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In the Aftermath of Charlottesville

Online Consequences and Counter-Measures

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Views are her own.

The violent clashes in Charlottesville two weekends ago were followed by an effort to identify, online, some of the protesters, and then to reach out to their family members and employers to let them know about the views that those employees or family members were espousing.

Last week, the Center published a brief ethics case study that delves into that effort. Back in February 2016, I had also written more broadly about the ethics of online shaming in general. At the time, I argued, in part, that “even if we feel that public shaming is warranted sometimes, we could try to limit it to truly egregious cases (assessing whether the benefits would outweigh the ‘corrosive’ effects on society).” Which brings us back to Charlottesville: Is this the kind of egregious case in which public online shaming is warranted, or required?

A recent article in Wired, by Dave Algoso, answers that in the affirmative. Its headline reads, “Yes, Expose the Neo-Nazis. Then Recruit Them Back to Humanity.” Algoso writes,

If this had been a peaceful rally within the realm of normal political discourse, then publishing the names of attendees or firing them from their jobs would be an unreasonable reaction. That's not the case here. No one responded this way in the past, even for white nationalist rallies. This wasn't even the first time they'd marched in Charlottesville this summer: A smaller group had held a torch-lit preview at the same park in May. But it was the first time white nationalists showed up armed, in large numbers, and became violent.

Fascist views were already well outside acceptable politics. By enacting those views with violence, the rally violated a deep norm that undergirds our social contract. As political scientist David Karpf argued on Twitter, these violations must be met with penalties or the norms fade away.

After drawing this distinction, Algoso adds that we need “a follow-up to the rebuke. We need to help white supremacists unlearn the ideologies that took them to the streets of Charlottesville.”

Many people have pointed out that the Internet has been a tool in the radicalization of white supremacists and other hate groups; that it has fed them misinformation, allowed them to find networks of like-minded people, and enabled them to organize and further spread hate and lies. That is certainly true. What remains to be seen is whether the internet can be used as effectively by the forces of de-radicalization.

One of the programs that Algoso praises, “Life After Hate,” started, according to its co-founder, as “a literary magazine for [former white nationalists] to basically publish short stories about [their] lives. It was a blog, essentially.” After the Trump administration rescinded funding that had been promised to the group under the prior administration, “Life After Hate” started a crowd-funding campaign; to date, it has raised more than $275,000 (of the $400,000 goal which would be equivalent to the rescinded federal grant). On its crowdfunding page, the group explains that “Life After Hate partnered with a tech company to implement validated strategies of identifying and accessing potentially violent extremists online.” So the internet has allowed those fighting the extremists, too, to express their ideas, organize, raise funds, and collaborate with other groups as they try to keep extremists from wreaking violence.

Other organizations are implementing related tools as well; Google, for example, has described some of its efforts:

Building on our successful Creators for Change programme promoting YouTube voices against hate and radicalisation, we are working with Jigsaw to implement the “Redirect Method” more broadly across Europe. This promising approach harnesses the power of targeted online advertising to reach potential Isis recruits, and redirects them towards anti-terrorist videos that can change their minds about joining. In previous deployments of this system, potential recruits have clicked through on the ads at an unusually high rate, and watched over half a million minutes of video content that debunks terrorist recruiting messages.

The “Redirect Method” focuses on potential ISIS recruits; is it time to put comparable efforts into reaching potential and current white-power extremists around the world? And, in the meantime, is exposing them online a part of “recruiting them back to humanity”?

Photo by Rodney Dunning, cropped, used under a Creative Commons license.

Aug 24, 2017

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