The power of social media is revolutionary. But, as Elon Musk’s Twitter exemplifies, the influence of social media can go so far as to risk the democratic promise of our country.
If hate is allowed to run rampant and millions of users feel unsafe, we are failing to live up to that promise. While concerns about free speech are well-documented in conversations about social media, the risks to another fundamental right have been overlooked: freedom of religion, protecting our ability to believe as we choose without fear of harassment or harm.
Social media is so intertwined with our lives offline that threats to religious freedom are no longer confined to the physical world. Each day communities are targeted online, the freedom to believe as we choose erodes. Musk has allowed extremists to expand their reach on Twitter by firing staff in charge of dealing with hateful content on the platform, leaving the company too short-staffed to handle the increase in harmful posts. In the two weeks following Musk’s purchase of Twitter, antisemitic posts rose over 61%.
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In recent years, harmful content on social media has manifested in physical acts of violence targeting vulnerable communities. A 2021 report from the Anti-Defamation League exposed the harmful effects of online hate on different communities, from an increase in violence against Asian Americans, to antisemitic harassment directed at Jewish members of Congress, to the quadrupling of hateful Facebook posts against African Americans after the murder of George Floyd.
There are too many examples of real-world violence committed by social media users who encountered or spread extremist content online. The perpetrator of the devastating 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting had a profile on Gab, a platform known for its far-right user base. He regularly posted antisemitic content, and in the 19 days before the massacre, he posted this content at least 68 times. His social media presence had all the trappings of an extremist white supremacist user, and it’s likely that he was radicalized online. He acted on those conspiratorial and hateful ideas and murdered 11 people in their house of worship.
Urgent intervention is needed. Interfaith Alliance, a national advocacy organization championing an inclusive vision of religious freedom, released a report on Big Tech, Hate, and Religious Freedom Online to explain this urgent threat and propose policies to address it. A clear understanding of the structural components of social media platforms and tech industry business practices are essential to strengthening the connection between online content and offline consequences.
Social media platforms and the tech industry as a whole have created an ecosystem where hate is ever present, and misinformation flows freely. This complex issue will require a multipronged solution. Together, through education and action, we can ensure that hate has no home in our communities on- and offline. Urgent action is needed around three key policy areas: social media literacy, platform accountability, and government regulation of Big Tech. Cultivating social media literacy in young people gives them the tools to think critically about the misinformation and hate they will encounter online.
Platform accountability will correct the current imbalance between profit-driven business models and user safety while continuing to facilitate innovation. Regulating Big Tech provides essential checks on an industry that has disproportionate influence in our lives.
As backlash against content moderation comes to head on Twitter, there’s no telling how other platforms might adjust their policies in the future. The national conversation around what’s happening with Twitter is laser-focused on the whims of a CEO who doesn’t seem to understand what he wants. All the while, real people and communities are being hurt. This is so much bigger than Elon Musk and his misguided notion of free speech. This is about an industry with power that transcends anything we could previously imagine.
Real world violence, inspired by online hate and harassment, is growing. It’s impossible to fulfill our inclusive vision of religious freedom without addressing the role of social media in disseminating hateful ideologies and the acts of violence they inspire. Big Tech is only getting started – we must ensure that this industry’s progress does not come at the cost of our most sacred freedoms.
Riya Kohli is the Advocacy Associate for Interfaith Alliance, a national organization dedicated to protecting both religion and democracy in the United States.