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How online hate speech moves from the fringes to the mainstream

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protest sexual misconduct hate speech smartphone cellphone social mediaDrew Angerer/Getty Images

  • Hate speech on social media may not encapsulate what all
    Americans are thinking, but the way these sites work amplifies
    the strong, and sometimes controversial, opinions that some
    Americans have.
  • In response to an increase in political violence of late,
    social media platforms have started to take a “war room” approach
    to dealing with hate speech.
  • This means that the companies’ executives are consulting with
    other decision-makers to curb the spread of hate speech in real
    time.
  • To some degree, that effort helps smaller platforms, like
    Gab, a social network popular with the far-right, attract those
    who want to engage in hate speech without fear of being
    regulated.
  • Gab was inundated with anti-Semitic comments after last
    weekend’s shooting
    at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
    .

If you searched for the word, “Jew” on Instagram on Monday, just
two days after a
gunman fatally shot 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life
synagogue in Pittsburgh
, Pennsylvania, you would find nearly
12,000 posts with the hashtag “#jewsdid911,” along with several
others containing anti-Semitic rhetoric, according to
The New York Times
.

While such malicious, targeted comments populate social media
sites, they do not accurately reflect the thoughts of all
Americans, but it does mean that people quickly become aware that
hate speech is part of the conversation, University of Southern
California professor Karen North, an expert on social media
trends, told Business Insider in a phone interview on Tuesday.

North said this was because most social media sites operate on a
mathematical algorithm that calculates when a user searches for a
word like “Jew,” a number of recommendations are offered based on
what is trending.

While the majority of recommendations that surface when a user
searches for a topic generally reflect common civil discourse
about that topic, an in-depth search often leads to darker,
malicious conversations, North said.

“On most of the social media platforms when you search a topic it
will find you what other people are looking for and unfortunately
the dark side of the search is that while most of the information
that you find will be the conversations and the information and
the news, the other part of it will be the negative and hateful
content that people are sharing with each other,” North said.

Social media sites like Facebook have created “war rooms” in an
effort to combat the level of hate speech on their platforms,
North said. Similar to the way politicians hunker down and seek
outside counsel during pivotal moments, social media sites are
bringing together several off-site decision-makers to explore
what is happening on their sites in real-time.

For example,
Facebook is using this approach
to address election-meddling.

When responding to the online reactions to the tragic shooting at
a synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday, executives from social
media sites will likely have their analytics teams scan their
respective platforms to identify comments containing hate speech
that might become a problem. They will then consult with their
legal teams on what actions should be taken.


Read more:

The suspected Pittsburgh shooter allegedly had a following on a
social network that many call the far-right’s alternative to
Twitter — here’s everything we know about Gab

Once the company executives determine an appropriate course of
action, they will have their technical teams execute it.

That course of action predominately involves social media sites
recoding their algorithms so that comments containing hate speech
do not come up when users search for a topic. This practice will
likely be effective in limiting the spread of hate speech through
social media in the future, North said.

“We see hashtags or we see recommendations when they have already
become popular enough to be recommended or to be ranked on the
algorithm,” North said. “But the company can see the activity and
the growth of the activity before they ever recommend it to us
so, ideally, they will be able to identify a conversation,
evaluate it, make a decision about whether or not it is actually
promoting anti-social behavior and then intervene before we are
ever aware of it.”

While the argument has been made that the First Amendment of the
US Constitution establishes that social media companies should
not limit free speech, North asserts that the right to free
speech does not extend to businesses like Facebook, Instagram and
Twitter. Consequently, social media companies can legally dictate
what shows up on their sites, which is apparent in the
user-agreement contracts that users agree to when creating their
personal profiles.

Social media companies like Twitter employ these user-agreements
in part to help curb hate speech on the website in real-time.

“They will create rules that stop cyber bullying or hate speech
or pornography or other malicious behavior itself in order to
retain the people that are active and engaged members of their
communities, and push away those who are causing trouble and
discontent on their sites,” North said.

When mainstream social media platforms take action to stop hate
speech, it creates a market opportunity for smaller social media
sites like
Gab
, the site popular with the far-right, to develop and
target people engaging in that type of hurtful rhetoric, North
said

“They find their own communities where they can have their own
conversations” in what is for them a “socially appropriate
venue,” North said. “Those are sites that most of us are unaware
of.”

Gab was forced to shut down after its web host and several other
sites
blocked it from accessing their services,
but Gab declared on
Tuesday that it
plans to keep operating
.

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