We Must Not Answer Violence With Censorship

The social media platform Gab was built on a foundation of free speech – a response to the clear anti-conservative biases of Facebook, Twitter, and other prominent networking sites. The site immediately became a hit with some on the far right who were tired of having their posts removed and their accounts suspended for airing views unpopular with the powers-that-be in Silicon Valley. But now the site finds itself in the mainstream media’s crosshairs, blamed for offering radicals like synagogue shooter Robert Bowers an echo chamber for his hostile anti-semitic opinions.

Among Bowers’ frequent targets online was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which provides support for refugees around the world. In one post, he asserted that “HIAS likes to bring in invaders that kill our people.”

In an interview with CNN, HIAS chief executive Mark Hetfield said there was no room for that kind of speech on the internet.

“The problem here is hate,” Hetfield said. “The problem is, there is a growing space in this country for hate speech. And hate speech always turns into hate actions. And that’s what we are seeing again and again this week.”

Well, we’re not sure that’s accurate. Hate speech ALWAYS turns into hate actions? No, that can’t be right.

Furthermore, while a majority of Americans might review Bowers’ posts and come to the consensus that he was, indeed, engaged in what we might term hate speech, that’s a relatively rare thing. Are any disparaging remarks about the migrant caravan considered hate speech? Any complaints about refugees? Illegal immigration? Is Pamela Geller engaged in hate speech when she lambasts Islam? Many would conclude that she is. The same people who think it’s just fine, by the way, to compare Israel to Nazi Germany or to post endless mainstream articles about the evils of whiteness.

The point is not to condone anything that Bowers might have written in the lead-up to his violent massacre but to recognize that sites like Gab fulfill an important role in the online culture. Yes, extremists use the platform. But so do hundreds of thousands of people who would never dream of taking a gun into a synagogue (or, for that matter, sending a pipe bomb to Hillary Clinton).

In a post totally disavowing the actions of the shooter, Gab defended itself against the accusation that they are somehow complicit in the murders.

“We refuse to be defined by the media’s narratives about Gab and our community,” they wrote on Medium. “Gab’s mission is very simple: to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people. Social media often brings out the best and the worst of humanity. From live streamed murders on Facebook, to threats of violence by bombing suspect Cesar Sayoc Jr. that went unaddressed by Twitter, and more. Criminals and criminal behavior exist on every social media platform.”

As of yet, there’s been no indication that Bowers ever posted a direct call to violence on Gab. As such, his writings were protected by the First Amendment, which is an appropriate standard for a free speech social media platform to use. When we start banning speech because it “might” lead to violence, we’re opening a Pandora’s Box that will ultimately consign true liberty to the past forever.

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