Editorials

In age of mass killings, internet hate needs more scrutiny

If ever there was a time for internet-hosting platforms to get aggressive about monitoring content, that time is now.

Consider this: Before Patrick Crusius got in his truck and drove ten hours to the El Paso Walmart where he killed 22 people and injured dozens more, he logged on to 8chan, an unmoderated message board, to warn readers of an “Hispanic invasion.”

Also embedded in the 21-year-old’s manifesto was the phrase “send them back, ” an eerie echo of a toxic tweet sent last month by President Trump.

Crusius was the third shooter in the last six months to use 8chan to announce his motive. The shooter who killed 51 Muslims at a New Zealand mosque and the man who walked into a synagogue in Poway, California and shot four, one fatally, also posted racist screeds on the anonymous message board.

Any technology firm that would give harbor to far-right terrorists — including companies in the high-tech cradle of the Puget Sound region — ought to do more self-policing and face public pressure when they don’t.

Red flags don’t get much redder than the incendiary hate speech hosted by platforms like Epik.com, owned by Seattle-area web entrepreneur Robert Monster.

As champions of the First Amendment, we certainly don’t advocate for censorship laws. But it is in the interest of the U.S. government to request information about users and their accounts if domestic terrorism is suspected.

Bennie Thompson, chair of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, made the right move this week when he sent a letter to 8chan’s owner, demanding he come before Congress and answer questions about the site’s content.

If limited oversight causes some grief to those providing the microphones in the macabre theater of hate, we say good. You’re damn right big brother is watching.

Federal law protects these companies from liability for users’ content. But it also needs to protect vulnerable communities so that when a digital platform plays a role in inciting violence or vandalism, it should be held up to scrutiny.

8chan, launched in 2013 as a “free speech alternative,” prides itself on giving a safe and dark shelter to internet trolls.

It’s time for some disinfectant.

Among those in need of a spritz are Washington state-based Epik and its subsidiary BitMitigate security service. They waffled early this week about whether they would host 8chan after the El Paso massacre.

When a vendor cut it off, Epik’s conscience suddenly kicked in; a statement released Tuesday by Epik said it wouldn’t host 8chan, citing an “elevated possibility of violent radicalization on the platform.”

It’s worth reiterating here that despite the vile chatter on message forums like 8chan, their speech is constitutionally protected. A 1974 Supreme Court decision states: ”However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas.”

Fortunately, there’s evidence that the “competition of other ideas” is working. On Monday, 8chan was knocked offline after the web hosting server Cloudfare wisely cut off vital technical services, saying it could no longer support “a cesspool of hate.”

Government censorship of ideas is also antithetical to our objective as a newspaper. We aim to challenge viewpoints, not shut them down. We welcome advocates and critics alike, knowing some readers will be offended.

But every day, journalistic principles demand a distinction between hate speech and free speech; it’s why we don’t publish some letters to the editor. Unfortunately, on unmoderated message boards, such principles are hard to find, and gatekeepers are few.

Policing is left largely to the discretion of individual companies. As Twitter states in its rules, ”We believe that everyone should have the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”

Mainstream social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are making an effort to delete hate speech. But there will always be platforms willing to give white nationalists and other hate mongers a soapbox. No doubt 8chan will find a home in the dark web, where vitriol runs like sewage.

In this brave, new world where online conversations happen in real time, cracking down on hate speech is almost impossible. But that doesn’t mean Americans should quit trying.

In the competition of ideas, the loudest voice wins. We can take some comfort knowing that for now, there are still more of us than them.

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