The heinous anti-Semitic shootout on October, 2018, which resulted in the deaths of eleven victims, including law enforcement officials took American society and world by surprise. The perpetrator Robert Bowers, the lone wolf attacker of this dreadful crime had a history of harboring anti-Semitic and alternative right-wing extremist opinions. These hate riddled opinions were compounded with the presence of anti-immigration and violent anti-globalized world views by the perpetrator.

Another disturbing aspects learnt about the suspect is that he was sharing his vitriolic views about Jews, refugees and immigrants on an alt-right-wing website Gab. However, what made Gab an enabling factor in promoting extremism was its exclusivity. Robert Bowers, like other alternative right-wing and extremists, joined the platform because it served as a breeding ground for ideas often discouraged on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. In this sense, the suspected perpetrator followed a pattern which is also seen among followers of different extremist and terrorist groups. Whenever extremist or radical individuals are denied a mainstream digital space they rush to join an ecology which harbors, feeds and reinforces their extremist ideas. A similar move was made by the Pittsburg perpetrator when he joined gab.com. Gab is a social media platform like Twitter and Facebook, however, with the major exception that it attracts individuals that abuse absoluteness of free-speech to promote bigotry, hatred and prejudicial ideas.

What remains undeniable is that extremist and terrorist elements often use the pretext of free-speech to promote hate-speech and violence. These so-called free speech “activists” invoke democratic and liberal ideals as a disguise to promote hatred, bigotry and violence. The combination of finding common spaces along with using liberal ideals such as free-speech to espouse extremist and violent views provide a recipe to sustain extremist views. And it also serves as platforms for graduating violent criminals and terrorists.

This pattern is also common to other extremist and terrorist groups such as Daesh (Islamic State) and their affiliate terrorist organizations. These groups develop dedicated phone apps and websites over the dark web in order to retain communication, propagation, recruitment and financing of their nefarious goals. Use of Gab as a platform for beginner radicals to hardcore violent extremists appears as an extension of a practice seen across exclusive platforms (websites and forums) used for extremist and violent content. Moreover, platforms similar to Gab which are often used for liberal ideals can be convoluted into promoting outright violence. Flag bearers of absolute free-speech, no matter how vehemently they may argue in its favor, will not condone a criminal or terrorist promoting hate-crimes or terrorism under the garb of liberal ideals.

Recently United States and West in particular has seen rise of extreme right-wing political groups which often clash with traditional conservative and liberal ideals. Such groups among right wing politics need not only be condemned by their peers. Liberal and left wing political groups also need to ensure that legitimate exercise of free-speech is not curtailed under need for political correctness. Though political correctness is important, its extent shouldn’t come to restrict exercise of fair criticism. Imposing silence or denying space often gives leeway to fringe elements to hijack opinions and to seek exclusive spaces (such as exclusive social media websites and apps) to germinate their concocted opinions. Denying spaces to fair criticism allows fringe individuals and groups to invoke denial of their liberal rights and in reverse play victims for claiming exclusive spaces. There is no doubt that in midst of these critical times free-speech needs to be protected. It’s important that the West in general must retain the practice of allowing critical and contrasting ideas to clash without allowing perturbing ideas to fall under the monopoly of fringe groups so that redundant ideas are neutered through logical and rational ideas. While all these measures can be exercised in the physical world, the digital world is equally pivotal.

The prompt measures taken by various service providers such as Joyent, Medium, Stripe and Paypal against Gab are welcoming. Follow up action against Gab is done for exercising a lackluster policy against hate-speech promoted on its platform. This lays down a precedent of private collaboration and coordination rather than an outright intervention from the government. Similarly, this unfortunate incident raises the importance of targeted surveillance of high-risk individuals seen having a pattern of promoting and being exposed to extremist content. It also underscores the point that social media platforms, irrespective of their inclination, must have a regulation policy which holds zero-tolerance for intolerant and extremist opinions, particularly those inciting violence.

Advocates of absolute free-speech may argue against such an approach. However, speech promoting violence is not a nuanced extension of fair criticism. Hate-speech often demonstrates paranoia about other groups and conditions some conspiracy theory to them. It similarly evokes a sense of urgency, often times demanding or suggesting violent actions by recipient of such messages. This should be seen in combination with individual personality and views of perpetrators because it is this second element which serves as the tipping point to violent actions.

Curbing extremism and violence in all shades is not confined to private corporations or state organs alone. It merits collaborative action. Societies need to maintain capacity to accommodate diverse opinions; however, they should discourage ideas laying blame and calling for violence against other groups. This will require closer collaboration between internet intermediaries, service providers along with state-authorities and multilateral forums to prevent their services from being used to espouse violent-extremist ideas and practices. Achieving complete absence of extremism may be a utopian ideal. However, making societies resilient enough to guard against violent tendencies is not an impossible ambition.

 

The writer is a consultant at the Islamabad

Policy Research Institute.

 usama.research@gmail.com