June 12, 2016 is not a day people are going to soon forget. On that day, a shooter who claimed allegiance to ISIS stepped into the nightclub and killed forty-nine people. It was the worst mass shooting in United States history, the fallout of which is still being felt today. Just this past Monday, families of three of the victims filed a lawsuit against Facebook, Twitter, and Google, arguing that they provided material support to ISIS by allowing them to use social media as a recruiting platform. According to an article by the Christian Science Monitor, the allegation is going to be tough to prove.
A professor in the article states that “their biggest success is going to be in the national media and causing embarrassment to these providers, because it is true that you have jihadi propaganda that flies across Twitter and flies across the internet.” The professor goes on to state that the situation boils down to a First Amendment debate. “It’s a battle between increased security and civil liberties,” he says.
Now this isn’t the first case against a social media company in regards to terrorism. Many private parties have pursued lawsuits in recent years, although the Department of Justice has never accused a social media platform of providing material support to terrorists. According to the Christian Science Monitor article, only one of these cases (Fields vs. Twitter) ever resulted in a ruling, and it was dismissed by a federal judge. The reason for this lies in something called the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 of the act says “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In short, companies or people who host or republish speech cannot be held accountable for what others say and do. It’s the largest hurdle for lawsuits like these, and it hasn’t been jumped yet.
However, the lawsuit aims to tackle the issue in a new direction. They’re arguing that by matching the content of users with targeted advertisements, social media sites are in effect creating their own content and profiting off of terrorist users’ content as they do off of all posts. They acknowledge that Facebook and other sites have taken steps to remove such content when it is reported to them by users, but they argue that the sites should be taking bigger steps to combat such posts.
Now that we’ve gotten the background out of the way, it’s opinion time.
It seems that this case boils down to a situation of free speech vs. increased security (as the professor from the article said). And the problem becomes one of “how far do you go?” Normally I consider the slippery slope argument a logical fallacy, but in the case of civil liberties it’s an apt one to make. When you start trying to stifle free speech, no matter how reprehensible, where does it end? Sure, we say that we’re fighting terrorism, but our definition of what can be considered terrorism could change. Today we say we’re fighting against ISIS because of their violent agenda, but tomorrow we could be policing groups who spout anti-government rhetoric because we’re concerned they might “incite violence”. Pretty soon anyone who burns a flag or questions the government could be scrutinized, analyzed, and denied the right to speak for fear of “public safety” if we choose to go down that path.
What it comes down to is that freedom of speech means that sometimes we have to allow people to say reprehensible things. The Westboro Baptist Church is one of the scummiest groups in our country, but they’re allowed to picket military funerals because it’s their right, just as it’s our right to counter-protest them. We can’t just tell them they’re not allowed to say these things because we don’t like it.
But it is a sticky situation. Westboro isn’t encouraging violence against people, just hateful views. ISIS on the other hand is telling people to go attack crowded areas in the name of their cause. They’ll even post videos telling their followers how to stab “non-believers” with a knife. What it all comes down to is the fact that we can’t possibly police everything. The anonymous nature of the internet means that hateful things are posted every day because people know they can do so without any repercussions. Are we really going to try to arrest anyone who posts a death threat in the comments of some article or video? Even if we wanted to, I doubt it would be possible. The sheer amount of resources that would be required to police all of that would be insane.
Because in the end, how do you stop the bad ideas without stopping a few of the good ones?
That’s all I have for you this time. Check back next Wednesday for another post. Have a wonderful week and a great Christmas holiday.
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