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Daily Hoist: Twitter forced to deal with racists

by DoDo Sun Jan 27th, 2013 at 05:50:17 AM EST

[The Daily Hoist: featuring an item or items from the day's Newsroom]

France orders Twitter to identify racist users - FRANCE - FRANCE 24

Microblogging site Twitter must hand over data to help identify users who post racist and anti-Semitic comments, a French court ruled on Thursday.

Twitter was the subject of legal action by Jewish student group the UEJF and other associations, following a swathe of postings in October using hashtags (which group and identify postings according to a theme) including #UnBonJuif [A Good Jew] and #UnJuifMort [A Dead Jew].

Twitter deleted some posts, but this did not stop users continuing in the same vein, with popular hashtags appearing in December and January such as #UnBonNoir [A Good Black] and #SiJetaisNazi [If I was a Nazi].

The conflict between the doctrines of free speech (primary in the USA) and the suppression of incitement to hatred (important in much of post-WWII Europe) enters the digital domain ever more. It's old staple that the web offers extremists new, more covert and secure ways of communication, organisation and recruitment. But it's one thing if they do it on obscure websites of their own, and another when they are out in the open on the big social websites.

I have been observing for some time that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are rather unwilling to curtail far-right activity, and the limited tools available to submit complaints have been created with only the US American situation in mind (mentioning "protected groups" and rights groups, think ACLU; complaint accepted only if the racist insult hits you personally). When it comes to foreign extremists, they don't even know what those are about or don't take them seriously.

For example, about a month ago, I came across the YouTube channel of a Finnish neo-Nazi: the background image and the user's avatar was a stormtrooper with a swastika flag, the 'welcome message' told foreigners, Muslims and liberals to FOAD in three languages, all comments of the channel owner under other people's videos were racist abuse or praise for Nazis, and the three uploaded videos were snuff videos of racist violence (with the uploader's commentary in Finnish making that clear). Using YouTube's flagging feature, I flagged all three videos, the images, and the channel owner himself (with several comments as evidence). But only two videos were taken down, ones showing wanton attacks in Greece and Portugal. The third video (taken from the top Hungarian far-right news site, showing a man slapping two pushy beggar Roma kids so hard they fell over) could stay, the images and abusive texts too, and the guy could continue with his racist spam comments, until he was finally banned a week or two ago.

Of course, there is always the danger that measures against extremists with an agenda threatening large groups of people will be used against people with non-mainstream opinions threatening some elites. However, I obviously disagree with the notion that it's enough to fight against the far-right in the forum of free speech: IMHO that notion assumes an ideal world in which public discussion is an academic discussion of 100% rational people, while in reality there are such things as fanatics drowning out the voice of moderates, spin, propaganda, groupthink, and real-world verbal and physical violence inspired by words. That leaves one with the need to balance between the extremes of a free-for-all for extremists and a free-for-all for censors.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Jan 27th, 2013 at 06:00:39 AM EST
The major Internet companies are American, and tend to take it for granted that the world functions or should function along American lines.

But it's fairly strongly held, in Europe at least, that freedom of speech reaches limits where racism and incitation to hatred are concerned. Time for Google, Twitter, et al, to think again.

(Why do I hate freedom? Tell me...)

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jan 27th, 2013 at 03:45:15 PM EST

Sven will tell you; he's good at instant, long-distance psycho-analysis :-) My guess - you're still rebelling against liberal parents who refused to control you :-)

But who controls the controllers of what we're allowed to say ? It's a dangerous tendency, if I criticise Israeli policy towards Palestinians is this "incitation to hatred"? Some want to censor things which "offend" certain groups, e.g. religious believers of various kinds. As usual I'm with Chomsky on this one, if you say you're for free speech that should not mean "except for views I disapprove of" - though it should permit the banning of direct threats to safety,  "fire" in a crowded theatre, etc. This is not to assume that 100% of the population are civilised, rational people, but that a civilised society should permit the expression of the greatest possible range of free speech.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Sun Jan 27th, 2013 at 06:17:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ted Welch:
the expression of the greatest possible range of free speech

I don't think anyone here is arguing against that.

Ted Welch:

But who controls the controllers of what we're allowed to say ?

Fair question, but who controls the controllers of the limit you suggest, "direct threats to safety"? How is it to be decided what falls under that heading and what doesn't? Shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre is a rather facile example (and one that doesn't really concern freedom of speech, even though one could probably find a few crackpot US libertarians to argue that the shouter was within his First Amendment rights). In other words, your argument doesn't disallow limits, it just sets them at a point that is as arbitrary as is "no incitation to racial hatred".

But to take your "threats to safety" criterion and to apply it to what is at issue, ie network communications to a potentially large audience (rather more than a crowded theatre), when people are seeking to popularise racial hatred and violence as in the example given by DoDo above, or by building up traffic for hashtags like #UnBonJuif (AGoodJew), #UnJuifMort (ADeadJew), or #UnBonNoir (AGoodBlack), it may well be a matter of where and who one is whether one construes that as a threat to one's safety. As a Jew or a Rom in Hungary, for instance, one might understandably feel more than vaguely threatened.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Jan 28th, 2013 at 08:44:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre is a rather facile example

And a rather tiresome one, to anyone who knows where it comes from.

But those who quote Holmes might want to actually read the case where the phrase originated before using it as their main defense. If they did, they'd realize it was never binding law, and the underlying case, U.S. v. Schenck, is not only one of the most odious free speech decisions in the Court's history, but was overturned over 40 years ago.

First, it's important to note U.S. v. Schenck had nothing to do with fires or theaters or false statements. Instead, the Court was deciding whether Charles Schenck, the Secretary of the Socialist Party of America, could be convicted under the Espionage Act for writing and distributing a pamphlet that expressed his opposition to the draft during World War I. As the ACLU's Gabe Rottman explains, "It did not call for violence. It did not even call for civil disobedience."

by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Mon Jan 28th, 2013 at 09:43:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Then again, I find the overturning of U.S. vs. Schenck is directly relevant to the conflict thematised in the diary...

In 1969, the Supreme Court's decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio effectively overturned Schenck and any authority the case still carried. There, the Court held that inflammatory speech--and even speech advocating violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan--is protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech "is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action" (emphasis mine).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Jan 28th, 2013 at 10:10:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I knew there was something at the back of my mind when I mentioned First Amendment rights in that connection...

And the interesting link to US libertarian ideas is provided by Holmes himself:

It's Time to Stop Using the 'Fire in a Crowded Theater' Quote - Trevor Timm - The Atlantic

In what would become his second most famous phrase, Holmes wrote in Abrams that the marketplace of ideas offered the best solution for tamping down offensive speech: "The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out."

Free-market illusion applied to what is plainly not a market at all. Perhaps Holmes could explain the rightwards drift in public opinion over the last decades -- a superior product that crowds out the competition?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Jan 28th, 2013 at 10:31:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It seems the reference to shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre is "facile" and "tiresome" - oh dear :-) I used it just because it is well-known and almost universally accepted ( "tiresome" if you like) as demonstrating that there are some limits to free speech.

It ought to be noted that the Atlantic article supports my general view and that the author is not so much against the theatre example itself, but its over-use by those who (unlike myself) wish to extend the limits to free speech:

In the last few years, the quote has reared its head on countless occasions. In September, commentators pointed to it when questioning whether the controversial anti-Muslim video should be censored. Before that, it was invoked when a crazy pastor threatened to burn Qurans. Before that, the analogy was twisted to call for charges against WikiLeaks for publishing classified information. The list goes on.

Clearly I was coming from the other direction, and while accepting this kind of limit on free speech where life is directly threatened, arguing AGAINST any extension of censorship.

Equally clearly I would be against the way this phrase was used in the particular trial in which Schenck was convicted under the Espionage Act (one that's being used now to silence whistle-blowers in the US, cf Aljazeera's excellent recent doc on this) for merely publishing a pamphlet opposing the draft without even calling for civil disobedience. So of course I'm pleased that this was overturned later.

Regarding Holmes' use of "marketplace" - would "public forum" be OK ? But of course in the US one has to consider the marketplace and, were he to be around today I think he might well be appalled that the marketplace has become narrow in terms of media ownership and possibly in favour of government action to reverse the concentration of media ownership.

The article does point out that relying on rebuttal rather than censorship can, even in such a context, sometimes work (there's no 100% solution):

In @ComfortablySmug's case during Hurricane Sandy, that is exactly what happened. Within minutes of sending out his false tweets, journalists discovered he was spreading rumors and quickly corrected the record, sounding the alarm not to trust his information. Regardless, no one was hurt because of his misinformation. The next day, @ComfortablySmug (whose real name is Shashank Tripathi) apologized and resigned from his job as the campaign manager of a House Republican candidate in New York in response to the public's reaction to his actions.

The truth prevailed, not through forcing censorship or jailing a person for speaking, but through the overwhelming counterbalance of more speech. As Holmes said after his soliloquy in Abrams, "That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution."


"Mr Ahmadinejad encountered a determined protest by Jewish and other demonstrators who argued that his views did not deserve a platform.

The speech went ahead however. Columbia's president - the jurist and free-speech expert Lee Bollinger - justified his decision to invite Mr Ahmadinejad.

He wrote at the time: "It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honour the dishonourable when we open the public forum to their voices."

"To commit oneself to a life - and a civil society - prepared to examine critically all ideas arises from a deep faith in the myriad benefits of a long-term process of meeting bad beliefs with better beliefs and hateful words with wiser words."



Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Mon Jan 28th, 2013 at 02:34:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ted Welch:
Regarding Holmes' use of "marketplace" - would "public forum" be OK ?

I wasn't considering that you were using the "marketplace" metaphor. However, its use by Holmes appears to me to be an example of a liberal illusion, that everything is on the marketplace and that the market is the ultimate revealer of truth.

Yes, public debate is excellent, and rebuttal may sometimes succeed. But as you point out, public discourse today is not what it (perhaps) was in Holmes's time. The opportunities for creating a buzz around incitations to hatred and violence are considerable, and it is not immediately obvious how to refute them efficiently by argument or by counter-propaganda, even if that of course needs to be attempted. In other words, I doubt the existence of an even-handed public forum englobing all modern means of communication.

Though Mr Bollinger's "deep faith" in the long-term benefits of debate is respectable, I wonder how long people whose lives may be placed in short or medium-term danger should be expected to share it. Reading in the Atlantic article that:

It's Time to Stop Using the 'Fire in a Crowded Theater' Quote - Trevor Timm - The Atlantic

the Court held that inflammatory speech--and even speech advocating violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan--is protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech "is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action"

I wonder how many African-Americans have suffered persecution, violence and death while well-meaning mostly white Americans congratulate themselves on the First Amendment. Again, one's point of view no doubt varies according to how much skin one has in the game.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Jan 28th, 2013 at 03:25:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Again, one's point of view no doubt varies according to how much skin one has in the game."

Oh, you want to play the skin game - OK  :-)

Malcolm X: "To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of blacks, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans. Detractors accused him of preaching racism, black supremacy, and violence."


I'm sure many of those detractors were feeling threatened; I think it right that he was able to express those views (I am not of course suggesting that things were made easy for him, nor that there were no attempts to undermine him and his group) .

Here are the views of another black guy:

"Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so," Obama said, drawing sustained applause.
"Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views -- even views that we disagree with," he said.

The president argued that efforts to suppress free expression are increasingly ineffective in an interconnected world.

"I know that not all countries in this body share this understanding of the protection of free speech. Yet in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete," Obama said.


Moreover it can be somewhat counter-productive, in that those whose views are suppressed argue that this shows that those who suppress them are afraid of the truth and that they are hypocritical about free speech.

I'm with the black guy :-)

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Mon Jan 28th, 2013 at 06:05:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem with the quote is precisely that it is not universally accepted. To those of us who are familiar with the background, it makes one wonder whether the writer is using it in the original hypocritical sense or not, which was not your intent.
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Mon Jan 28th, 2013 at 04:24:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]

If you want to be precise, do note that I said: "Almost universally accepted" - there are some people who claim we never went to the moon. But is about as close as you'll get to an example of a valid restriction on free speech which the vast majority on both sides accept. So maybe we could move on from being pedantic about it and its origins.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Mon Jan 28th, 2013 at 05:34:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As a meta-comment; I wondered whether on the free speech vs. incitement to racial hatred front, the UK's greater closeness to the USA than the rest of Europe is imagined (like in most cases) or real. It seems it's more imagined:

Public Order Act 1986 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Part 3 of the Act creates offences of use of words or behaviour or display of written material (section 18), publishing or distributing written material (section 19), public performance of a play (section 20), distributing, showing or playing a recording (section 21), or broadcasting (section 22), if the act is intended to stir up racial hatred, or possession of racially inflammatory material (section 23).

However, the exception (my emphasis):

Laws against Holocaust denial - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The European Union's executive Commission proposed a European Union-wide anti-racism xenophobia law in 2001, which included the criminalization of Holocaust denial. On July 15, 1996, the Council of the European Union adopted the Joint action/96/443/JHA concerning action to combat racism and xenophobia.[47][48] During the German presidency there was an attempt to extend this ban.[49] Full implementation was blocked by the United Kingdom and the Nordic countries because of the need to balance the restrictions on voicing racist opinions against the freedom of expression.[50] As a result a compromise has been reached within the EU and while the EU has not prohibited Holocaust denial outright, a maximum term of three years in jail is optionally available to all member nations for "denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes."[51][52]

The EU extradition policy regarding Holocaust denial was tested in the UK during the 2008 failed extradition case brought against the suspected Holocaust denier Frederick Toben[53] by the German government. As there is no specific crime of Holocaust denial in the UK, the German government had applied for Toben's extradition for racial and xenophobic crimes. Toben's extradition was refused by the Westminster Magistrates' Court, and the German government withdrew its appeal to the High Court.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Jan 28th, 2013 at 10:32:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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