Generally speaking, the concept of “Big Data” in general fascinates me. To offer a simple definition, the term “big data” refers to larger, more complex data sets, especially from new data sources. These data sets are so voluminous that traditional data processing software just can’t manage them. As the Internet has grown and become more complex, the amounts of data collected by everyday users has grown at exponential rates. While there are lots of positive information to be gleaned from big data, I feel that the realization that many of our society’s core problems like racism and sexism are still very much alive and are potentially growing.
On Obama’s 2008 election night, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz discovered that one in every one-hundred Google searches that included the search term “Obama” also included the search terms “KKK’” or the “n-word.” On the same night, he also found that searches for racist websites, most notably the site “Stormfront,” also spiked. If you’re unfamiliar with Stormfront, it is a white nationalist/white supremacist internet forum that openly subscribes to the following values: racism, antisemitism, Holocaust denial, neo-Nazism, and Islamophobia.
For those of you who are unfamiliar him, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is the author of one of my favorite books of all time, “Everybody Lies.” In the book, Stephens-Davidowitz uses search data from the internet, particularly on Google, social media, dating, and even pornography sites, to paint a fascinating and sometimes grim picture of what is really going on in the minds of everyday people just like you and me. Seth has been able to use “big data” to measure racism, self-induced abortion, depression, child abuse, hateful mobs, the science of humor, sexual preference, anxiety, son preference, and sexual insecurity, among many other topics.
Before moving on to my point, I do want to point out that Stephens-Davidowitz has worked as a data scientist at Google and a visiting lecturer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times. He received his B.A. in philosophy, Phi Beta Kappa, from Stanford, and his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard.
Now, back to the topic at hand…since 2008, online hate speech has been on the rise with a significant amount being found on social media platforms. Everybody Lies presents some pretty compelling evidence that the increase in online hate speech is certainly a reality. However, beyond just Stephens-Davidowitz’s research, there are other sources in the literature pointing out that this is true. In recent years, most, if not all, of the major social media platforms have said that hate speech is strictly prohibited. The problem is that it is difficult to identify hate speech with so many posts being made each and every day. Much of the hate speech that is caught and removed from various social media sites is reported by other users.
Of course, you may be asking yourself, why is this a problem? We are entitled to free speech aren’t we? These are indeed valid questions for which I will answer both by the end of this post. Let’s start with the first question, why is online hate speech a problem? Online hate speech can be identified as the messages that are spread by white supremacists. White-supremacist groups use social media as a tool to distribute their message with the aim of finding like-minded individuals. When this message reaches certain people, the online messages can turn into real-life violence. Several incidents in recent years have shown that when online hate goes offline, it can be deadly. White supremacist Wade Michael Page posted in online forums tied to hate before he went on to murder six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012. Prosecutors said Dylann Roof “self-radicalized” online before he murdered nine people at a black church in South Carolina in 2015. Robert Bowers, accused of murdering 11 elderly worshipers at a Pennsylvania synagogue in 2018, he had been active on Gab, a Twitter-like site used by white supremacists.
As for the second question, “aren’t we entitled to free speech?,” the short answer is “yes.” However, online hate speech has complicated free speech. Do you think the founders intended for the concept of “free speech” to turn into a platform for alienating and intimidating innocent people? I think most people would argue that that certainly wasn’t their intent. Unfortunately, the founders are not around for us to ask them what they meant. They simply said this, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” From simply reading the first amendment of the Untied States Constitution, it should be easy to see why it would be difficult for social media platforms and the government to come up with legal ways to manage online hate speech.
I need to be wrapping this blog post up as it is getting a little long winded. I think we need to be more aware than ever at the things people say online. What people say online has real-life consequences. Online hate speech can lead to real-life violence. Cyber-bullying can lead individuals to take their own lives. As academic professionals, we need to do what we can to expose individuals to concepts such as tolerance, acceptance, non-violence, diversity, and multi-culturalism. Helping individuals to understand their similarities with those who might look different than them can help pave the way to a more peaceful and accepting society.
How online hate turns into real-life violence. (2018, November 30). The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/11/30/how-online-hate-speech-is-fueling-real-life-violence/
Ruwandika, N. D. T., & Weerasinghe, A. R. (2018). Identification of Hate Speech in Social Media. 2018 18th International Conference on Advances in ICT for Emerging Regions (ICTer), Advances in ICT for Emerging Regions (ICTer), 2018 18th International Conference On, 273–278
Stephens-Davidowitz, S., & Pabon, A. (2017). Everybody lies: Big data, new data, and what the internet can tell us about who we really are. New York: HarperCollins.
Udanor, C., & Anyanwu, C. C. (2019). Combating the challenges of social media hate speech in a polarized society A Twitter ego lexalytics approach. Data Technologies and Applications, 53(4), 501–527.