Modern society failed to kill racism and intolerance. It only buried that angry, black heart deeper, where it beats as furiously as ever.
Cesar Sayoc, the man who allegedly mailed bombs to at least a dozen liberal or democrat-affiliated people and officials, had a predictable Twitter history. Like the van he allegedly drove, it was wrapped in pro-Trump, anti-Hillary Clinton, conspiracy-theory rhetoric. Sayoc often attacked and threatened others on the platform. He’d been doing so for months.
Naturally, people called out Twitter for not doing enough. The account had been reported into Twitter’s abuse system, which inexplicably gave at least one of Sayoc’s online attacks a pass.
After Sayoc was apprehended, the account was suspended, and Twitter apologized. By most measures, it was the least Twitter could do.
I understand the difficulty Twitter faces, though. Twitter is full of people saying things they shouldn’t. They argue and sometimes threaten each other. Much of it goes unreported. Even when it is reported, it can be hard to know when someone is serious. On the other hand, a zero-tolerance policy would also mean that those tasked with deciding what does rise to the level of violating Twitter’s policies would need to set a really low bar. They’d have to deem almost all abusive language reported to them as a violation. Facebook could conceivably implement a similarly restrictive policy.
Hate is like water, always finding a way in or out.
We’d like to believe that would solve the problem. Without Twitter, without Facebook, Sayoc and others like him would have no platform for their anger, attacks, and abuse.
Intuitively, I’ve never believed this. Hate is like water, always finding a way in or out.
As far as I know, Robert Bowers, the man who allegedly murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh Synagogue in an anti-Semitism-fueled rage on Saturday, wasn’t on Twitter or Facebook. Bowers found another outlet for his apparent hate: the alt-right social network Gab.
Gab, a self-described platform for folks who “share in the common ideals of Western values,” looks a lot like Twitter. It has posts, followers, following, videos, and something called a Score. From Gab’s March 2018 annual report:
We estimate that there are over 50 million conservative, libertarian, nationalist, and populist Internet users from around the world who are seeking an alternative to the current social media ecosystems. These users are also actively seeking alternative media platforms like Breitbart.com, Drudgereport.com, Infowars and others.
In other words, Gab built a social media platform for the alt-right.
Bowers was active on the platform and apparently posted shortly before the synagogue attack.
Soon after the horror unfolded in Pittsburgh and Bowers’ social media activity was discovered, PayPal banned Gab and its host provider, Joynet, dumped it. It wasn’t the first time Gab had been called out for hosting hate speech. Microsoft threatened to end hosting services in August over hate speech and its domain registrar threatened to do the same in 2017.
I would love nothing more than to see Gab and its hate- and conspiracy-filled conversations vaporize — which, as of right now, it has. However, watching founder Andrew Torba scramble to find new hosts and even collect some support online leads me to believe Gab will resurface.
That would be a sad and frustrating development. But what if we could shut down Gab for good and stop all hateful and abusive behavior on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram? White supremacists, anti-Semites, and misogynists would have nowhere to digitally congregate. We’d lower the pain and suffering quotient in the world, at least incrementally.
Except we wouldn’t. Social media is just the digital mountain angry souls climb to shake their fists at the sky. Flatten one and a new alt-right social platform will rise up to take Gab’s place.
Social media didn’t create hate. It certainly has helped it congregate, grow and maybe weaponized it. But we have to remember that it’s always there. It’s no great revelation that anger, resentment, hatred, and fear of The Other is as old as humankind. It’s always looking for a foothold and will usually attach itself to modern culture through popular communication mediums.
And it didn’t start with Twitter, Facebook or Gab. Back in the early days of electronic Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), there were almost a dozen devoted to white supremacy. Modern social media makes the viral spread of hatred easier than those BBS days, where you literally needed a phone number to dial in and participate.
Social media didn’t create hate.
Finding like minds and getting support for your worst impulses is a characteristic perhaps unique to modern social media. However, what drives the hate and fear isn’t only found in the digital space. It’s at the heart of who these people are, how they were raised, how they were educated, and their life experiences.
Fixing social media may declaw some of these monsters, but it won’t end hate. I want social media to be a safe place, but I won’t mistake it for a safe world.