Respond to racists in ways that do more good than harm

Social barriers to Dangerous Speech have fallen online, especially in its dark corners. Now in Charlottesville, Americans watched the barriers go down in broad daylight, in the middle of a city, as extremists waved swastikas and chanted hateful slogans. They made it virtually impossible not to see and absorb those messages: to be hurt by them or – worse – to be convinced by them.

Those collective barriers must be raised again. They are necessary, especially in a country where law doesn’t criminalize most Dangerous Speech or hate speech – instead the U.S. Constitution protects the right to spread it. How, then, can it be socially proscribed, without doing more harm than good?

Some people are taking matters into their own hands, reaching out to masses of others to identify and punish marchers in the ‘Unite the Right’ rally. Logan Smith, the activist behind the Twitter account @YesYou’reRacist, started sharing photos from the rally with his 394,000 followers even before it ended, asking them to put names to marchers’ faces, and to supply other details: addresses, workplaces, and schools. Smith then broadcast that personal information – and also began identifying the marchers to their employers and schools.

One of those marchers is already unemployed and another publicly disowned by his family. Contacted by Smith, a hot dog shop in Berkeley, California quickly wrote back “we feel it is imperative to let you know” that the man quit when they confronted him about the rally. In another case, after Smith shared the name and photo of a North Dakota man, his father responded by writing a public letter saying, “I, along with all of his siblings and his entire family, wish to loudly repudiate my son’s vile, hateful and racist rhetoric and actions.” The father also reports that he and his family have received harassment and threats since Smith denounced their son by name.

Smith says his method is a step toward blocking more public displays of white supremacy. On the day of the rally, he also tweeted, “You can either actively oppose white supremacy, or you can silently support it. There is no other option. Silence is consent. #BashTheFash.”

There are many ways to oppose racism or Nazism publicly, however – and even to convince others to oppose them – without bashing their defenders. Shaming is a familiar strategy for enforcing social norms, but online shaming often goes farther, reaching into a person’s offline life to inflict punishment, such as losing a job. Tempting though it is, identifying and punishing people online should not become the primary method of regulating public discourse, since this can get out of hand in various ways. It can inflict too much pain, sometimes on people who are mistakenly identified – and in all cases it is unlikely to change the targets’ minds favorably.

Publicly naming those who violate social norms is a powerful tactic, common historically –  but it has often done more harm than good. For example, some newspapers in the American South published the names of registered black voters in the mid 20th century so white hate groups would know whom to intimidate. It would be wrong to equate Smith’s effort with such campaigns, but he might inspire similarly unjust use of his tactics.

Identifying someone as a bad hat online tends to draw a large, furious crowd or “dogpile” – and it’s all too easy to finger the wrong person. For instance, Smith has already published the name and photo of a man who wasn’t at the Charlottesville rally at all. The man, a Trump supporter and YouTube comedian, is wearing a Nazi armband in the photo, but it was taken from a video he made last year in which he wore it to a Trump rally to see if he would be embraced or rejected (Trump supporters apparently told him to leave.) Smith apologized for the mistake, but the man is still receiving online threats. In another case, a University of Arkansas engineering professor was misidentified as the marcher in a photo from the rally. He and his family got a torrent of harassment and death threats, and they even went hiding after their home address was posted online. This calls to mind a similar case in which a Tumblr blog called “Racists Getting Fired” named and shamed a woman for racist comments that were maliciously posted by her ex-boyfriend in her name. These false positives are inevitable since the strategy relies on imperfect information – yet can seriously disrupt a target’s life. As it becomes easier to forge realistic fake videos, such errors will only become more common.

Finally, naming and shaming is unlikely to turn its targets away from hatred. Yet that seems to be a widely-shared aspiration, judging by the content of the most-liked tweet in the history of Twitter: a Nelson Mandela quote that former President Barack Obama shared on Saturday, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” People who express hate are not all the same, after all. Some are deeply committed to hate and violence but others jump on the bandwagon when they see social barriers against such behavior falling – and because they seek a feeling of belonging.

Disrupting their lives – getting them fired from their jobs, disowned by their parents, or dogpiled with threats on Twitter – may give a satisfying jolt of schadenfreude, but it also cuts them off from the remaining moderating forces in their lives. When that happens, they will not learn to love; they will only commit further to the dangerous communities that are willing to embrace them.