In the aftermath of Ryan Braun’s suspension from Major League Baseball for the use of performance-enhancing drugs, social media networks have witnessed an outpouring of impassioned commentary, including many anti-Semitic remarks made against Braun — nicknamed “The Hebrew Hammer” for his Jewish heritage.
After the suspension, some Twitter users responded by posting hateful anti-Semitic messages on their personal accounts. Other bigoted comments about his Jewish heritage appeared on Facebook and YouTube. One commentator on ESPN.com noted that he believes Braun will not lose his most valuable player title “because he is Jewish.”
The anti-Semitic messages in response to Braun’s missteps are a reminder that whenever a Jewish public figure becomes the center of a media maelstrom, people already infected with anti-Semitism will take to social media, blogs and comment sections and unburden themselves. We saw waves of such commentary after the arrest of Bernie Madoff, who counted many Jews among the victims of his vast Ponzi scheme, and again, to a lesser extent, with the misadventures of New York mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner.
So the anti-Semitic messages concerning Braun are hardly an isolated incident, and certainly online hate is by no means limited to expressions of hatred against Jews. Earlier this month singer Marc Anthony was blasted on Twitter for singing “God Bless America” at baseball’s All-Star Game in New York. Anthony, an American citizen of Puerto Rican descent, was taunted online: “shouldn’t an American be singing God Bless America?”
So what’s the big deal? Why should we care if a few bigots use social media as a platform for hate? Aren’t they really just talking to themselves? Moreover, why should anyone committed to principles of free speech take offense to the hateful remarks that inevitably make their way into public discourse?
Make no mistake about it: Internet hate can be dangerous. Over time, the relentless drumbeat of hateful content can serve to desensitize Internet readers. Long and sustained exposure to Internet hate speech, like exposure to any propaganda, can change opinions. This is especially true among young people — as avid users of the Internet and social media, they are particularly vulnerable to the influence of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
The Internet, this great tool for research and for free speech, has given bigots the ability to share their hateful views with a potential audience of millions.
If only we could flip a switch to make online hate go away, or ask the companies that provide platforms to do so. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy.
There are vast quantities of materials on most social media sites. Recent statistics show that as of March 2013, Facebook has 1.11 billion monthly users; YouTube has 72 hours of video uploaded to its servers every minute; Twitter has approximately 400 million tweets every day. Simply put, it’s unrealistic to ask the companies that host this bigotry to just cut it out.
The good news is that we need not be passive — something can be done. Social media companies and non-governmental organizations can work together to combat cyber hate.
And users can be empowered to act. But how?
Quite simply: Users should flag offensive content. They should speak out in a smart and careful way, prepared to challenge hateful messages with positive ones, and they should promote counter-speech, applauding positive messages and sharing them with others. Parents and educators should teach children about how to deal with hate, and schools should teach kids to think critically about what they see online.
This last point cannot be over-emphasized: digital literacy is the best key to ensuring that haters do not become thought-leaders.
If the anti-Semitism surrounding Braun was met with strong disapproval from social media users, Twitter could curb the outpouring of hate that is now entirely unrestrained.
The buck doesn’t stop with users. Companies who provide platforms — social media companies, news companies with comments sections, etc. — have a serious role to play as well.
Companies need to create clear policies on hate speech, and ensure that they dedicate the appropriate corporate resources to enforce those hate speech policies. All social media sites should establish a clear, user-friendly process for allowing users to report hate speech, and be transparent and open about what they will and will not allow.
Social media sites should also actively encourage counter-speech and digital literacy to address hate speech, and perhaps require those who post comments to do so under their real names.
Nothing stops a bigot like the threat of being unmasked.
What we should all agree on is that the solution will not come from the government. The core values and benefits of free speech speak loudly against censorship.
When Jackie Robinson first broke the color barrier in the major leagues in 1947, it is said that Brooklyn Dodgers’ all-star Pee Wee Resse left his position at shortstop to put his arm around him. It silenced the crowd’s racial taunts and went a long way to help Robinson integrate baseball.
Such bold heroic displays happen very rarely in our world, but the Internet presents each of us with the opportunity to be small heroes in the fight against hate. Like Reese, we can all stand up to bigotry and prejudice when we see it and make sure that whether it’s a Ryan or a Marc or any other celebrity that’s in the spotlight, they be judged by their performance and not on the basis of their religion, race or ethnicity.
Abraham H. Foxman, is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and co-author of “Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).