How far can someone take Freedom of Speech on social media platforms?

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Where does social media draw the line between freedom of speech and hateful posts? It’s a question many of us are asking in light of the heartbreaking massacre inside a Pittsburgh synagogue.

While never flagged by authorities, we’ve learned the alleged shooter, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, is believed to have made hateful and anti-Semitic posts on a fringe social media site.

With that in mind, WATE 6 On Your Side wanted to bring to light for viewers just how far radical views can go online.

“Hate does take new forms and it evolves with the times,” said Keegan Hankes, Intelligence Project Senior Research Analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Hankes says their Intelligence Project observes, monitors and analyzes posts with hateful rhetoric. 

“We live in a really divisive and polarized time and there are a number of hate groups out there who really thrive on creating propaganda to bring people into this world view,” he said.

So, how far can someone take it online?

“There are 27 shades of gray between black and white, when that speech becomes a threat that depends on your specific intent,” said WATE 6 On Your Side Legal Analyst Greg Isaacs.

“I would say the universal line seems to be speech that encourages or incites violence is pretty much banned on every single platform but that’s completely different conversation whether that’s being enforced,” said Hankes.

The SPLC says social media companies struggle on taking effectives ways to deal with violations of terms and services.

“When they’re policing the internet even if the language is salacious, even though it’s distasteful, vile or vulgar, prosecutors have to prove a specific intent to injure or threaten and based on recent supreme court findings, that’s a very high standard,” added Isaacs.

For the average person, the first line of defense is, if you see something hateful or harmful online is to report it to the social media provider.

“Any time you see something like this it’s important to flag it for people who may have the power or the ability to divert that person,” said Hankes.

The SPLC saying hate speech has always been around but what’s different compared to the past is the intensity of violence and hostility in what people are saying now.

A coalition of about 40 civil rights organizations called Change the Terms is making policy suggestions about how social media companies can do a better job.

They would like to see the following changes:

  • Enforcing rules in a comprehensive way.
  • Providing a fair right of appeal if content is taken down.
  • Companies providing regular and robust transparency reports and data so researches can monitor progress.
  • Investing in training and sufficient resources to address the problem.
  • Establishing committee of advisors dedicated to addressing hate and discrimination on the platform.
  • Taking steps to identify, prohibit and disrupt those coordinating hateful campaigns.

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