Guy Whitehouse argues in the article immediately below that some restrictions are needed on anti-Semitic speech online. In the subsequent piece Daniel Ben-Ami argues for unqualified free speech.
Lord Mann’s report on anti-Semitism notes that social media has led to an increase in the amount of online anti-Semitic content. Young people in particular seem drawn to it.
The damage such material can do is illustrated by the result of Kanye West’s recent tweets saying he was “going death con 3 on Jews”. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that this led to incidents of harassment, vandalism of property, drops of banners containing anti-Semitic messages and alleged physical assault.
According to Lord Mann’s report, attempts to find a technical solution to the problem have met with limited success. Microsoft did alter its Bing search engine to prevent people from being directed to content flagged with the phrase “Jews are b----rds”. There has also been some cross-border co-operation leading to the closure of some websites containing anti-Semitic content.
However, the report also notes that the efforts of various social media platforms to remove anti-Semitic content seem remarkably lacklustre. Research carried out by the ADL in 2022 showed that over a nine-week period, Twitter only removed 5% of the anti-Semitic material on its platform. It also showed 48% of the Holocaust-related material on Telegram, an instant messaging service, either denies or distorts the Holocaust.
A decisive technological solution to the problem seems far off. Allowing people to filter out anti-Semitic content is useful but no doubt trolls and malicious programmers will find ways of bypassing filters. In any case, what if someone needs to see content targeted at them as an individual. For example, a message containing a death threat? Also flagging reports of anti-Semitic contents/incidents to give them a higher priority feels like tinkering around the edges.
The fact that anti-Semitic content is located on servers situated abroad means that national law enforcement agencies will not always be able to remove it. Finally, as the report notes, far right movements are taking advantage of international payment and cryptocurrency systems to facilitate access to their anti-Semitic content.
In Britain the Online Safety Bill is the latest attempt to change the legal framework surrounding controversial online content. Initially the government planned to subject platforms to huge fines if they failed to remove content which was legal but harmful. This is the category that a lot of anti-Semitic material would fall into. However the focus has shifted to empowering users not to see such material.
The government will also publish a list of the sorts of material its want to see tackled. In addition, it will demand a plan from social media platforms showing how they intend to deal with material on that.
Of course the Online Safety Bill has to deal with all manner of controversial material. Attempts to tackle anti-Semitic content have been caught up in arguments raging over various controversial questions. These include protecting free speech in the battle over transgender ideology and alleged attempts by the government to censor those who disagreed with its pandemic policies.
One argument that is usually offered to object to the removal of content which is legal but harmful is that the answer to bad speech is more speech. The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi adopted that position in her recent BBC Reith lecture
In face-to-face debating chambers that might be the case. However, when it comes to the internet, any number of lies “have gone round the world before truth has pulled its boots on”. Can the “more speech” approach be scaled up to tackle the sheer quantity of dangerously anti-Semitic content that continues to appear online?
The determination to censor views both online and offline is clearly apparent in some controversial areas. That was demonstrated by the treatment that gender-critical feminist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known as Posie Parker, recently suffered in New Zealand. The Free Speech Union has certainly got plenty of case material on what can happen when over-zealous officials do not like the views being expressed by certain individuals.
Certainly free speech must be defended in good faith arguments over controversial topics. However it is questionable whether conspiracy theorists and propagators of online anti-Semitic material really engaging in such good faith debates. It seems more likely they are inventing fantasy worlds. These include far-fetched notions which have potentially lethal consequences. If the latter, do their activities really deserve legal protection in the way that good faith free speech debate does?
Points for further research and conclusions
There might be some value in research looking at precisely why young people are drawn to anti-Semitic content. Are the attractions the same as other unacceptable types of material? For example, those that are misogynistic or webpages encouraging suicide. Or is there something particular about the sinister appeal of anti-Semitic material?
The claim that the answer to bad speech is more speech in an internet setting also demands evidence. Have those who actively try to combat online anti-Semitic material by engaging with those who propagate it have had success in countering its effects?
Even if it could be shown that such efforts had been effective, it is disappointing that the Online Safety Bill has been watered down. In fact the Labour Party intends to try to put back some of the provisions removed as a result of lobbying from free speech activists
The difficulty with the approach adopted by free speech activists is that they seem to advocate a one-size-fits-all solution to problematic online material. A multiplicity of approaches is clearly needed. Given the half-hearted attempts at removing anti-Semitic material shown by social media platforms one has to wonder whether they can be described as good faith actors. Weakening the Online Safety Bill is rather like allowing people to play with matches in a room with huge amounts of petrol spilled on the floor.
Daniel Ben-Ami replies
Guy Whitehouse follows what has become the standard approach for advocating limits on freedom of speech. It is what could be called the “I am in favour of free speech but …” argument.
In Guy’s case he implies he is in favour of free speech generally but not for those who propagate conspiracy theories or bad faith arguments. He also makes the additional claim that online speech is particularly problematic because information flows so rapidly on the internet.
It seems to me what Guy is doing in practice is making a case for licensed speech rather than free speech. In his view some higher authority will have to decide what is bad faith speech and what is a conspiracy theory.
But these things are much harder to identify than might appear. What one person regards as a conspiracy theory another might see as a logical explanation. What one person sees as a bad faith argument might be viewed by another as perfectly honest.
Free speech means it should be up to the public to decide which arguments they believe. It should not be up to a judge or a regulator to decide what is permissable.
In any case conspiracy theories need to be tackled as, sadly, they have a lot of purchase. They flourish in an era when the public is largely excluded from political decision-making. Imposing restrictions on speech only strengthens this sense of exclusion and ends up boosting conspiracy theories.
There will also always be bad faith actors. But these need to be challenged in the court of public opinion rather than being given an opportunity to act as martyrs.
In relation to online speech I do not seen a fundamental difference in principle from offline speech. It is true that the internet enhances the ability of anti-Semites to spread their vile ideas. However, it also means those who seek to challenge anti-Semitism can do so more efficiently.
I also believe there are limits to what questions research in this area can resolve. For example, take the claim about the prevalence of Holocaust-distorting material. This is not an area in which Guy calls for further investigation but it illustrates some of the problems research can encounter. The conclusions here are highly dependent on how Holocaust distortion is defined. I suspect I would estimate the levels as much higher than those quoted as I believe that many inadvertently distort the meaning of the Holocaust. For instance, by lumping it together with the casualties of bloody civil wars such as those in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
Guy’s analogy with matches is in some ways apt. Essentially he is arguing that people should only be trusted with matches if they are supervised by a higher authority.
The Radicalism of fools is unequivocally with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi in arguing that the best solution to bad speech is more speech. Free speech is not only an important ideal it is also the only way in practical to tackle the scourge of anti-Semitism.
Reader responses to this debate are welcome. Do you think there should be limits in relation to anti-Semitic speech online? If so how should these be set? And what is the role for research in this area? Email email@example.com
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