Tech: How online hate speech moves from the fringes to the mainstream

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Hate speech found on social media sites is permeating everyday American conversations, mostly because this rhetoric is being exposed there.

  • Hate speech on social media may not encapsulate what all Americans are thinking, but the way these sites work amplifies the strong, and sometimes controversial, opinions that some Americans have.
  • In response to an increase in political violence of late, social media platforms have started to take a "war room" approach to dealing with hate speech.
  • This means that the companies' executives are consulting with other decision-makers to curb the spread of hate speech in real time.
  • To some degree, that effort helps smaller platforms, like Gab, a social network popular with the far-right, attract those who want to engage in hate speech without fear of being regulated.
  • Gab was inundated with anti-Semitic comments after last weekend's shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

If you searched for the word, "Jew" on Instagram on Monday, just two days after a gunman fatally shot 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, you would find nearly 12,000 posts with the hashtag "#jewsdid911," along with several others containing anti-Semitic rhetoric, according to The New York Times.

While such malicious, targeted comments populate social media sites, they do not accurately reflect the thoughts of all Americans, but it does mean that people quickly become aware that hate speech is part of the conversation, University of Southern California professor Karen North, an expert on social media trends, told Business Insider in a phone interview on Tuesday.

North said this was because most social media sites operate on a mathematical algorithm that calculates when a user searches for a word like "Jew," a number of recommendations are offered based on what is trending.

While the majority of recommendations that surface when a user searches for a topic generally reflect common civil discourse about that topic, an in-depth search often leads to darker, malicious conversations, North said.

"On most of the social media platforms when you search a topic it will find you what other people are looking for and unfortunately the dark side of the search is that while most of the information that you find will be the conversations and the information and the news, the other part of it will be the negative and hateful content that people are sharing with each other," North said.

Social media sites like Facebook have created “war rooms” in an effort to combat the level of hate speech on their platforms, North said. Similar to the way politicians hunker down and seek outside counsel during pivotal moments, social media sites are bringing together several off-site decision-makers to explore what is happening on their sites in real-time.

For example, Facebook is using this approach to address election-meddling.

When responding to the online reactions to the tragic shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday, executives from social media sites will likely have their analytics teams scan their respective platforms to identify comments containing hate speech that might become a problem. They will then consult with their legal teams on what actions should be taken.

Read more: The suspected Pittsburgh shooter allegedly had a following on a social network that many call the far-right's alternative to Twitter — here's everything we know about Gab

Once the company executives determine an appropriate course of action, they will have their technical teams execute it.

That course of action predominately involves social media sites recoding their algorithms so that comments containing hate speech do not come up when users search for a topic. This practice will likely be effective in limiting the spread of hate speech through social media in the future, North said.

"We see hashtags or we see recommendations when they have already become popular enough to be recommended or to be ranked on the algorithm," North said. "But the company can see the activity and the growth of the activity before they ever recommend it to us so, ideally, they will be able to identify a conversation, evaluate it, make a decision about whether or not it is actually promoting anti-social behavior and then intervene before we are ever aware of it."

While the argument has been made that the First Amendment of the US Constitution establishes that social media companies should not limit free speech, North asserts that the right to free speech does not extend to businesses like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Consequently, social media companies can legally dictate what shows up on their sites, which is apparent in the user-agreement contracts that users agree to when creating their personal profiles.

Social media companies like Twitter employ these user-agreements in part to help curb hate speech on the website in real-time.

"They will create rules that stop cyber bullying or hate speech or pornography or other malicious behavior itself in order to retain the people that are active and engaged members of their communities, and push away those who are causing trouble and discontent on their sites," North said.

When mainstream social media platforms take action to stop hate speech, it creates a market opportunity for smaller social media sites like Gab, the site popular with the far-right, to develop and target people engaging in that type of hurtful rhetoric, North said

"They find their own communities where they can have their own conversations" in what is for them a "socially appropriate venue," North said. "Those are sites that most of us are unaware of."

Gab was forced to shut down after its web host and several other sites blocked it from accessing their services, but Gab declared on Tuesday that it plans to keep operating.

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My name is Jaramike Daniel a blogger with a vision, a programmer in the making, a web developer by hobby and a Nigerian by birth.. My dream is to inspire youths with passion in the tech aspect. I create and design websites for schools, Companies and Organisation... I can be reached through any of my social media listed below or whatsapp on +2348168210251

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