While I was away at Oxford University last week, a USA Today story ran entitled "Online Hate Speech: Difficult to Police... and Define." The author, Theresa Howard, was kind enough to call me for comment on the issue before I left and I made two general points in response to her questions about how serious online hate speech was and how we should combat it:
(1) "The Internet is a cultural bazaar. It's the place to find the best and worst of all human elements on display." What I meant by that, quite obviously, is that you can't expect to have the most open, accessible communications platform the world has ever known and not also have a handful of knuckleheads who use it spew vile, hateful, ridiculous comments. But we need to put things in perspective: Those jerks represent only a very, very small minority of all online speech and speakers. Hate speech is not the norm online. The overwhelmingly majority of online speech is of a socially acceptable -- even beneficial -- nature.
(2) "When advocacy groups work together and use the new technology at their disposal, they have a way of signaling out bad speech and bad ideas." What I meant by that was that the best way to combat the handful of neanderthals out there that spew hateful garbage is to: (a) use positive speech to drown out hateful speech, and (b) encourage websites to self-police themselves or use community policing techniques to highlight hateful speech and encourage the community to fight back. Importantly, this process is reinforcing. When online communities "flag and tag" objectionable or hateful content, it is easier for better site policing to occur, for social norms to develop, and for better speech to be targeted at that bad speech. Moreover, these new tools and methods are helping groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the National Hispanic Media Coalition to better identify hate speech and then channel their collective energy and efforts to unite the rest of the online community against those hateful speakers and sites.
I think this approach makes more sense than calling in governments to police online hate speech through censorship efforts. This is especially the case because, at the margins, "hate speech" can often be tricky to define and, at least in the United States, regulatory efforts could conflict with legitimate free speech rights. Again, the best way to deal with and marginalize such knuckleheads is with more and better speech. Fight stupidity with sensibility, not censorship.