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Does Facebook's decision to ban white nationalism violate free speech?

Some are worried this represents an Orwellian move. At heart, it's not.

Right-wing demonstrators taunt counter-demonstrators during the Denver March Against Sharia Law in Denver, Colorado on June 10, 2017. (Photo by Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Last week, Facebook announced it would remove all white nationalist content from its main platform, as well as Instagram.
  • When someone posts white nationalist content they will now be redirected to the nonprofit organization, Life After Hate.
  • White nationalist groups actively recruit new members on social media platforms, aided by algorithms.

Slavery didn't simply end when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It took nearly three years for the ratification of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in the United States. Slave owners in Kentucky and Delaware begrudgingly unshackled the men and women they believed to be their property.

Public sentiment steadily grew in favor of abolition, but it was in no way a done deal. Lincoln himself wasn't an abolitionist when our nation entered the Civil War. The president wasn't thinking about the freedom of slaves in 1861; his goal was to preserve the union. As he wrote in a letter in 1862,

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."

The "Great Emancipator" pivoted as the war continued. The first attempt to abolish slavery passed in the Senate but failed to garner a two-thirds majority in the House. Abolition was a fight to the end. For most of that time, the majority of Americans were not in favor of ending this run of free and enforced labor.

Ditto Civil Rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was hardly a consensus opinion. Twenty-seven senators voted against it; 126 House members gave a thumbs down. Three months after passage, a majority of Americans (58 percent) supported the law, but nearly a third (31 percent) disapproved, while 10 percent of Americans didn't know how they felt on the matter. Even then, 68 percent supported "moderate enforcement" compared to the 19 percent that wanted "vigorous enforcement."

Translation: ease into that "every man is equal" idea. We just can't move too fast on this freedom issue.

Facebook bans white nationalism on its platforms l Al Jazeera English

Unfortunately for the slow turning of our moral compass, technology moves fast — much faster than our brains are designed to handle. Rather than keeping up, the easiest choice is to fall back into comfortable habits, even if such habits are dangerous. Enter Facebook.

Last week, the advertising giant that masquerades as a social media network banned white nationalism from its properties, including Instagram. Community standards previously allowed posts relating to race segregation, though not explicit white supremacy. Enforcement will be challenging and contentious. For now, Facebook's platforms will redirect white nationalists to Life After Hate, a nonprofit organization founded in 2011 to aid people in leaving hate groups.

White nationalism is merely a "nicer way" of expressing white supremacy, notes Ulrick Casseus, who works on Facebook's policy team. Normalizing genetic supremacy by claiming nationalism has helped grow these hate groups, according to a number of race experts interviewed by Facebook. How the company will carry this out on such a wide scale remains to be seen. Add to this the fact that Life After Hate lists just six employees on its site—the influx of potential subscribers will likely overwhelm the group.

After posting a related article on my social media handles last week, most offered a thumbs up or heart. Negative comments revolved around one idea: Facebook's directive violates freedom of speech.

Such a sentiment misses the point of free speech in an important way. Language that actively suppresses voices in a society in favor of voices that mimic your own is not freedom, but an intentional attempt to create its opposite.

Roger McNamee, one of Mark Zuckerberg's early advisors (and now one of the platform's biggest critics), discusses this topic on Sam Harris's latest podcast. McNamee quotes Renée DiResta, stating, "Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach." The real issue is not censorship, but reach — avoiding amplification of messages that manipulate and indoctrinate the merely curious or questioning, much the same way that cult leaders exploit recruits by appealing to base emotional sentiments.

The teams pose behind a No Room for Racism sign ahead of the Premier League match between West Ham United and Everton FC at London Stadium on March 30, 2019 in London, United Kingdom.

(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

If Facebook was merely a sounding board with no persuasion over others, that would be one thing. But we know the algorithms favor outrage. Indoctrination used to require word of mouth, in which you needed to be within earshot of the mouths indoctrinating. This is no longer the case. McNamee notes that platforms like Facebook reward users with status by elevating their beliefs in echo chambers. There are no rules in the race to the bottom of the attention economy, which is where these platforms make billions of dollars in revenue.

Similarly, in the digital environment confusion over one vaccine administration has the potential of creating an army of anti-vaxxers. The vaccination "debate" was settled nearly 240 years ago. Global population was under one billion people when Edward Jenner demonstrated the efficacy of vaccines — a census achieved through millions of years of evolution. Fast-forward just two-and-a-half centuries: we're over 7.5 billion. The efficacy of vaccines isn't a debate. It's basic and observable science.

Likewise, the hoax of genetic supremacy was revealed long ago, but the disease of racial purity persists. Trying to make it a debate is like the creation "science" advocates pitting their beliefs against evolution; there is no there there. In the absence of evidence manipulation becomes necessary. White nationalism/supremacy has existed for eons; social media enabled fans an opportunity to infect others.

Offering white supremacists a platform for recruitment does nothing to move society forward. We have much bigger problems to face than groups of ideologues refusing to turn the pages of basic history or science books. Language is a responsibility. Facebook's decision would violate freedom of speech if white nationalists displayed the maturity to recognize that fact. Facebook might be cutting off freedom of reach, which in this case is excising a tumor: not pretty, but necessary.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

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  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
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