June 19, 2009


Facebook VP debates anti-hate activist over question of hate speech as free speech at event

The recent arrests in the tragic murders of Stephen Tyrone Jones at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Dr. George Tiller at his Kansas church uncovered more evidence of how viral hate online incubates, empowers and emboldens violent bigots. With over one and a half billion users (almost one quarter of the world’s population), the Internet is the prime means of communication and marketing in the world. The Internet’s unprecedented global reach and scope combined with the difficulty in monitoring and tracing communications make it the prime tool for extremists and terrorists. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has been monitoring these developments for over a decade through its Digital Terrorism and Hate Project.

At a Museum of Tolerance event, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center  Rick Eaton, the Center’s Senior Researcher, along with Elliot Schrage of Facebook and community activist Brian Cuban, grappled with the findings of the Center's new Facebook, YouTube +: How Social Media Outlets Impact Digital Terrorism and Hate. The findings of the report, based on some 10,000 problematic websites, blogs and other Internet postings was presented before a group of law enforcement recruits and inner city high school students which illustrated that as the Internet continues to grow, extremists have kept apace in leveraging the dynamic new social networking services to find validation for their hateful agendas and seek recruits for their causes. Sites such as Facebook® and YouTube® have both seen a huge proliferation of extremist use with the greatest increase coming from overseas, particularly Europe and the Middle East.

The CD-ROM report, released annually, is designed to assist law enforcement, public officials, educators, parents and the news media to better grasp the scope of hate. The report is used by the FBI, Homeland Security, military officials, hate crime units and joint terrorism taskforces in the U.S. as well as Canada and Europe (a PDF of the presentation which also includes a section about how Twitter is emerging as a new tool for extremists can be downloaded here

Cooper demonstrated the impact the Internet had on James Von Brunn, the Holocaust Museum shooter and Scott Roeder, the Topeka gunman, kept on the Internet and how easily and quickly it is to find like-minded individuals worldwide. “Many of these extremists find empowerment and validation of conspiracy theories in the cocoon of a subculture of hatred, without fear of those who could successfully debate or challenge their views," Cooper said.

This idea was echoed by guest Brian Cuban, a Dallas attorney who led an effort to get Facebook to remove Holocaust denial groups from its site, warning that such groups are a recruiting ground for anti-Semites. Cuban expressed his frustration at the social networking giant’s original contention that Holocaust denial, as ugly as it is, is not hate speech. “Holocaust denial is nothing but a pretext disguised as a totally discredited historical theory to bring people together and congregate who hate Jews,” he said. Cuban added a collective of Holocaust deniers are in fact a hate group who engage in hate speech that often lead to tragedies such as the Holocaust Museum shooting. “Hate propagates hate,” he said.

Elliot Schrage, the Vice President of Global Communications, Marketing, and Public Policy for Facebook, articulated his ambivalence about the briefing because, in effect, he was being asked to represent the Internet. "The Internet is filled with some of the most vile, most embarrassing things," he said, "but that none of it is on Facebook. Facebook prohibits direct threats of violence as part of its Terms of Service and has kicked out problematic groups." "However," Schrage said, "the concept of Facebook is to be a place for an open exchange of ideas and as vile as it is, Holocaust denial is an idea. Until such sites turn from an exchange of ideas to direct threats of violence against Jews, they’ll remain in." He enlisted the Facebook community’s help to call attention to these violations.

Attending the briefing were students from the New Tech Empowerment Academy in Los Angeles and recruits from the Napa Valley Criminal Justice Center. "Their presence was crucial," said Rabbi Cooper, "because 'young people today are right on the frontlines' in helping to stem the growth of digital hate. He urged young people who find hate or terrorist postings online to share with Wiesenthal Center experts by sending the links to iReport@wiesenthal.com

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is one of the largest international Jewish human rights organizations with over 400,000 member families in the United States. It is an NGO at international agencies including the United Nations, UNESCO, the OSCE, the OAS, the Council of Europe and the Latin American Parliament (Parlatino).

For more information, please contact the Center's Public Relations Department, 310-553-9036.