Virtual Perils of Cyber Hate and the Need for a Conception of Digital Citizenship
Although intermediaries’ services can facilitate and reinforce a citizenry’s activities, they pose dangers that work to undermine them. Consider the anonymous and pseudonymous nature of online discourse. Intermediaries permit individuals to create online identities unconnected to their legal identities. Freed from a sense of accountability for their online activities, citizens might engage in productive discourse in ways that they might not if directly correlated with their offline identities. Yet the sense of anonymity breeds destructive behavior as well. Social science research suggests that people behave aggressively when they believe that they cannot be observed and caught. Destructive online behavior spills offline, working a fundamental impairment of citizenship.
For instance, digital expressions of hatred helped inspire the 1999 shooting of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Jews in suburban Chicago by Benjamin Smith, a member of the white supremacist group World Church of the Creator (WCOTC) that promotes racial holy war. Just months before the shootings, Smith told documentary filmmaker Beverly Peterson that: “It wasn’t really ‘til I got on the Internet, read some literature of these groups that . . . it really all came together.” More recently, the Facebook group Kick a Ginger Day urged members to get their “steel toes ready” for a day of attacking individuals with red hair. The site achieved its stated goal: students punched and kicked children with red hair and dozens of Facebook members claimed credit for attacks.
Cyber hate can produce so much psychological damage as to undermine individuals’ ability to engage in public discourse. For instance, posters on a white supremacist website targeted Bonnie Jouhari, a civil rights advocate and mother of a biracial girl. They revealed Ms. Jouhari’s home address and her child’s picture. The site showed a picture of Ms. Jouhari’s workplace exploding in flames next to the threat that “race traitors” are “hung from the neck from the nearest tree or lamp post.” Posters included bomb-making instructions and a picture of a hooded Klansman holding a noose. Aside from moving four times, Ms. Jouhari and her daughter have withdrawn completely from public life; neither has a driver’s license, a voter registration card or a bank account because they don’t want to create a public record of their whereabouts.
Search engines also ensure the persistence and production of cyber hate that undermines citizens’ capability to engage in offline and online civic engagement. Because search engines reproduce information cached online, people cannot depend upon time’s passage to alleviate the damage that online postings cause. Unlike leaflets or signs affixed to trees that would decay or disappear not long after their publication, now search engines index all of the content hosted by social media intermediaries, producing it instantaneously.
Jeremy Waldron contends that cyber hate produces a “permanent disfigurement” of group members. Online hate mars our social environment by visibly and publicly conveying the message that a “group in the community is not worthy of equal citizenship.” It denigrates group members’ basic standing in society and deprives them of their “civic dignity.” Search engines ensure that cyber hate endures, instantly accessible far into the future.
Another distinct feature of the Internet is that it can facilitate “echo chambers” of extreme views. As Cass Sunstein explored in Republic.com 2.0, people may tailor their online news, only seeking out those who reinforce their views and filtering out contrary information. This leads to the hardening of positions into more extreme ones. Sunstein explained that hate groups on the internet are so extreme because they often expose themselves to only to online groups with similar views and link exclusively to hateful content.
Intermediaries should recognize these particular challenges that cyber hate in networked spaces poses to individuals’ capability to participate meaningfully offline and online. In our upcoming article Intermediaries and Hate Speech: Fostering Digital Citizenship for the Information Age (forthcoming Boston University Law Review 2011), Helen Norton and I invoke a concept of digital citizenship to ensure that intermediaries acknowledge and address these challenges. In so doing, we do not mean to suggest that individuals are somehow citizens of a virtual space that is unconnected from our territorial polity. Quite the contrary, we speak of digital citizenship as it relates to individuals rooted firmly in our territorial polity. Digital citizenship acknowledges that our networked environment can be a blow to territorial polity in ways that intermediaries need to recognize and redress.