Last Thursday, a 5-year-old British girl, April Jones, who had been raped and murdered, was buried in London after her funeral was televised nationally. She and another young girl were victims of men apparently addicted to online pornography. And although England, like the U.S., bans child pornography, Prime Minister David Cameron plans to take measures to further restrict pornography on the Internet, making Britain “the most family-friendly democracy in the world,” according to a member of his Conservative Party.
Not surprisingly such moves are opposed by free speech advocates, renewing the debate between those who worry about the dangers of censorship and those who put societal safety at a premium — an often heated discussion that goes on in America as well, and in countries throughout the Western world.
Now, in a timely, clear and pragmatic new book, “Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread On The Internet,” Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman and Christopher Wolf, a leader in the fields of privacy and Internet law, offer up a number of serious problems posed by the dark side of the Internet, and ways to counter them.
Those problems include the proliferation of anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic websites, messages and sometimes direct threats, as well as the widespread use of child pornography, almost always under the cover of anonymity.
“Words of hate can easily turn into acts of hate,” Foxman and Wolf assert, citing the 2009 murder of a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., at the hands of 88-year-old James von Brunn, who had an anti-Semitic website that praised Hitler and denied the Holocaust.
On an international scale, one need only think back a year ago to the spread on the Internet of “The Innocence of Muslims,” a crudely made 14-minute trailer highly critical of Islam and Muhammad that set off violent anti-Western riots in Egypt, Libya, Iran and Yemen. (It was rumored to have been made by an American Jew but was, in fact, the work of a California man of Egyptian Coptic origin.)
Foxman and Wolf, who is national chair of the ADL’s Civil Rights Committee and founder and co-chair of its Future of Privacy Forum think tank, explore the complexities of the case. They note that Google, the parent company of YouTube, where the anti-Muslim video was seen, resisted initial calls to remove it, citing its anti-censorship policy. But after the killings in Benghazi, Libya, of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at the time, Google pulled the video from its servers in several Muslim countries, explaining that “what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere.”
Foxman and Wolf describe various laws that apply when specific threats are made on the Internet but conclude that legal restrictions are not the answer. Not only because the authors are strong proponents of freedom of speech but because, as they note, “laws addressed at Internet hate are perhaps the least effective way to deal with the problem.” In part, they say, because such laws “create a sense of false security” and because of unintended consequences, like “the creation of ‘martyrs’ around whom hatemongers can rally when their ideas are legally stifled.”
Instead, the authors call on citizens like you and me to speak up and be proactive in the face of the lies, distortions and threats we come across on the Internet. They call such action “counter-speech” and say it should come in the form of truth in the face of untruths, with an emphasis on education and challenging and refuting false messages of hate — “a far stronger tool than censorship or suppression.”
Now marking its centennial year, the ADL (formerly the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith) has come a long way since two Jewish lawyers in Chicago created an organization in 1913 “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”
But in an interview this week Foxman said the group’s mission has always been “fighting prejudice,” and that dealing with hate on the Internet is simply “a new dimension and platform” for the age-old battle.
He said that “from the beginning,” in the spirit of the Talmudic sage Hillel, the ADL has had two missions: to protect the rights of Jews and to protect the rights of others, and it still holds true today.
(It was Hillel who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?”)
“Everyone talks today of tikkun olam [the Jewish mission to repair the world], but a century ago,” Foxman noted, ADL’s founders understood that “you can’t have one [Jewish rights] without the other [rights for all].”
He said “Viral Hate” was written “as an alert, to be vigilant, and to remind people that the Internet is not a benign instrument.” Of course it is a valuable tool for information, he said, but it also has “a dark underbelly and is the super highway for racism.”
The longtime ADL leader said the Internet has already had a negative impact on privacy and civility, accounting for less face-to-face interaction between people, and leading to a diminished sense of responsibility and “the legitimization of prejudice.”
The Jewish community is not immune to these traits, according to Foxman.
He defends the First Amendment but would like to see “a chipping away at some of it” in terms of its protecting people’s anonymity online. “If you want to be a bigot, take responsibility and ownership for it,” he says.
Along those lines, he says that perhaps the single most significant breakthrough in the ADL’s history in opposing prejudice in the U.S. was its part in drafting legislation in the 1950s that literally “removed the mask of bigotry” in Georgia during the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror. The Supreme Court, by a vote of 9-0, upheld the “anti-mask law,” which Foxman said “began to break the back” of the Klan, whose members wore white sheets and hoods to prevent their identity being known.
Today’s haters no longer hide behind sheets and hoods but they can remain unidentified through the Internet. Foxman and Wolf are encouraging the public to “accept responsibility for defining and defending norms of civil behavior — not just on the Internet, but throughout society.”
That’s a tall order, given the level of discourse in Washington these days and the deep schisms in our society, driven in part by the Internet’s influence. But the ADL is committed to continue to engage, expose and educate as it enters its second century.
Abraham Foxman will discuss his new book and current world affairs in conversation with Gary Rosenblatt on Tuesday, Oct. 8, at 7:30 p.m. at The Jewish Center, 131 W. 86th Street. For tickets: www.thejewishweek.com/foxman-event.