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 Jouhari and her daughter have withdrawn completely from public life; neither has a driver’s license, a voter registration card or a bank account because they don’t want to create a public record of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 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.

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3 Responses

  1. I’m unclear as to the implications. When you say “Intermediaries should recognize these particular challenges that cyber hate in networked spaces poses to individuals’ capability to participate meaningfully offline and online.”, do you mean e.g. that search engines should de-index “cyber hate”? Can I point out they’ve been asked, and said “No” – e.g. the case of “Jew Watch”

    By the way, Sunstein is telling a story akin to “moral panic”. Many people have pointed out that the reality of extremism contradicts his scare-mongering, but this does not seem to matter – precisely because it is a story appealing to the audience’s fears (and hence sort of self-refuting, in that contrary information does not make a difference).

  2. Frank Pasquale says:

    I think this is very important work, and I’m glad to see you pursuing it. Even the developing world is facing the problem:

    Moreover, folks should check out how some intermediaries are helping to increase the prominence of some of the worst businesses on the web…which seem to thrive on harassing people:

    After a woman was cheated by an online company, this is what happened to her: [all below is a quote from the article]

    “she called Citibank, which administers her MasterCard account, and after submitting some paperwork, she won a provisional victory. Her $487 would be refunded as the bank looked into the charge and discussed it with the owner of [the company]. . . . Then Mr. Russo [from the online company] sent details of what appeared to be a lawsuit filed in Brooklyn. It included a hearing date and time, the address of the court, a docket number and a demand for $1,500, which, the e-mail said, “includes my legal fees.”

    “Ms. Rodriguez did not respond. A few hours later, Mr. Russo raised the stakes sharply by sending another e-mail, this one with a photograph of the front of the apartment building where she and her fiancé lived.

    “Then her cellphone started ringing. And ringing. . . . Two days later, she received another e-mail from Mr. Russo. “Close the dispute with the credit card company if you know whats good for you,” he wrote. “Do the right thing and everyone goes away. I AM WATCHING YOU!”

    That same day an e-mail from Citi arrived. “Thank you for contacting Citi Cards,” it read. “We have closed our investigation since you have indicated that you accept responsibility for this charge.” And there was this: “we have rebilled your account for this charge along with any related fees and interest charges.”

    Someone posing as Ms. Rodriguez, she says, had called the bank and said she had changed her mind and no longer wanted a refund.

    “Hello, My name is Stanley with [the online company],” the post began. “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”

    It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. Online chatter about [the online company], even furious online chatter, pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales. He closed with a sardonic expression of gratitude: “I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.”

    [But for other purposes] He handles those transactions like a Boy Scout because Amazon doesn’t mess around, he says — the company just kicks you off its site if you infuriate customers.”


    [Note–I edited my comment to avoid referring to the company…because the more people write its name, the more it plays into their strategy!]

  3. Danielle Citron says:

    Thanks so much to you both. Seth, I promise to follow up today in a post about which sorts of intermediaries our piece speaks to as well as a brief overview of our prescriptions, including our upholding Google’s response to Jew Watch as a sort of model for counter speech (I will soon explain). As always, thanks so much Frank for your insights and examples. Your work is an inspiration to us, and to me, in general.