Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

The role of social media


Social media behemoths inflame bigotry, but efforts to hold them responsibl­e clash with a federal law that shields them as if they were phone carriers. It’s Section 230 of the Communicat­ions Decency Act.

Two cases challengin­g that were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this week. The parents of Nohemi Gonzalez, an American college student slain during terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, are appealing for the right to sue Google over ISIS posts on YouTube that they say led to the killings. ISIS claimed responsibi­lity for the attacks, which killed 130 people. The family of Nawras Alassaf, a Jordanian citizen, are seeking damages from Twitter for his death in a 2017 ISIS attack on a nightclub in Istanbul. However, they don’t allege that the terrorists in that attack ever used Twitter. Both families sued under the 1996 Antiterror­ism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

These cases won’t be easy calls because of the First Amendment. Whatever the court decides may force Congress to act. Either way, the issue is too grave to ignore.

Twitter, Facebook and similar platforms are commercial ventures that depend on advertisin­g. They tailor their feeds to users’ consumer tastes, based on what their algorithms say. The algorithms, the Gonzalezes argue, make social media the publisher rather than merely the distributo­r of the hate speech that the algorithms select, especially when ad revenue is shared with authors of the posts.

The Justice Department backs that argument, saying an “overly broad reading” of Section 230 would frustrate enforcemen­t of other laws such as the Antiterror­ism Act. It’s among 80 briefs filed on both sides.

An antisemite fired up by social media murdered 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2017, one of six fatal attacks since 2016. Last January, another terrorist took hostages at a synagogue in Texas. He recited the antisemiti­c trope that “Jews control the world” and demanded the release of a woman imprisoned for aiding terrorists in Afghanista­n.

Throughout history, Jews have been scapegoate­d for social unrest and economic uncertaint­y. Israel’s treatment of Palestinia­ns has become another pretext to attack Jews in America, especially on campuses, as if they were responsibl­e for another country’s conduct.

Social media has figured in virtually every racially motivated major incident in recent years, whether the victims were Black, Hispanic or Jewish. Former President Trump’s perceived coziness with some antisemite­s is part of the problem.

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