In the United States, even the most toxic forms of speech can be spewed without fear of government interference. While that protects a free-flowing sewer of hateful opinions, internet-hosting platforms should question whether they desire to wade into those noxious waters.
That was the issue facing Vancouver-based BitMitigate recently in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. The company, a subsidiary of Seattle-based Epik, briefly signed on to provide internet security for 8chan, an internet forum that frequently harbors the kind of hate speech that festers in the dark corners of the World Wide Web.
Three times in recent months, mass shooters have essentially announced their intentions on 8chan, which has become known as a hub of white nationalist ideology.
That includes the gunman who is accused of killing 22 people and wounding dozens more at a Walmart. Before the shooting, the alleged perpetrator railed against immigrants, warned of a “Hispanic invasion” and cultural “replacement,” and borrowed President Trump’s toxic exhortation to “send them back.”
The forum also hosted hateful posts by a gunman who killed 51 Muslims total at two mosques in New Zealand, and by a man who shot four people, killing one, at a synagogue in California.
Words did not kill the victims in those shootings; madmen with guns did. But companies that host content allowing hatred to take root and blossom should face scrutiny. The House Homeland Security Committee has subpoenaed the owner of 8chan to testify.
Questioning those who willfully allow hate speech and requiring accountability is far different from shutting down such speech. It also fits into complex and often misunderstood issues surrounding the First Amendment.
That amendment states, in part, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Government cannot quash your speech; but companies that provide platforms for public discussion have a right — indeed, a duty — to keep that speech within the bounds of decency. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing; but like any wonderful thing it can be abused and distorted.
The Columbian publishes letters to the editor each day, but there are some letters too distasteful for a public airing. We also allow comments on our website, but there are guidelines designed to promote meaningful discussion without allowing a cesspool of hateful rhetoric to form.
Failing to publish such opinions does not violate free speech. If your thoughts are repugnant, you remain free to shout them from the rooftop; but we will not be complicit by sharing them.
That is not the case in many shadowy corners of the internet, including 8chan. And that should lead tech firms to take measure of the company they keep.
After initially announcing that BitMitigate would work with 8chan, Epik’s leaders had a bout of conscience and a change of heart. “This is due largely to the concern of inadequate enforcement and the elevated possibility of violent radicalization on the platform,” Epik wrote on its website.
Undoubtedly, there will be online providers willing to work with 8chan and other sites that comprise the sewer of the internet. And, undoubtedly, there will be no shortage of forums on the web that appeal to and feast upon society’s darkest impulses.
That calls for the rest of us to be diligent in rejecting hate speech, opposing white nationalism, and holding companies accountable when they allow toxic rhetoric to ferment. The stench cannot be eliminated, but all Americans should work to keep it underground.