Fear Speech

I don’t know whether kids these days still employ that time-honored riposte to verbal insults: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!

If that sing-song phrase is no longer heard, it may be because it is abundantly clear that words can hurt. Words can hurt the individuals at whom they are aimed, and they can hurt the culture that tolerates them.

That realization is no reason to abandon the protections of the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause–an abandonment that would give government the right to dictate citizens’ communications–but it does require citizens to be aware of the multitude of ways politicians and special interests use language to motivate behaviors.

Which brings me to a thoughtful column I read a while back in the New York Times.The author began by quoting an unmoderated tweet posted to Twitter, calling for transgender Americans to be “eradicated.” It hadn’t been taken down because it didn’t violate the platform’s rule against hate speech. (The current disaster that is Twitter under Elon Musk isn’t relevant to this particular issue.) Instead, the post was an example of what the essay called “Fear Speech. After quoting other, similar posts, the author wrote:

None of this was censored by the tech platforms because neither Mr. Knowles nor CPAC violated the platforms’ hate speech rules that prohibit direct attacks against people based on who they are. But by allowing such speech to be disseminated on their platforms, the social media companies were doing something that should perhaps concern us even more: They were stoking fear of a marginalized group.

It’s hard to argue against the author’s assertion that fear is currently being weaponized even more than hate by partisans who are looking for votes, and ideologues seeking to spark violence. Commenters to this blog have often made a similar point, noting the political utility of stoking fears–and noting as well that it’s a tactic especially effective with uneducated/uninformed Americans.

Most tech platforms do not shut down false fear-inciting claims such as “Antifa is coming to invade your town” and “Your political enemies are pedophiles coming for your children.” But by allowing lies like these to spread, the platforms are allowing the most perilous types of speech to permeate our society.

Susan Benesch, the executive director of the Dangerous Speech Project, said that genocidal leaders often use fear of a looming threat to prod groups into pre-emptive violence. Those who commit the violence do not need to hate the people they are attacking. They just need to be afraid of the consequences of not attacking.

The author provides examples: the Rwandan genocide in 1994 was preceded by Hutu politicians warning the Hutus that they were about to be exterminated by Tutsis; Nazi propagandists triggered the Holocaust by warning that Jews were planning to annihilate the German people; Serbs engaged in genocide after being warned that fundamentalist Muslims were planning a genocide against them.

Benesch was quoted as saying she was” stunned at how similar this rhetoric is from case to case.”

“It’s as if there’s some horrible school that they all attend.” The key feature of dangerous speech, she argued, is that it persuades “people to perceive other members of a group as a terrible threat. That makes violence seem acceptable, necessary or even virtuous.”

A recent study found that “fear speech” promoted more engagement with a social media platform than hate speech–and that it was much more difficult for algorithms to identify.

There is no easy answer. Calling on social media platforms to police Fear speech runs into some thorny problems. As with so many of the difficult issues we face, our best defense is a thoughtful and civically-knowledgable polity.

In the end, algorithms aren’t going to save us. They can demote fear speech but not erase it. We, the users of the platforms, also have a role to play in challenging fearmongering through‌ counterspeech, in which leaders and bystanders negatively respond to fear-based incitement. The goal of counterspeech is not necessarily to change the views of true believers but rather to provide a counter‌narrative for people watching on the sidelines.

The essay’s bottom line echoes what I used to call my “refrigerator theory of free speech.” If you leave a leftover morsel on a back shelf in your refrigerator, it will eventually start to smell. If you place that same leftover under strong sunlight, it will lose its power to pollute.

A dedicated minority of educated and engaged citizens can–and must– provide that sunlight.

What was that famous Margaret Mead quote? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


  1. Fascinating timing. I just republished an article from Matt Taibbi, who wrote about the #TwitterFiles which was evidence of the US Government censoring Twitter accounts via the algorithm.


    It’s primarily about the industry (Top 50) spoon-feeding the media resources they use to write the articles that get published. Matt called it the Censorship-Industrial Complex (CIC).

    The CICs are the entities owned by the Oligarchs who feed the media their storylines. Matt didn’t include universities, but plenty is peddling Oligarch fantasies.

    Can you say foreign election influence?

    The USG has been funding the far-right candidates overseas who will stamp out workers and accept neoliberal capitalism. Anti-socialists.

    It’s worked for years (FEAR), but it’s being exposed to the sunlight. The Lefties are waking up despite the great efforts of Biden/Clinton/Obama. Think Governor Gavin Newsome from California. They are already testing the waters on Twitter.

    No to Biden, Yes to Newsome. Todd Rokita would have a heart attack!!!! LOL

  2. For in their mouth there is nothing trustworthy; Their inward part is adversity indeed.Their throat is an opened burial place; A smooth tongue they use.

    Romans 3:13
    13 “Their throat is an opened grave, they have used deceit with their tongues.” “Poison of asps is behind their lips.”

    Psalm 12:2
    2 Untruth they keep speaking one to the other; With a smooth lip they keep speaking even with a double heart.

    5 So, too, the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it makes great brags. See how small a fire it takes to set a great forest ablaze! 6 The tongue is also a fire. The tongue represents a world of unrighteousness among our body members, for it defiles all the body and sets the whole course of life on fire, and it is set on fire by Ge·henʹna. 7 For every kind of wild animal and bird and reptile and sea creature is to be tamed and has been tamed by humans. 8 But no human can tame the tongue. It is unruly and injurious, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we praise God, the Father, and yet with it we curse men who have come into existence “in the likeness of God.” 10 Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, it is not right for things to happen this way. 11 A spring does not cause the fresh water and the bitter water to bubble out of the same opening, does it? 12 My brothers, a fig tree cannot produce olives, or a grapevine figs, can it? Neither can salt water produce fresh water.
    13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him by his fine conduct demonstrate works performed with a mildness that comes from wisdom.

    I think this is pretty good counsel and perspective. Those who claim Christianity seem not to be able to follow Christian teachings!

  3. I know several people with throat cancer who never smoked. A medical mystic, Carolyn Myss would say they are suffering from not telling a big truth about themselves since they have a “dis-ease” of the mouth. The Throat Chakra is all about truth-telling. 😉

    Hindusim aligning with Christianity.

  4. Semantics: the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meanings. There are a number of branches and subbranches of semantics…which studies the cognitive structure of meanings.” Oxford Dictionaries

    Sheila; ”
    Commenters to this blog have often made a similar point, noting the political utility of stoking fears–and noting as well that it’s a tactic especially effective with uneducated/uninformed Americans.”

    A wise old friend once told me, after I was totally misunderstood by the person I was speaking to, that “We are not always responsible for the results of what we say.” Back in the 1970s that was true; not today with too many of our elected educated/informed lawmakers directing their fear-filled warnings to those uneducated/uninformed voters who keep them in office.

    The words and actions of our President Joe Biden are misinterpreted, misunderstood or directly ignored because he speaks with low-key intelligence and gives us facts and figures we can believe. The weeks of fear-mongering about the coming border disaster has so far not happened. For almost 30 years Republicans have warned Americans that the Democrats are coming for their guns…when is this action scheduled to begin? We are dealing with the fear of looming debt level solution being reached; the Constitution ALLOWS the country to incur debts and DEMANDS it pays those debts in full. The “Fear Speech” coming from Trump, McConnell, McCarthy, Taylor-Greene, Jordan and others in the MAGA, White Supremacist, Freedom Caucus is to be feared because, like Hitler’s warning of annihilation, they can carry out the threat with their slim majority of Fascists. The possibility of their ending democracy, Rule of Law and the Constitution is already a Constitutional crisis and they so far remain ABOVE THE LAW due to freedom of speech. Justice delayed is justice denied! Follow the money!

    As for CNNs disastrous airing of Trump’s FIRST Town Hall Meeting; what did they think he was going to say? Do they not watch their own newscasters and the 8 years of reporting Trump’s lies? MSNBC’s Chris Hayes showed films of the audience at that speech; all Trump supporter but many sat stunned and did not applaud and cheer. Will they be heard from at the polls; or like the sitting Republicans in House and Senate sitting fearful, mute and idle, will they “follow their leader” and vote them all back in office?

    Happy Mother’s Day!

  5. When someone who shares a common fear who speaks with wisdom, I listen with healthy skepticism. Fear in this context is healthy.

    When someone invokes fear from a position of self indulged power with immunity from that which they speak … I thank the powers who give me the option “delete and report as junk”.

  6. A really nice essay for the day.
    Regarding Twitter, as soon as Musk bought it I saw what was going to happen in that space, so I cancelled my account. guess what? Disaster did not happen, my life has been lighter and better and less encumbered. Now, it is true that I was never a big Twit guy, and I had literally tens of followers, so it was not a big deal to me or anyone else. And, I will tell you, it is not an easy process to get unencumbered because the Twits will not let you simply leave. But you can do it, and it is a good thing.
    Now, for BookFace…

  7. Do you ever wonder why newspapers do not publish the kinds of innuendos and slanderous comments that appear on social media platforms? Because the owners know that such things would hurt their advertising revenues. So, why do the social media not worry about that? Because their audiences eat up the trash that they (the audiences) post, so their influence is not affected, and the revenues keep flowing in. If say, half the people who post on Twitter were to close their accounts, the effect would be felt quickly.

  8. Your lead-in reminded me of something my daughter wrote many years ago….”Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break my heart.”

  9. All speech cometh from values…in a culture where the “F word” is common and there are no longer any curse words for when you do something stupid and where “I can do/drive/dress/live however I want to and it is part of my ‘brand'”, why are we surprised when the all too human tendency toward prejudice gets put into words?

  10. Lester,

    Absolutely! There are times when one might want to waste some time watching a movie, and my wife says well, all these movies are effed up! And by that she means they’re loaded with unintellectual cursing. And, what’s the point? People become so indoctrinated and used to it, a curse is uttered several times in a sentence. There is no wisdom in cursing, it just proves how ignorant one can be. Most of those individuals, they cannot speak without cursing. Even if they tried, they wouldn’t be able to. They’d sit there with a doofus-like face trying to figure out another word to use besides a curse.

    Any wonder how individuals like Santos show up? Everything about them is a lie. What they speak are lies, a walking deception, They imitate their God, Satan! The word Satan actually translates to deceiver. So there you have it!

  11. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the mothers. step-mothers, foster mothers, and single men doing a mother’s job (especially those raising girls). Teach your children to be strong, brave, and most of all, to be kind.

  12. The CNN issue seems to be related to the new CEO’s apparent politics, but it may have
    helped nail TFG’s political coffin.

    Fear has been, it seems clearly, the major motivator for all sorts of horrid things, including
    the growth of the Tea Party, and its spore.

    On another hand, the fear of loosing control has been a major motivator for the fear-mongering
    on the right!

  13. Happy Mother’s Day to all. When we see someone say eradicate, it raises red flags. We are to be loving kind to all, full of compassion. Fear causes people to make wrong statements, lacking understanding.
    When you’re on one side or another of any argument and forget to be loving careful and kind, you forget people are involved.

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