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.