Racism and Antisemitism 2.0 Allowed in the U.S.

The expression “Web 2.0” is used by those in the digital-know to refer to dynamic websites where anyone can post content to the site, rather than the old (“Web 1.0”) static brochure-like websites which function more as a one-way transfer of information from “producers” to “consumers.”   Web 2.0 marks a shift away from the old one-to-many model toward a many-to-many model in which everyone is both a producer and a consumer.   Typically, the examples of Web 2.0 are participatory sites like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia (“which anyone can edit”), social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook, video-sharing sites such as YouTube, and resource-sharing sites like Craigslist.

Now it seems racism and antisemitism have gone 2.0, and courts in the U.S. are allowing these trends to proceed unchecked.  The response in the U.S. stands in stark contrast to the response in other Western industrialized nations.    A few examples from the Amsterdam-based International Network Against CyberHate (INACH) illustrate this trend. First up, is a recent court decision involving U.S.-based Craigslist:

“Recently, the well-known online classified site Craigslist.com was the center of a suit filed by Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The group filed the suit, stating it violated the Fair Housing Act when real estate ads ran displaying discriminating statements like, ‘no minorities’ and ‘no children.’  A judge in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Craigslist was not responsible for the listings as they were simply a messenger and should not be liable for the content of the ad.”

The judge in this case felt that it was an “impractical expectation” to suppose that Craigslist-staff could monitor ads at close watch, due to the “complexity of the task.” And, indeed, the model that founder Craig Newmark has developed, relies on an extremly small staff of people to run the site (fewer than 20 people) while users throughout the world do the bulk of the work of posting and responding to ads.   While other users on any Craigslist can “flag” a post as inappropriate, this is not the same as the owners of the site taking action to eliminate racist ads that are in clear violation of the Fair Housing Act.   In effect, the judge in this case has given Craigslist a free pass on racial discrimination because taking action would be “impractical” and “complex.”   In other words, it’s just easier to allow racial discrimination to continue than to figure out some way to address it.

Second, INACH cites examples of antisemitism from Facebook and YouTube:

More than 35,000 people have joined the Facebook group “Israel is not a country! … Delist it from Facebook as a country!” Type “Jew” into the search function on YouTube, and you’ll discover a host of anti-Semitic videos, including “911 Jew Spy Scandal 3” and a video clip in which National Polish Party’s Leszek Bubel declares himself a “proud anti-Semite.”

The article (re-posted from The Daily Titan) includes an interview with Andre Oboler, a post-doctoral fellow studying online public diplomacy at Bar-Ilan University, who says:

“This phenomena is spreading anti-Semitism and acceptability of anti-Semitism in new and increasingly effective ways.  Now in the Web 2.0 world, the social acceptability of anti-Semitism can be spread, public resistance lowered and hate networks rapidly established.”

And, perhaps just as troubling, those who might be most politically inclined to protest such actions are among the least likely to be engaged in Web 2.0 sites in meaningful ways.   As the article mentions, most of those heading progressive organizations have yet to sign up for a Facebook account, don’t spend much time on YouTube and aren’t all that sure what Google Earth is.  Oboler again:

“Community leaders tend to be the sort of people who are too busy to spend time looking at YouTube videos.  They are very, very focused on old media, which is a bit strange, since a lot of people their age are online.”

The attachment to (fetishization, even) of old media among progressives, whether community leaders or academics, does seem to be the prevailing norm and it is puzzling (and, perhaps the subject of another post).    The emergence of racism and antisemitism in the Web 2.0 era is perhaps not surprising given the prevalence of systemic racism that we talk about here often.  And, as defenders of an absolutist interpretation of free speech would be quick to argue, these sorts of racist, antisemitic expressions are regarded as “protected speech” here in the U.S.   But, I concur with the growing number of scholars who argue that hate speech causes harm and the defense of it as “protected speech” is one that values speech rights over human rights.

The acceptance of and tacit approval given these sorts of expressions within the U.S. stand in rather startling juxtaposition to the response by other Western industrialized nations, such as Germany.   Again, a recent (2/28/08) case from  INACH:

“Police in eight German states raided the homes of 23 suspects on Thursday as part of a lengthy probe into the illegal sale of right-wing extremist literature and audio material, the Federal Crime Office (BKA) said. A further 70 suspects had been identified in the investigation, which began in August 2006 after the German unit of U.S. online auction company eBay Inc. reported the sale via the Internet of far-right material, the BKA said. Twenty-four computers, around 50 memory devices and some 3,500 right-wing extremist CDs and LPs had been seized in Thursday’s raids, it added. ‘The measures are a continuation of … the fight against right-wing extremism on the Internet,’ the BKA said. ‘They show that the Internet is not a law-free zone and that online auctions are also checked from incriminating content.’ German laws ban Nazi emblems like the swastika but grant public funds to the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), whose followers implicitly back racist and some Nazi ideas.”

According to the report (originally from Reuters), the German government follows a so-called “four pillar” strategy against right-wing extremism established in 2002.  The “four pillars” include:  1) educate all citizens on human rights, 2) strengthen civil society and promote civil courage, 3) help integrate foreigners and 4) target suspected far-right extremists.  This kind of “four pillar” approach implies an acknowledgment of a connection between the values of a democratic, civil society and the protection of human rights of all citizens.  This approach also acknowledges the threat implicit in racist, antisemitic propaganda and attempts to subvert it before it results in real harm to real people.

Certainly, the value of freedom of speech should be protected.  The freedom of speech in the U.S. constitution (First Amendment) is intended to protect dissent from governmental oppression, and that surely is under attack by the current political regime.     Yet, freedom of speech must always be balanced against the need for equality and human rights protection (Fourteenth Amendment).  The U.S case law developing around expressions of racism and antisemitism in the Web 2.0 era seems to only consider be concerned with a rather narrowly absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment, while placing little or no value on the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal protection under the law.   In my view, the “four pillar” approach that the Germans have adopted comes closer to balancing both the right to free speech and human rights.   As Web 2.0 becomes more and more pervasive, and with it, more expressions of racism and antisemitism, we are going to have to think in more complex and nuanced ways about how to respond to these challenges.


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