The Buffalo horror raises thorny issues about hate speech and the media

Image via Today’s Front Pages at FreedomForum.org.

Correction: An earlier version of this post identified 4chan’s hosting service. In fact, it was a porn site that uses the name 4chan but is otherwise unrelated.

Our thoughts at this time need to be with the Black community of Buffalo — and everywhere — as we process the horror of one of the worst mass murders of recent years. We need to do something substantive about guns, racism and white supremacy. What actually happened, and what we can do to prevent such horrific events from happening again, must be at the top of our agenda.

This blog, though, is primarily about the media and often about free speech. So let me address some of the secondary issues. The shootings intersect with notions of hate speech, social media and the role of Fox News in mainstreaming dangerous racist ideologies such as so-called replacement theory, which holds that the left is trying to push out white people in favor of non-white immigrants in order to obtain an electoral advantage.

First, keep in mind that hate speech is legal. The New York Times today says this about New York Gov. Kathy Hochul:

When pressed on how she planned to confront such hate speech online, without impinging on First Amendment rights, Ms. Hochul noted that “hate speech is not protected” and said she would soon be calling meetings with social media companies.

Hochul is wrong, and the Times shouldn’t have used “noted,” which implies that she knows what she’s talking about. If hate speech were illegal, Tucker Carlson would have been kicked off Fox long ago.

What’s illegal is incitement to violence, and you might think whipping up racist hatred would qualify. In fact, it does not — and the very Supreme Court case that made that clear was about a speaker at a rally who whipped up racist hatred. Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) held that a ranting Ku Klux Klan thug demanding “revengeance” against Jews and Black people had not engaged in incitement because his threats were non-specific.

Hochul can cajole and threaten. And she should. But it’s going to be difficult to do much more than that.

As for the media themselves, that’s a morass, and it’s too early to start sorting this out. But the shooter reportedly fell down the 4chan hole during the pandemic, immersing himself in the racism and hate that permeate the dark corners of the internet. There are a lot of moving parts here, but it seems unlikely that a young mass murder-in-the-making was sitting around watching Fox, even if some of his rants paralleled Carlson’s rhetoric. Fox’s role is to mainstream such hatred for its frightened, elderly viewers. The radicalization itself happens elsewhere.

So, are we going to ban 4chan? How would that even work? If the government tried to shut them down, they could just go somewhere else. I’m sure Vladimir Putin would be happy to play host.

4chan represents the bottom of this toxic food chain; Fox News is at the top. In the middle are the mainstream social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Twitch (which allowed the shooter to livestream his rampage for nearly two minutes before taking it down) and the like. It’s too early to say what, if anything, will happen on that front. But it’s probably not a good time to be a billionaire who wants to buy Twitter so that there will be less moderation on the platform than there is currently.

As it turns out, that billionaire, Elon Musk, may be backing away.

5 thoughts on “The Buffalo horror raises thorny issues about hate speech and the media

  1. Seth Albaum

    I used to be a free speech absolutist, and a big fan of your Muzzle Awards. Now, I’m a hesitant free speech absolutist. I worry.

    The First Amendment works well when you have an educated, mature, enlightened (and relatively sane) society. And, you need structures in place to communicate. Where would we be without Robert’s Rules of Order or structured debates during elections through the years? And newspapers? They were at least organized – even the opinionated ones. My social media feeds are chaos. (Maybe I’ve trained my algorithms poorly.) It’s tough to have any rational conversation.

    Online discourse re-writes the rules by which ideas are shared and debated, no qualifications needed. It’s more like playground rules out there. I know you are, but what am I? I think sites like 4chan thrive off this. Sometimes it’s the loudest most authoritative bully getting the most attention. But other times, it’s people who for whatever reasons feel victimized, who fall for a false prophet or conspiracy, like the incel movement. I think the latter is the most dangerous and most incompatible with First and Second Amendments.

    I just don’t have a solution other than education, somehow… I’m not for putting controls on social media and I’m for respecting the rights of the owners of these platforms in theory, but I also can’t shake an urge… I find myself rooting for Zuckerberg to fix his bots and actually take down the hate speech I see every day on even facebook where they claim it isn’t allowed.

    1. MagellanNH

      >> “The First Amendment works well when you have an educated, mature, enlightened (and relatively sane) society.”
      As I understand it, our nation’s founders didn’t think our society would be any of those things when they crafted the constitution. In fact, they were so terrified of populism they created the electoral college and severely limited who was allowed to vote.

      Imo, it’s a mistake to think educated, mature, and enlightened people are immune to this stuff. We’re all human and as a result have all have serious built-in cognitive and emotional deficiencies and weaknesses (eg cognitive bias, prejudice, anger and rage induced irrationality, etc). For most of us, the biggest thing that keeps us from going off the rails is our connection to people and trustworthy institutions and their norms. Without these grounding connections, none of us are completely immune from falling prey to forces that try to manipulate our human nature to further evil.

      Btw, Ezra Klein just released a great podcast episode discussing Hannah Arendt’s 1951 classic with Anne Applebaum that covers this really well imo. Here’s the blurb:

      “So this is a conversation that uses Arendt’s analysis as a window into our present. Applebaum and I discuss how “radical loneliness” lays the groundwork for authoritarianism, what Putin and Trump understand about human nature that most liberals miss, the seductive allure of groups like QAnon, the way that modern propaganda feeds off a combination of gullibility and cynicism, whether liberalism’s own logic is making societies vulnerable to totalitarian impulses, why efforts by populist politicians to upend conventional morality have held such appeal in Western liberal democracies, how the ideology of “economism” blinds Western liberals to their own societies’ deepest vulnerabilities, what liberals need to do differently to counteract the rise of global autocracy and more.”

  2. Steve Ross

    Ah free speech. I can’t get over the fact, having worked as a child in a hardware store my dad ran, we would not sell any of the dangerous stuff there to kids. We would not sell spray paint to kids. So the gun dealer says he’s heartbroken at having sold an assault rifle to the 18-year-old who killed 10 in Buffalo. All the paperwork went through fine. Spray paint and pocket knives, no. Assault rifle yes. The country is crazier than the kid is.

  3. Technology and social media certainly exacerbate the substantive problems, and i heard your point that yours is a media blog, but I want to point out that when the modern means amplify the problems, they also make them harder to dodge. (I have felt similarly about the phenomenon of Donald Trump — he heightens the danger, in my opinion, but he also exposes it more clearly and widely.) So, if the development of tech and social media make things worse, perhaps they also put more pressure on us to do something about the underlying problems.

    Which brings me to a somewhat related point I wanted to make. My sense is that many people would much rather discuss “our politics,” various theories advocated by various groups or movements, and anything else that can be understood mostly through the intellect and its tools. (I also thought this was a factor in our collective reaction to 9/11.) We have trouble (understandably so) discussing people’s persistent unreasonable negative judgments about people they see as different from themselves and their group, and why some people are able to act so callously and inhumanely, for example My sense (perhaps inaccurate) is that we’d even rather discuss implicit bias nowadays than how to dismantle people’s self-acknowledged explicit biases. I’m not dismissing the issue of implicit bias, I’m just trying to say that I think we don’t get at the crux (perhaps multiple?) of the matter, (1) because it’s hard, and (2) because we prefer topics that can be addressed primarily through the intellect. Some people’s ugly beliefs may be as important to them as the inspiring beliefs held by others — I’ve certainly encountered that in “polite company,” I would think it also occurs among people who would resort to violence. I think that needs to be addressed more, somewhere.

  4. Steve Ross

    There is also the issue of smart people giving advice with a LOUD voice but not understanding the science, such as the former brand manager of Levi’s, who has often been of Fox. She claims young kids rarely get sick with covid so never should have been required to mask. The science is clear — those kids often carry the disease back to vulnerable adults.

    That sort of stupidity — believing you know more than the specialists — is far different than politicians like Rand Paul, who deliberately misquote scientific studies as “proof” he and fellow Republicans are right. As one of his big misquotes is a study i had (minor) involvement in, I consider him a murderer. One of the people who believed him is a young new federal judge in Tampa who, without oral argument, killed CDC transportation masking rules several weeks ago. Also a murderer.

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