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This article was published on June 10, 2018

Research: Restricting free speech isn’t the solution to violence and hate speech

Repeated studies indicate censorship amplifies violence and extremism in digital (and physical) worlds

Research: Restricting free speech isn’t the solution to violence and hate speech Image by: icons8 (edited)
Bill Ottman
Story by

Bill Ottman

Bill founded in 2011 with the goal of bringing a free, open source and sustainable social network to the world. He co-founded mult Bill founded in 2011 with the goal of bringing a free, open source and sustainable social network to the world. He co-founded multiple viral media organizations, holds a fellowship at Boston Global Forum and serves on the Advisory Board of Code To Inspire, a non-profit building coding schools for women in Afghanistan. He graduated from University of Vermont with a BA in English.

The fight to protect freedom of speech is ancient and can be traced through history from Socrates, Milton, and Voltaire to Hypatia and Goldman. The issue is currently undergoing a resurgence with figures like Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Sommers, Count Dankula, Sarah Silverman, Laci Green, Amy Schumer, and so on.

Whether politics or comedy, left-wing, right-wing, or apolitical, free speech permeates every aspect of life. What’s more is that censorship has led to some of the world’s greatest tragedies and most oppressive authoritarian regimes.

Most people want less violence, racism, sexism, and bigotry. In order to achieve this, we must find the most efficient approach to increasing peace so that we can generate a sustainable social fabric in our shared physical and digital worlds. To this end, we must examine censorship from an empirical and scientific viewpoint in order to establish optimal solutions.

In popular culture, there is a clear split in opinion about the best way to handle this. Major news outlets regularly publish pieces condemning free speech platforms, outlets and individuals they believe are guilty propelling the spread of bigotry. While this solution appears to be obvious, it disregards an existing and growing body of evidence that shows censorship most often backfires.

The Streisand Effect

This phenomenon is called the “Streisand Effect” after a well-documented study by the University of Wollongong. Barbra Streisand attempted to block access to photography of her Malibu mansion in 2003. She sued both the photographer and the photo sales company for violating privacy laws, but the publicity created a frenzy in which the photographs were downloaded 420,000 times within a month.

It completely backfired, as accomplished professor of history, Antoon de Baets, wrote in his book Censorship Backfires: “Censorship may not suppress alternative views but rather generate them, and, by doing so, become counterproductive.” (pp. 223–234).

Indeed, a 2017 study titled, “You Can’t Stay Here: The Efficacy of Reddit’s 2015 Ban Examined Through Hate Speech,” showed that banning hate speech on the website simply pushed people onto other sites. Although banning the hate speech did reduce controversial content on their specific platform, the overarching sentiment of the study is found in its conclusion:

In a sense, Reddit has made these users (from banned subreddits) someone else’s problem. To be clear, from a macro perspective, Reddit’s actions likely did not make the internet safer or less hateful. One possible interpretation, given the evidence at hand, is that the ban drove the users from these banned subreddits to darker corners of the internet.

The Reddit study serves as a focal point for the conclusions we can draw about censorship in the global community. Instead of isolated instances of banning, the world is causally affected by digital book burnings, ubiquitous web censorship, prohibition, and so on.

The constitutional ban on alcohol that took place from 1920 to 1933 is one of the most famous examples. Although it intended to prevent the distribution of alcohol, numerous retrospective studies show that it led to increased crime and consumption.

Studies by Pew Research show that America is the most tolerant country in the world when it comes to free speech. But hate groups do exist, and uncomfortable situations will happen. The most important question is how to deal with these situations.

We may be able to find the answer in the work of Daryl Davis, a famous blues musician with a hobby of  befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. According to him: “Once the friendship blossoms, the klansmen realize that their hate may be misguided.” By having dinner with Klansmen, he has inspired over 200 members to give up their robes.

This idea was taken to a broader context by the American Civil Liberties Union. They promoted a powerful advertisement in which a woman wearing a hijab was standing before graffiti that read “Muslims Go Home.” In the following frame, young men held signs proclaiming “Freedom of religion” and “Love thy Neighbor.” The message ends with their ultimatum: “Fight Hate Speech with More Speech”.

Age of the internet trolls

On the internet, the most common abuse happens in the form of trolling. The knee-jerk reaction to simply censor or ban the trolls is commonplace, but just as dangerous as the above-mentioned studies show. A 2014 study from the University of Manitoba shows that many trolls share the trait of sadism. The trouble is that pushing sadistic trolls away from the mainstream is to push them into desolate corners where their desires will intensity.

A Unesco study  says that banning trolls is akin to “whack-a-mole” — they’ll just pop up somewhere else. What’s more is that a Brooking’s study concludes that removing accounts will only “increase the speed and intensity of radicalization for those who do manage to enter the network.” In other words, engaging trolls in a discussion will ultimately disarm their greatest weapon of polarization.

This was clearly seen when the United Kingdom heavily censored internet traffic in 2011 as a result of political unrest around the world, including violent uprisings and the Arab Spring. The results of a study from the University of Greenwich concluded that the net result was actually an increase violence and uprisings.

Grouping people of dissenting ideas into one closed group only reinforces their undesirable behavior and entrenches their thought process into an endless loop of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. In a word, it creates an echo-chamber of violence.

A solution

What is the path forward? It likely consists of a hybrid approach including:

  • An alliance of social networks, thought-leaders, scientists, organizations, corporations, and governments to commit to a macro-global strategy of achieving peace through free speech and open source technology
  • Technology that helps users control their experience as much as possible through muting, blocking, reporting, and filtering
  • Human support to those in need, both online and offline
  • A long-term study on the effects of transforming hateful and violent behavior through free speech, in a context that understands language, humor, etc. — with a combination of human review and AI tools (not without user-consent and fully in line with digital rights practices)
  • Call for papers to create an archive of all research and studies related to censorship, free speech, hate speech, violence, and above-mentioned topics

It is essential that participants in this project come from across the political spectrum to face these issues head-on create a plan for a successful global initiative. The future of internet freedom and human rights depends on it.