The baby and the bathwater: free speech and online extremism – Tauhid Zaman

MIT Sloan Assistant Professor Tauhid Zaman

From The Hill

As a Muslim American, I was shocked by the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand that took the lives of 50 completely innocent people and injured scores of others in March. The tragedy was made more sickening by the fact that the alleged gunman, reportedly a white supremacist, live-streamed the first attack on Facebook Live.

The fact that the attack happened during the Muslim Friday prayer, a religious service I attend regularly myself, left me deeply shaken and heartbroken. Besides privately grieving for those who perished in Christchurch, I also attended public rallies to show solidarity with the victims in the aftermath of the carnage in New Zealand.

But there’s something you won’t see me doing: Calling for a crackdown on what some deem offensive speech on social media — and a crackdown on what some consider extremist right-wing speech on social media in particular, as many have called for in the wake of the tragic Christchurch mosque shootings.

I know this may surprise some people. As I said, as a Muslim, I was particularly outraged by the slaughter in New Zealand. But I’m not outraged to the extent that I believe that:

  • Censorship of speech, whether by governments or near-monopolistic social media corporations, is an appropriate response to extremism; and
  • censorship of speech is an effective way to combat extremism.

To be clear: I applaud the swift action of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social-media sites to take down videos of the Christchurch shootings. Indeed, Facebook reported it removed or blocked 1.5 million videos in the first 24 hours after the attacks.

To me, these videos were nothing more than sick snuff films; pornographic videos of actual murders of innocent human beings. There’s simply no place for such vile videos on social media.

I also believe there’s no place, anywhere and at any time, for people to threaten and openly call for violence against others on social media. There are common-sense limits to free speech — and that limit is reached when it comes to encouraging and advocating violence.

What I oppose is the censorship of controversial speech, versus dangerous speech, and I believe we unfortunately crossed that line on social media even before the New Zealand mosque shootings.

Most of us have now heard of social-media firms cracking down on, say, right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the blocking of sites and posts by other conservatives.

Some may dismiss the complaints of conservatives that they are being unfairly targeted by social-media giants, but to do so ignores a potentially serious problem.

Read the full post at The Hill.

Tauhid Zaman is an Associate Professor of Operations Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

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