Cyber Hate Divide: Contrasting Responses to Hate Online

In the last few days, there have been two stories in the news which highlight the very different approaches to hate online in the U.S. and in the U.K.    The story from here in the U.S. involves a racist image of Michelle Obama (drawn to look like an ape).   The image first appeared online because someone posted it on their blog (the image has since been removed from the blog).  Once the image was online, it quickly appeared at the top of Google’s results when anyone did a Google-image search for “Michelle Obama.”   Whether or not this was a result of a “Google bomb” (an intentional manipulation of Google’s algorithm) or just a fluke, remains the subject of some debate.   Those on the right in the U.S., such as FoxNews, are pointing out that this Google bomb was quickly diffused, unlike Bush’s Google bomb.  For it’s part, Google (the leading search engine company based in California), bought ads warning users about “offensive results” and apologized, yet still claims no responsibility for the images appearing in Google search results.

Mostly, though, opinion in the U.S. about this incident follow along the line of this piece in the AtlanticOnline (a mainstream to left publication).  Derek Thompson writes:

The Internet is unwieldy boundlessness of content, some of which is utterly depraved. But that’s to be expected when you’re talking about the sum of all knowledge and information in the world. Racist images aren’t illegal. And researching examples of racism online isn’t only legal, it’s can also be useful for journalists, social academics and anybody trying to piece together fragments of the zeitgeist. Google isn’t the editor in chief of the internet, it’s a curator. It’s job is to organize and I hope it doesn’t delete or de-index content just because it’s offensive — and especially not because it’s offensive to important people.

And, Thompson is correct in his assessment of the U.S. landscape around these issues.  The bind, of course, is in the line I’ve highlighted in bold there above: Racist images aren’t illegal here in the U.S.  This one fact makes taking other sorts of action difficult, but not impossible.  And, the reason these images are not illegal in the U.S. is that many people here want to argue that the First Amendment, which is designed to protect dissent against the government, protects all manner of racist speech.   Or, in the line of reasoning above, the Internet simply contains too much information for it to be possible to ever regulate it.   But, the right to free speech and being indexed by the search engine Google are two different things.   As one of the commenters after that piece at the AtlanticOnline points out: being on the Internet and being indexed by Google are two different things.  No one has a constitutionally protected right to have their online content indexed by Google.

Let’s take a look at another example from the U.K.    Two men were convicted  for publishing racist hate speech, including “Tales of the Holohoax.”  These postings of online hate were reported to the police in 2004 after concerned citizens saw them.  This action is possible in the U.K. because it is against the law to incite racial hatred either in print or online.  The two men were sentenced under U.K. law to four years and two years in Leeds Crown Court in July, 2009.  The story is back in the news now because the two men are appealing their convictions saying that the websites, which were hosted on servers in the U.S., would be “entirely lawful” here.  And, they’re right.  Effectively poinitng out that the U.S. functions as a haven for hate online.

What’s still unclear is how the courts will rule in this case.


  1. jwbe

    racist images or racist speech is not automatically illegal in European countries. Some countries have specific laws concerning the Holocaust but not prohibiting racism in general.
    And while there are probably no studies comparing message boards from different countries, I think you will read much more blatant racism on German political message boards than on US political msbs, but I have also the impression that on German msbs you will also find more people challenging the racism online. It of course depends also on the individual message board.
    The problem I see is subtle racism which in many cases remains undetected because too many whites only consider blatant racism as problematic and it also can’t be challenged with laws.

  2. S.L. Toddard

    “And, the reason these images are not illegal in the U.S. is that many people here want to argue that the First Amendment, which is designed to protect dissent against the government, protects all manner of racist speech.”

    It does. That’s not really in contention. You’re arguing that it shouldn’t be? You believe we should amend our Constitution to criminalize doubleplus ungood crimethink?

  3. No1KState

    Maybe the difference in Germany, jwbe, is that there’s a sense of empowerment for people combatting racism. Here, depending on the site, sometimes, pointing out racism garners more criticism than the racism itself.
    Personally, I think there should be some type of prohibition/regulation against racist/hate speech. It’s been shown time and time, and time and time, and time again that speech that dehumanizes or promotes hate implicitly permits discriminatory and actual hate crime. So we should fine hate speech if not put people in jail. We’re gonna mess around and someone’s gonna take Psalm 109:8 Pray for Obama seriously and be the answers to the prayers.

  4. jilliancyork

    I think it’s also really important to note that, in other countries, Google DOES manipulate its search results. In Argentina, there were a few cases of porn companies using the names of famous people (Diego Maradona for one) to manipulate results and thus advertise their sites. In that case, Google (or Yahoo, apologies for my lack of memory) actually removed ALL results at the request of Maradona.

  5. jilliancyork

    I am, ftr, totally opposed to banning “hate speech.” While it’s obvious that calling Michelle Obama an ape is a racist act, not all “hate speech” is so obvious. The second the United States begins regulating so-called “hate speech” is the second we can no longer criticize government, foreign governments, etc.

    Example: I’ve been accused of anti-Semitic hate speech for criticizing the Israeli regime’s apartheid practices. Hate speech? No. But put one wrong judge on the case, and voila!

    Better to leave the First Amendment as it is. Google, on the other hand, should have the right to remove that from their search results, and should do so. Private company.

  6. No1KState

    I’m not in favor of banning speech I disagree with.

    I’m in favor of banning speech that promotes a racial/gender hierarchy and/or crime against people on the basis of race or gender. Yes, there can be some disagreement as to what constitutes racism, as jilliancyork points out. But criticizing apartheid in Israel is quite different from criticizing Israel as a nation for [antiSemitic joke here] Jews.

    We can construct guidelines to use to determine whether a statement is racist or not. Like first, is it true? Is there a history of this concept being used against/to oppress/subjugate the particular people group, ie blacks as criminal. We could handle it the same way we do slander, which most politicians know doesn’t change the entire political discourse.

    But to Toddard’s point – While I’m familiar with Orwell and 1984, I haven’t gotten around to reading it. Though I have read Animal Farm, so while I may miss the particulars of 1984, I am familiar with the concept. That said, I find it a bit disturbing that it would seem that according to a number of commenters here and other threads/blogs, white people can’t talk about race without being racist.

  7. DJohnson

    Wow! The fascist tendencies of the Left always surprise me. I suppose I should be inured now, but I’m not. It’s still a jolt when I encounter a supposed liberal implying that a speech code might not be such a bad idea.

    I wonder how well that would have worked out in the sixties — either the 1960s or the 1860s, take your pick. It’s cool to be a bully when you’re the big kid on the block, but are you confident your views will be in fashion perpetually? They haven’t always been, you know. How successful do you think the civil rights movement would have been if the First Amendment had not been interpreted to protect speech that was opposed by some – perhaps a majority in some places?

    Ah, well, you’re probably right. Silencing Charles Murray and National Review is much more important than a silly bauble like freedom of speech. Godspeed, civil rights warriors!

  8. jwbe

    Jilian, the Holocaust was also possible because words led to action. How do you think that actions should be stopped when you don’t stop the words in the first place?
    And Germany has certain hate-speech laws, nonetheless I actually have the impression that speech in Germany is more free than in America.

  9. No1KState

    I think an earlier point of mine has been proven.

    jwbe – The genocide in Rwanda, that in part continues today in Congo, started with state officials getting on the radio and calling Tutsis cockroaches and such. They continued to use the radio to inform murders of where innocent people would be and to egg them on. Words matter.

  10. S.L. Toddard

    “Jilian, the Holocaust was also possible because words led to action. How do you think that actions should be stopped when you don’t stop the words in the first place?”

    And how can we stop the words if we don’t stop the thoughts in the first place?


  11. No1KState

    You can think all you want. You can say what you want even in public. We’re talking about images and words on the internet and in radio and TV. Much of which is already regulated by the FCC. There is no need for “crimethink” paranoia.

  12. Jessie Author

    @jilliancyork wrote: I think it’s also really important to note that, in other countries, Google DOES manipulate its search results.

    Excellent point, Jillian. This is something I talk about in my book, Cyber Racism, at some length. In the US, there’s a very strong cyberlibertarian ethos that pervades discussions about Google (or any other search engine, such as Yahoo). Cyberlibertarians (like Barlow) see regulation of the Internet as the worst sort of evil, in part because of the First Amendment, but also because of the notion that “information must be free.” Within that context, it’s very difficult to get people to consider the way that speech is already shaped by Google search results.


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