What responsibility should government authorities and Big Tech take in policing the spread of sedition-oriented content?
- It can be hard to believe that comical images online are enough to rile people up enough that they'll actually attack.
- Originating in the darker corners of the internet, Bugaloo is now prominent on mainstream online platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
- The Network Contagion Research Institute's recent series of Contagion and Ideology Reports uses machine learning to examine how memes spread.
What’s in a meme?<p>The Network Contagion Research Institute's recent series of <a href="https://ncri.io/reports/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Contagion and Ideology Reports </a>leverages machine learning to examine how memes spread. The idea is to unearth a better understanding of the role memes play in encouraging real-world violence. </p><p>So what exactly is a meme, and how did it become a tool for weaponizing the web? Originally coined by Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book "<a href="https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/may/29/selfish-gene-40-years-richard-dawkins-do-ideas-stand-up-adam-rutherford" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Selfish Gene</a><em>," </em>the term is defined there as "a unit of cultural transmission" that spreads like a virus from host to host and conveys an idea which changes the host's worldview. </p><p>Dawkins echoes "Naked Lunch" author William Burroughs's concept of <a href="https://www.twisttheknife.com/william-s-burroughs-playback-from-eden-to-watergate/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">written language as a virus</a> that infects the reader and consequently builds realities that are brought to fruition through the act of speech. In this sense, a meme is an idea that spreads by iterative, collaborative imitation from person to person within a culture and carries symbolic meaning.</p><p>The militant alt-right's use of internet memes <a href="https://journals.openedition.org/angles/369" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">follows this pattern</a>. They are carefully designed on underground social media using codes, before attaining approval by like-minded users that disseminate these messages on mainstream platforms like Twitter or Facebook.</p><p>Sometimes these messages are lifted from innocuous sources and altered to convey hate. Take for example Pepe the Frog. Initially created by cartoonist Matt Furie as a mascot for slackers, Pepe was appropriated and altered by racists and homophobes until the Anti-Defamation League branded the frog as a <a href="https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/pepe-the-frog" target="_blank">hate symbol</a> in 2016. This, of course, hasn't stopped public figures from sharing variations of Pepe's likeness in subversive social posts.</p>
Slenderman and the Boogaloo Bois<p>Indeed, these types of memes have a tricky way of moving from the shadows of the internet to the mainstream, picking up supporters along the way – including those who are willing to commit horrific crimes.</p><p>This phenomenon extends well beyond politics. Take, for example, the Slenderman. Created as a shadowy figure for online horror stories, Slenderman achieved mainstream popularity and a cult-like following. When two girls tried to <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/06/03/the-complete-terrifying-history-of-slender-man-the-internet-meme-that-compelled-two-12-year-olds-to-stab-their-friend/" target="_blank">stab their friend to death</a> to prove that Slenderman was real in 2014, the power of the meme to prompt violence became a national conversation. </p><p>Slenderman creator Victor Surge told Know Your Meme that <a href="https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/slender-man" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">he never thought</a> the character would spread beyond the fringe Something Awful forums. "An urban legend requires an audience ignorant of the origin of the legend. It needs unverifiable third and forth [sic] hand (or more) accounts to perpetuate the myth," he explained. "On the Internet, anyone is privy to its origins as evidenced by the very public Somethingawful thread. But what is funny is that despite this, it still spread. Internet memes are finicky things and by making something at the right place and time it can swell into an 'Internet Urban Legend.'"</p><p>While Slenderman is obviously a fiction, political memes walk many of the same fine lines – and have galvanized similarly obsessed followers to commit attacks in the real world.</p>
Understanding digital indoctrination<p><a href="http://www.ncri.io/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Network Contagion Research Institute</a> (NCRI) uses advanced data analysis to expose hate on social media. The institute's scientists work with experts at the ADL's <a href="https://www.adl.org/who-we-are/our-organization/advocacy-centers/center-on-extremism" target="_blank">Center on Extremism </a>(COE) to track hateful propaganda online and offer strategies to combat this phenomenon. By better understanding how memes spread hateful propaganda, the NCRI is helping law enforcement, social media companies and citizens get better at preventing online chatter about violence from becoming real action.</p><p>Founded by Princeton's Dr. Joel Finkelstein, the NCRI is finding that the spread of hate online can be examined using epidemiological models of how viruses spread, only applied to language and ideas, much as Burroughs imagined decades ago. </p><p>Now that the internet has obviated the need for people to meet in person or communicate directly, recruiting and deploying members of violent groups is easier than ever before.</p><p>Before social media, as <a href="https://njjewishnews.timesofisrael.com/princeton-scientist-connects-web-hate-and-the-acts-it-spawns/" target="_blank">Finkelstein reminds us</a>, organizing underground hate groups was harder. "You would have to have an interpersonal organization to train and cultivate those people," he said. "With the advance of the internet, those people can find each other; what it lacks in depth it makes up in reach. The entire phenomenon can happen by itself without a trace of anyone being groomed."</p>
Can anything be done?<p>Memes generate hysteria in part by being outrageous enough for people to share – even the mainstream media. This is a concrete strategy called <a href="https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/10/24/132228/political-war-memes-disinformation/" target="_blank">amplification</a>. The extreme alt-right manages to reach mainstream audiences with racialist and supremacist memes, even as these messages are being denounced.</p><p>Content spreads virally whether those spreading it support the embedded ideology or not, making it difficult to intervene and prevent meme-incited violence.</p><p>Some people may unwittingly amplify messaging designed to spread violence, mistaking memes like ACAB (all cops are bastards) for harmless if somewhat dark humor.</p>
NCRI<p>So what can be done about the meme wars, and what onus is on law enforcement and Big Tech?</p><p>Finkelstein recommends a three-pronged approach to combating the violent outcome of subversive memes.</p><ol><li>Push for more stringent boundaries defining civility online using technology.</li><li>Educate courts, lawmakers and civil institutions about how extreme online communities operate and create better industry standards to regulate these groups.</li><li>Bring the federal government, including the FBI and Homeland Security, up to speed on the new reality so they can intervene as necessary.</li></ol><p>But not everyone thinks Big Tech or the law have much ground to stand on in combating viral hate. Tech companies haven't gone the mile in truly enforcing stricter standards for online content, but some companies are closing down accounts associated with <a href="https://www.voanews.com/silicon-valley-technology/can-shutting-down-online-hate-sites-curb-violence" target="_blank">extremist leaders' websites</a> and their movements. </p><p>But this is largely tilting at windmills. The proliferation of memes online spreading ideology virally might be too big to combat without dramatically limiting freedom of speech online. Facebook and YouTube have <a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/social-media-2020-us-election?rebelltitem=4#rebelltitem4" target="_self">banned thousands of profiles</a>, but there's no way of knowing how many remain – or are being added every day. This leaves the danger of meme radicalization and weaponization lurking beneath the surface even as we head into elections. </p>
What we stand to lose<p>Boogaloo and other seditious groups have been empowered by recent crises, including the pandemic and the anti-racist protests sweeping the country. Greater numbers of these community members are showing up at anti-quarantine protests and are disrupting other gatherings, and the press they're getting – this article included – is only bringing more attention to their violent messages.</p><p>Extremist memes continue to circulate, as America heads to the polls amidst a global pandemic and widespread civil unrest. It stands to reason that more blood will be spilled. Getting a handle on Twitter handles that spread hate and shutting down groups whose sole purpose is sowing the seeds of brutality is vital – the only question that remains is how. </p>
What speech is harmful, how do we know, and what do we do if we find out?
- Modern debates over free speech rage on the internet, but what do experts say?
- Some think it is easy to go too far in limiting public debate by offending parties, others argue limits are part of normal discourse.
- While the debate isn't settled, these thinkers can give you some starting points for your next discussion.
Stance #1: Meta- argumentative allegations are a tool that should be used sparingly.<p>Dr. Hugh Breakey of Griffith University lays out his case in the essay <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10503-020-09538-8" target="_blank">"'That's Unhelpful, Harmful and Offensive!' Epistemic and Ethical Concerns with Meta-argument Allegations</a><em>."</em></p><p>Breakey argues that "meta-arguments," statements that focus on external features of an argument rather than an argument's soundness, can be used to critique arguments by pointing out the harm that an argument might cause. </p><p>As an example, imagine that somebody tells an armed mob without evidence that grocers are the cause of a crippling food shortage. Pointing out that this argument might cause harm provides an ethical good (the speaker might not make the argument now that they know harm may come of it) and an epistemic good (the argument might be improved or abandoned if the weakness of it is pointed out). While meta-arguments aren't good or bad by themselves, this example shows how they can be used positively. </p><p>However, other times critiques that seem clear to one party in an argument can seem groundless to others. In these cases, meta-arguments can derail discussion rather than clarify it. Worse, it can be impossible to get back on track after these allegations are made. </p><p>Big Think reached out to Dr. Breakey, who offered this elaboration on his position:</p><p><br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"When we call out what someone says in an argument as offensive, harmful or unhelpful, it can feel like we are applying an impartial standard. We're setting down sensible, objective rules within which constructive civil debate can occur. But the reality is that our judgments about such matters are likely to be as controversial and contestable—and, unfortunately, influenced by emotional and cognitive biases—as our views on the original topic of the debate. Reasonable people can disagree on the risks of harm created by speech, the ethical weight that should be given to those harms, where the moral responsibility for those harms properly lies, and how these factors relate to the importance of freely discussing the original topic of the debate. These are all complicated and difficult questions, and will be answered differently by people with different political views and life experiences. As a result, we need to exercise great caution in leveling allegations of harm and offence during an argument. Otherwise, the very differences that led to the original debate—and that make that debate worthwhile—will be used to foreclose it."</p><p><br></p><p>Given these concerns, the essay ends with a call for "argumentational tolerance" that is weary of using meta-argumentative allegations in general, but is open to using them when the speech in question is obviously harmful, such as instances of hate speech or calls to violence.</p>
Stance #2: Platforms lend credence, and some people shouldn't be given that.<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0f1b4a4cef6cb4f8c278306a20dd49ed"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/qjDLux9EXCE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Another stance is taken by Professor Neil Levy of The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics<strong>, </strong>in their essay <a href="https://aeon.co/ideas/why-no-platforming-is-sometimes-a-justifiable-position" target="_blank">"Why no-platforming is sometimes a justifiable position."</a></p><p>They agree with many others that free speech is valuable and that good-faith arguments are generally good. However, they find the idea of deplatforming for meta-argumentative reasons more compelling than others might. </p><p>In Dr. Levy's essay, they ask you to imagine that a university has invited a speaker who rejects climate change's existence to speak on that topic. While that position is bunk, the very act of being invited to speak by a prestigious university grants credence to what the speaker has to say, which cannot easily be refuted by other, better arguments. </p><p>Things like being invited to speak by a prestigious school or having seemingly valid credentials can be "higher-order" evidence in favor of their position. Higher-order evidence, Dr. Levy explains, influences how we evaluate arguments. Higher-order evidence in favor of our position can make us more confident in it, while opposing evidence can lead us to moderate our stances. </p><p>However, Dr. Levy points out the difficulty of countering higher-order evidence, or the legitimacy it confers, by rational argument alone. They further out the usefulness of attacking the credibility of the speaker's bunk arguments by focusing not on the argument but on the higher-order evidence's validity. Here, ad-hominem attacks and meta- argumentative critiques of their speaking at all can remove the higher-order evidence. Deplatforming, often critiqued as the suppression of speech, can also be useful, as it prevents a person from being granted the legitimacy that a speaking invitation can bring.</p><p>There is a difference between this position and that of Dr. Breakey. Dr. Levy is more concerned with matters of fact rather than debates over what constitutes acceptable discourse. However, this stance is clearly more open to the idea of using meta-argumental allegations to keep speech non-harmful and productive than other common positions are. </p>
Stance #3: Deciding what speech is “acceptable” is a fundamental aspect of public discourse.<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e6e7eae4f8711c1ba0aed143bbfd5098"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/0foSXKph9wI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Lastly, we have the stance described by the University of Illinois Professor Nicholas Grossman in an essay titled "<a href="https://arcdigital.media/free-speech-defenders-dont-understand-the-critique-against-them-4ed8327c0879" target="_blank">Free Speech Defenders Don't Understand the Critique Against Them</a>."</p><p>Professor Grossman considers the current debate around "free speech" and suggests that the debate is really over what we consider socially acceptable these days—a discussion which we've had before and will have again.</p><p>As he points out, most people would agree that there is nothing wrong with deciding that Holocaust denial is odious. Furthermore, they would likely also agree that private actors can (and should) use their capacities to limit the space available for a Holocaust denier to speak in. Most people would also hardly shed a tear if the denier faced social consequences for their speech. However, not everybody agrees on giving the same treatment to J.K. Rowling in light of her statements concerning transgender individuals.<br> <br> Professor Grossman argues that our current discussions are really about where the line of "acceptability" is. Are people, like Rowling, crossing that line when they imply transgender women are not women? If so, what social consequences should they face, if any? What else might be on the other side of that line now? How do we know? The line has moved before, consider how common the public use of racial slurs was in the past, is the idea of moving the line now any different? </p><p>They agree with Dr. Breakey in thinking that these are big questions without easy answers. However, Professor Grossman suggests that, in determining what speech is socially acceptable, these discussions can, and must, take place for debate to move forward. In contrast, Dr. Breakey suggests that these concerns can derail other debates if not used properly. </p>
How can I use this?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d1134bccc91f9e731c06e8170e010c5b"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/0w5Zg9kKg3A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Perhaps the most obvious take away is that all three of these thinkers agree that certain speakers, notably those inciting violence or those deliberately trying to cause harm using racial slurs, can (and perhaps should) be challenged. It suggests a semblance of agreement exists around the idea that some speech does harm and that this legitimizes certain follow up actions to prevent the speech.</p><p>This idea is nothing new; even John Stuart Mill agreed with the idea of censoring speech that could cause immediate <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9IM3ZKNMCk" target="_blank">violence</a>. </p><p>The three thinkers considered here also all agree on the importance of open debate in general. None of them are suggesting that you should be arrested for giving an unpopular opinion. They all argue in favor of using reasoned, respectful debate to advance our understanding of various issues. </p><p>However, they disagree on how easy it is to know what is respectful debate and what is speech worthy of critique, deplatforming, and social consequence, and what to do when that line is crossed. While the three do seem to be concerned with slightly different scales, Professor Grossman focuses on societal debates while Dr. Levy focuses on institutional level problems, the differences endure, and each stance can be applied at various scales.</p><p>Despite this lack of agreement, they all provide strong arguments for their position and a launchpad for further debate. Though, we might need to already agree on a few points before that debate can even happen.</p>
Going from a solitary teenage protester in front of the Swedish parliament to a global icon in little more than a year certainly merits a distinction.
- Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, has been named Time's Person of the Year.
- The award is given to "the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse."
- Considering the magnitude of directly inspired protest movements and real-world impacts she has had, the award seems to be merited, although not everybody is pleased about this.
The "Greta effect"<p>In part, Thunberg was awarded the Person of the Year due to the so-called "Greta Effect"; her activism has had tangible impacts on organizations and governmental policy and has resulted in a large protest movement largely composed of young people.</p><p>For example, Thunberg's refusal to fly in airplanes has resulted in a new term in Sweden: <em>flygskam</em>, or "flight-shame." As a result, domestic flights dropped by 8 percent from January to April of 2019 compared to a 3 percent drop for the whole of 2018. Correspondingly, rail travel saw an <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/04/stayontheground-swedes-turn-to-trains-amid-climate-flight-shame" target="_blank">8 percent bump</a> over the last year.</p><p>Rather than fly, the activist has traveled by rail or a carbon-neutral yacht. Though the term "yacht," inspired accusations of hypocrisy, it should be noted that the seacraft had <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climate-change-greta-boat/climate-campaigner-greta-prepares-to-sail-to-the-u-s-on-boat-with-no-toilet-idUSKCN1V30VC" target="_blank">no shower or toilet</a>, which doesn't entirely mesh with the wasteful pleasure cruises typically associated with yachts.</p><p>By August 2019, sales of children's books related to climate change had <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/11/greta-thunberg-leads-to-boom-in-books-aimed-at-empowering-children-to-save-planet" target="_blank">doubled</a>, which publishers attributed to the Greta effect. While sharing the stage with Thunberg, the President of the European Commission vowed to dedicate <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climatechange-teen-activist-idUSKCN1QA1RF" target="_blank">one in every four euros</a> of the EU budget to be dedicated toward mitigating climate change. Crediting the activities of Thunberg in part, U.S. philanthropists established the <a href="https://climateemergencyfund.org/" target="_blank">Climate Emergency Fund</a>, committing half a million pounds (a bit more than $650,000) with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/12/us-philanthropists-vow-to-raise-millions-for-climate-activists" target="_blank">tens of millions</a> more promised to fund climate strikes like Extinction Rebellion, the school strike, and other <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/12/us-philanthropists-vow-to-raise-millions-for-climate-activists" target="_blank">climate-related protest movements</a>. </p>
A youth-led protest movement<p>Most importantly, however, protest movements directly motivated by Thunberg's own activism have involved young people in the <a href="https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/9/20/20876143/climate-strike-2019-september-20-crowd-estimate" target="_blank">millions</a>.</p><p>Thunberg herself was inspired by the school strikes organized by teenage activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the aftermath of a school shooting at the same high school, students organized the March for our Lives in support of greater gun control.</p><p>Thunberg's own protest started out as a solitary one. "I tried to bring people with me," Thunberg told <em><a href="https://www.democracynow.org/2018/12/11/meet_the_15_year_old_swedish" target="_blank">Democracy Now!</a></em>, "but no one was really interested, so I had to do it alone." But another person showed up on the second day. Over time, more and more people joined her protest, until thousands were camped out in front of Sweden's Parliament.</p><p>The fact that the protest movement is mostly composed of young people is critical. "You say you love your children above all else," said Thunberg at the U.N. Climate Change Conference. "And yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes." Many of the most successful protests have been driven by young people: the <a href="https://time.com/5730106/velvet-revolution-history/" target="_blank">Velvet Revolution</a>, the <a href="https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/18/08/student-activism-20" target="_blank">Black Lives Matter</a> movement, the <a href="https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/the-greensboro-sit-in" target="_blank">Greensboro sit-ins</a>, and countless others.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjE2MjM3NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MjE4NTE5OH0.LBa_iN8ZM36JabjAx1yqZIoLvFQwkEUdh-601JpONSA/img.jpg?width=980" id="e44dd" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="036480713187f6884d95aa250bbcc1fb" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Extinction rebellion" />
Extinction Rebellion climate protesters listen to Greta Thunberg speak at an April 2019 protest in London.
Ollie Millington/Getty Images
A long road ahead<p>Many criticize Thunberg and the climate change protest movement as being overly dramatic. However, dramatic rhetoric appears to be merited. In an article for <em><a href="http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/09/greta-thunberg-climate-change-movement.html" target="_blank">New York Magazine</a></em>, journalist David Wallace-Wells described a conversation he had with energy expert Vaclav Smil when he asked about the planet's chances of staying below the Paris Agreement's threshold of two degrees Celsius of warming.</p><p style="margin-left: 40px;">When I put the question of two degrees to him, he literally laughed: "To make that happen, you are talking about billions and billions of tons of everything. We are mining now more than 7 billion tons of coal. So you want to lower the coal consumption by half, you have to cut down close to 4 billion tons of coal. You have to get rid of more than 2 billion tons of oil. These are transformations on a billion-ton scale globally. They cannot be done by next Monday."</p><p>Emissions are still at an all-time high, though their growth is slowing. Ultimately, only government policies will be able to reverse a trend of this magnitude. But governments respond to public opinion and protest. Given that the <a href="https://time.com/4586372/time-person-of-the-year-facts/" target="_blank">Person of the Year</a> is selected based on "who most affected the news and our lives… for better or for worse," the fact that they are a teenage climate activist should be cause for celebration.</p>
Elon Musk and many top CEOs condemned President Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Clashes between "antifa" on the far left and the alt-right have intensified.