Following the January 6 riot at the Capitol, the issue of holding big tech companies responsible for enabling the spread of online hate has become more important than ever. Prior to the riot, several groups and individuals used these platforms to organize “Stop the Steal” rallies and promote the idea that the outcome of the 2020 elections was illegitimate. On January 6, some of the would-be insurrectionists even live-streamed the storming of the Capitol as it unfolded.
Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan has been tasked with leading an ongoing investigation into domestic terrorism as chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. This includes demanding accountability from big tech companies, namely, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
The Role of Big Tech in Stopping Online Hate
While these platforms are not to blame for the riots, Peters wants to know what they are doing to stop hate speech. In a recent letter to the CEOs of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, he asked them to provide information about how they deal with content that promotes violence. He noted a recent incident in which a man made a bomb threat at the Library of Congress and broadcast his standoff with police via Facebook Live. It took a few hours for Facebook to take down the videos.
Peters also requested more information about targeted advertising tools, citing a report that Facebook users who posted about the January 6 riots were shown targeted ads for military gear. Another report showed that YouTube’s algorithms promote extreme and violent videos to people who use certain (not necessarily violent) keywords. It is clear that big tech has a lot to gain from keeping their users engaged through targeted content that will attract them. But at what cost? What about moral responsibility?
Calls for Big Tech Regulation
While the letter acknowledged that big tech companies have taken certain steps to address the issue of hate speech and targeted extremism, Peters wants more details. And he is not the only one. Around the world, people from different industries and countries are aware that big tech companies hold an incredible amount of power, and this power cannot go unquestioned.
Color of Change Vice President Arisha Hatch has called on the government to regulate big tech. StopHateForProfit.org organized an “ad pause” in which businesses, individuals, and nonprofits stopped their Facebook ads for a month in protest of the hate spread on the platform.
In a legal landmark case, a federal judge recently ruled that Facebook must turn over data from deleted accounts related to Myanmar’s genocide of Rohingya Muslims in 2018. The ruling is significant as it deals with the responsibility of these companies with regard to deleted content, and it may also impact investigations of the January 6 riots.
The Concern of Censorship
On the other end of the spectrum are groups and governments that do not want to give big tech the right to censor at all. In Texas, for example, a new law will prevent big tech companies from any kind of censorship, essentially allowing all sorts of hate speech, including neo-Nazi, alt-right, and terrorist propaganda. The companies are fighting back against it.
A Complicated, But Crucial, Role
Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are powerful platforms, and their roles in the promotion or hindrance of hate speech are crucial. While free speech is an important right, a line must be drawn when it comes to violence. We are currently living through a time in which these lines are being pioneered.
While these companies seem to have made progress in curbing online hate speech, it seems that there will ultimately be some degree of governmental interference. After all, the companies are biased by their bottom lines. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and various nonprofits have one goal: to decrease online hate speech that can ultimately lead to violent acts of hate in real life.