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Free Speech Or Hate Speech: When Does Online Hate Speech Become A Real Threat?


In this month's All Tech Considered, we're looking at toxic content online - what it is and what's to be done about it.


CORNISH: It's become part of the routine after a horrific event like a mass shooting. The suspect's social media posts are often examined and often found to be filled with hate speech. The Supreme Court has ruled that hate speech generally is protected under the Constitution. The question is, when does online hate speech become a real threat? NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: For Rochelle Ritchie, a political commentator who is frequently on television, it was obvious the man who tweeted at her, quote, "kiss your loved ones when you leave home" following a TV appearance was threatening her. But when she reported him to Twitter, Twitter sent her a reply saying it concluded that this was not an abusive tweet. Ritchie was frustrated.

ROCHELLE RITCHIE: What is offensive behavior? Do I have to be walking out of my condo building and end up being physically hurt or harmed in order for it to be taken seriously?

GARSD: Just a few weeks later, the man who threatened Ritchie is accused of sending over a dozen explosive devices nationwide. Turns out he threatened other people on Twitter, too. But online behavior isn't always this easy to define. Take the recent shooting spree at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The alleged shooter had a history of anti-Semitic ranting on the social media site Gab. It was hateful, but...


ANDREW TORBA: I don't know. Do you see a direct threat in there? 'Cause I don't.

GARSD: That's Andrew Torba, the CEO and founder of Gab. He spoke to NPR the day after the shooting.


TORBA: Censorship and pushing these people into the shadows is never going to be the answer. Guns do not kill people. Social media platforms do not kill people. People kill people.

GARSD: Torba isn't the only one who thinks this. Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says...

JONATHAN RAUCH: My view is that minorities are better off in a society that protects hate speech than in a society that protects minorities from hate speech.

GARSD: Rauch, who is Jewish and has been active in the gay rights movement for decades, believes that confronting hate speech has been key to the advancement of civil rights in America.

RAUCH: Trying to deal with hate by repressing hate speech is like trying to deal with global warming by breaking the thermometers. The problem isn't the speech. The problem is the hate. And the way you deal with that problem is by understanding and confronting it.

GARSD: Heidi Beirich is the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. Their position is hate speech can and often does lead to violence.

HEIDI BEIRICH: We know people are radicalized by interacting with others to learn how to hate black people or Jews or so on.

GARSD: Beirich points to one egregious case - Myanmar, a country where the military recently published posts on Facebook spreading hateful misinformation about the Rohingya Muslim minority. The United Nations has said those posts contributed to the mass murder, rape and forced exodus of the Rohingya. And Facebook acknowledges it was too slow in removing anti-Muslim hate speech in Myanmar. But it's been cautious about censoring hate speech in America. Just a few months ago, it got into hot water for allowing Holocaust deniers.

BEIRICH: The Law Center has called on these tech companies to rid their platforms of this material. We're just going to get more violence as this stuff proliferates.

GARSD: But the Southern Poverty Law Center itself has come into controversy over who it labels a hate group. And then there's the question of pushing hate groups further underground where they might be hard to monitor.

BEIRICH: Even if the extremists leave these big platforms and end up somewhere else, the reach of their propaganda has now been reduced. I would rather have extremists preaching to the choir than preaching to the masses and converting more people to their ideas.

GARSD: Facebook is at least taking an additional step in that direction. It recently announced that it's creating a new independent board to monitor content complaints. Free speech experts say here's the thing. The First Amendment prevents government censorship. Private social media companies like Facebook and Twitter - they can do whatever they want. The question remains. Are we better off if they do? Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.