Dangerous Speech, like hate speech or pornography, is difficult to define in a precise or objective way. It’s difficult enough to get two people to agree consistently on which speech fits into any of these categories - and therefore even more difficult to train a machine to classify it reliably. Researchers from Jigsaw - a project incubator of Google - have made interesting progress though, by training software to measure “toxicity” by asking people to classify millions of online comments from sites like Wikipedia and The New York Times.
Finally, two rather different individuals spoke out against anti-Semitism this week: the U.S. president and PewDiePie, the biggest entertainer on YouTube.
Their statements followed an alarming spate of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, including bomb threats and vandalism at a cemetery: on Monday more than 170 Jewish headstones were knocked over near St. Louis, Missouri. Some people reacted immediately and spontaneously: within hours, Muslim activists Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi started fundraising to repair the damage. They aimed for $20,000, met that goal in only three hours, and had raised more than $120,000 within two days.
In his brilliant new book Hate Spin and in this post, Professor Cherian George describes a malevolent political strategy that consists of giving offense and taking offense - which he usefully distinguishes from each other. 'Like Dangerous Speech, hate spin is often based on misinformation and can promote discrimination and violence against vulnerable groups.
Since U.S. government leaders are failing to denounce xenophobia - and even promoting it by depicting foreigners as dangerous threats - it’s a good thing that Budweiser and other companies stepped into the breach with Super Bowl ads - even if they did it just to sell more beer. Four companies - Budweiser, 84 Lumber, Coca-Cola, and Airbnb - used some of the most expensive minutes in advertising history to remind Americans that they are a nation of immigrants, probably helping to protect the country against a shift toward Dangerous Speech. More than 111 million Americans of nearly all political and cultural backgrounds watched those ads: the fifth biggest audience in all of U.S. television.
Now that Donald Trump is president, he has an even greater responsibility to denounce hateful speech and violence: some of it is being committed in his name, and he has enormous influence that would help to stop it. Far from giving a speech, President Trump has neither spoken out nor written one tweet against the violent vitriol that has followed his rise to the presidency.
An American neo-Nazi is planning an armed march against “a vicious, evil race of hate-filled psychopaths” - Jews - through Whitefish, Montana in two weeks. It is the latest step in an antisemitic campaign led by Andrew Anglin, founder of the website The Daily Stormer. Anglin chose Whitefish because the family of another far-right activist, Richard Spencer, has been under pressure from local residents including some Jews.
While Donald Trump has been repeatedly criticized for his offensive speech, the two controversies from his campaign crossed a line. Taken in combination, his comments about "Second Amendment people" and his claim that President Obama and Hillary Clinton are the "co-founders of ISIS" feature hallmarks of Dangerous Speech and increase the likelihood of violence. They must be condemned.
Geert Wilders, a ring-wing and anti-Islam Dutch politician, was found guilty of incitement to discrimination against Moroccans last week, but his xenophobic Party for Freedom (PVV) has been gaining so much support that it is the strongest party in the multi-party country, according to a new poll by the Maurice de Hond Institute. The PVV is likely to win many more seats in the Dutch parliament in elections on March 15.
Viral fake news can be powerful: it may have influenced the U.S. presidential election, as many have suggested, and it can also be dangerous - inspiring violence by targeting another group. Fake news (and its possible influence on election results) has captured public attention for now, but platform administrators should not overlook the role of false rumors in Dangerous Speech around the world.
On June 16, in the midst of the Brexit referendum, Jo Cox, a 41-year-old British Member of Parliament (MP) and mother of two, was shot three times and stabbed fifteen times by a British xenophobic extremist. She died in an ambulance shortly thereafter. Today, her killer was convicted and sentenced in life in prison.
During the course of their investigation, police quickly realized that the man – Thomas Mair - was obsessed with Nazis, white supremacy, and apartheid-era South Africa. The head of HOPE Not Hate, a British campaign group, says that targeting liberal politicians has been a pillar of British neo-Nazism since the 1990s:
"Thomas Mair acted alone but he was inspired by over 30 years of reading Nazi propaganda. "In targeting a British MP, Mair was following a growing list of British Nazi terrorists who believe that they are at war with the system. This ideology, which sees the state – and in particular liberal politicians – as more of a target than minorities, became dominant among UK nazis in the 1990s and remains a strong pillar of their thinking today. "While Thomas Mair pulled trigger, neo-Nazi propagandists must share some responsibility for fuelling and directing the hatred and violence inside him.
While handing down the sentence, the judge in the case delivered a message to Mair, focused on the anti-European, pro-independence statements he made while stabbing Cox to death:
"In the true meaning of the word she was a patriot. "You affect to be a patriot. The words you uttered repeatedly when you killed her give lip service to that concept. "Those sentiments can be legitimate and can have resonance but in your mouth, allied to your actions, they are tainted and made toxic."
After the hearing, Cox's husband shared the following inspirational commitment:
"As a family, we will not respond to hatred with hatred. We will love like Jo did and know that, although she is dead, the ideas and values that she held so dear will live on.…[W]e hope that those in politics, the media and our own communities who seek to divide us will face an unassailable wall of British tolerance and the articulation of Jo's belief that we hold more in common than that which divides us."
In this time of seemingly unprecedented divisiveness in our own country, and especially in light of the appalling levels of harassment and violence in the weeks since the election, I hope that we too can recognize and denounce xenophobia, racism, and intolerance masquerading as patriotism; and build our own "unassailable wall" of respect, tolerance, and unity – in all circumstances, we are stronger together.
Since the U.S. election, some Americans have continually attacked others with vicious slurs, threats, and even physical assaults, many of them inspired by President-elect Donald Trump. He must denounce them immediately in the strongest and clearest terms. In response to a question during a television interview aired Sunday, he said “Stop it,” but they didn’t. It was not enough.
Though it’s tempting to ‘solve’ Dangerous Speech by making it a crime, laws punishing speech are all too often misused, restricting legitimate expression without inhibiting speech that is harmful. Indeed countries across the world are now using the real dangers of terrorism and hatred to pass vague or overbroad new laws against speech online.
It seems inconceivable that a head of state would say he aspires to kill his own people on the same scale as Hitler, but the Philippines’ new president did just that. Three months into his six-year presidency, Rodrigo Duterte said he would be “happy” to “slaughter” three million drug addicts. He has also called President Obama a “son of a bitch” and even joked that he should have been “first” in the gang rape and murder of an Australian missionary in Davao City (where he was mayor for 22 years) in 1989.
Much of the world is transfixed at present by Donald Trump's often insulting and provocative language. But like any speech, it can only be fully understood in context - which now includes remarks more belligerent and shocking than Trump’s, from his supporters who have shouted “Kill her” and “Build the wall - kill them all” at recent Trump rallies, and from other elected officials such as governors of U.S. states.