When Hate Speech Hits Social Media

Facebook Quick To Remove Sites But Twitter Cites Free Speech

Social Concerns: Facebook and Twitter have very different approaches when it comes to dealing with claims of anti-Semitic or hate speech.
nate lavey
Social Concerns: Facebook and Twitter have very different approaches when it comes to dealing with claims of anti-Semitic or hate speech.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 04, 2012, issue of June 08, 2012.
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Ask Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center how he grades Twitter’s efforts to combat anti-Semitic hate speech, and Cooper, the group’s associate dean, won’t even give Twitter an F.

“They haven’t even shown up to the dance yet,” said Cooper, who directs the center’s anti-hate speech efforts.

Facebook, on the other hand, has recently won plaudits from Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, for its willingness to censor perceived anti-Semitic hate speech and even some anti-Israel Facebook pages.

The distinct responses from Twitter and Facebook have been no different when Muslims have protested content that they deemed anti-Islamic. Pakistan, for example, recently demanded that Twitter remove alleged anti-Islamic content from its platform, but officials at the mirco-blogging medium refused, leading the government to briefly block access to it for the whole country.

But in 2010, when faced with the same demand from Pakistan that Twitter defied in 2012, Facebook quickly complied.

In the hot, rapidly evolving debate on new social media and the boundaries of free speech, the dichotomy between Twitter and Facebook tells more than just a digital tale of two cities; the response to their divergent stances also sometimes illustrates a maxim as old as the two media are new: It depends on whose ox is being gored.

The two huge media companies’ respective postures were on sharp display in a recent pact signed between the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism and by Internet giants Google and Facebook. The agreement, reached on May 7, declares that both sides will work together to “build best practices for understanding, reporting upon and responding to Internet hate.”

But Twitter was notably absent from the agreement. The company has consistently rejected attempts to intervene with its content, citing its concern for maintaining free speech.

“Facebook has been very responsive, cooperative and committed to fighting Internet hate,” said Deborah Lauter, director of civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League, a group that has played a key role in reaching understandings with social media providers. Twitter, Lauter admitted, has been slower to respond to requests for removing hate speech and offensive Tweets. “But as Twitter grows, they’ll have to go through this stage and understand this is a problem that needs to be solved,” she said.

This divide does not come as a surprise to those who have been following the two companies on issues related to real or perceived encroachment on their users’ freedom to share any content through a social media platform. Twitter, self-described by its leaders as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” has largely resisted lending itself to restrictions on content by either governments or citizen groups. It has, for example, in the absence of court orders of warrants, fought government demands for records of its users in criminal and terror-related investigations — even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has praised it and other digital media for resisting encroachments by authoritarian governments abroad.


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