only to create a more civil society, but also to empower kids to protect themselves online, so that when they group up they will understand that certain words and behaviors are not acceptable.

So there's a brief overview of "Viral Hate." Along the way we also look at the legal and legislative remedies that have been proposed, and why not all of them will work. And we discuss how societies need to step up to the plate to promote digital literacy so that children can be taught the rules of appropriate online behavior.

For this and more, I hope you will join us -- and read the book.

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"From the earliest years of the Internet era, it became clear that the haters would be among the first not only to recognize the incredible potential of this technology, but successfully exploit it for their own ends."

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