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.”