One of the first lessons we learn as children is that the louder you scream and the bigger of a tantrum you throw, you more you get your way. Part of growing up and maturing into an adult and functioning member of society is learning how to use language and reasoning skills to communicate our beliefs and respectfully disagree with others, using evidence and persuasiveness to try and bring them over to our way of thinking. Social media is reverting us back to those animalistic tantrums, schoolyard taunts and unfettered bullying that define youth, creating a dystopia where even renowned academics and dispassionate journalists transform from Dr. Jekyll into raving Mr. Hydes, raising the critical question of whether social media should simply enact a blanket ban on profanity and name calling?
Nearly all major social media platforms today have at least some basic policies that discourage certain kinds of speech on their platforms, but the vagaries of language, cultural barriers and most importantly, the immense human cost of content moderation, means that enforcement of these rules is haphazard at best. Knowledge of the speaker and their location is often important to understand the meaning of a word. Many words exhibit confounding dualism in their use, being deeply harmful hate speech in the hands of one user, or an empowering reclamation in the hands of another. Harmful speech is also often highly localized, appropriating common everyday words to mean something horrific but with usage that looks entirely unremarkable to anyone but those in the know.
Political and cultural divides can lead even the most rational individuals on all sides of a debate to devolve into hate-spewing psychotics pouring forth profanity, horrific names and even threats of violence towards those that disagree with them. It is particularly remarkable how common it is to see academics depart from the measured evidentiary discourse of scholarship they use in the classroom to become hate-spewing Hydes online, laying waste to colleagues and competitors whom have disagreed with them or attacking anyone and everyone they please.
Unlike those in the commercial and governmental sector that can be fired at will, academics often speak with much greater candor under the protection of tenure. Few universities have explicit social media policies that constrain their tenured faculty (as opposed to students). In those cases where formal complaints or police or legal action is initiated due instances of tenured faculty publishing hate speech, personal attacks or threats of violence, it is the rare case indeed where any action of any kind is taken, even a censure, due to the preeminence of faculty free speech above all else in the US university system. Those in the private sector enjoy far fewer privileges, but even here the anonymity of Twitter makes creating an alternate persona a one-click affair, while elected officials mirroring the views of their constituents will likely win reelection.
Social media’s emphasis on entertainment over enlightenment means that a profanity-laden diatribe or threat of violence will go viral and ensure its author fame and glory, while the measured scholarly post that deeply reasons about an issue and supports all of its arguments with extensive evidence will be relegated to the virtual dustbin, attracting little attention.
In short, the more profanity, name calling and threats you can make in a social media post, the more chances you have of becoming famous and seeing your post spread, perhaps even making the national and international news.
In such an environment, the only way to restore a degree of civility to social media is for the platforms themselves to take firm and meaningful action against harmful speech of all kinds.
Rather than define “hate speech” to be ideas, which encourages those in power to label any criticism of themselves or their policies as hate or terroristic speech and does nothing to address the vastly more prevalent everyday harmful speech that turns social media into a toxic cesspool, a far more immediate and lasting change would be for social media companies to focus instead on how ideas of all kinds are expressed on their platforms.
For example, imagine every time you participate in a social conversation the other users call you “stupid” or “dumb” or myriad other names, curse at you and tell you that you’re too intellectually inferior to participate in their learned conversations. In the absence of language specifically targeting your demographic or cultural background or an active threat of violence, such conversation would be unlikely to fall afoul of the majority of current social platform’s codes of conduct, yet can be immensely harmful with very real consequences, including driving an individual to self-harm or even suicide.
Narrowly targeting “hate speech” using ambiguous and easily sidestepped rules is a quick easy public relations win for social platforms and allows them to reassure concerned policymakers they are taking action, but the reality is that if companies really wanted to clean up the toxicity of social speech, they need to focus on it holistically.
Last year Alphabet Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas) unveiled just such a solution called Perspective that focuses on harmful language, rather than ideas. Jigsaw’s approach is to assess the overall “toxicity” of a passage of text, focusing on how the author expressed their ideas, rather than on the content of those ideas. This ensures the tool itself remains ideologically neutral and thus able to apply universally to all topical domains.
Focusing on the language of expression rather than the ideas being expressed means such tools can help nudge all online conversations towards civility, forcing users to express their opinions in measured evidentiary discourse and reason like functional adults rather than screaming infants in the throes of a tantrum.
Putting this all together, social media has provided society with the elusive elixir to turn us all from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, but perhaps those same companies can finally provide us the antidote as well, using technology to nudge us away from our dark infantile tantrums and evil personas back towards the light of enlightenment and reason.