Online Words Have Real World Outcomes

Mignon Combs Opinion

There is no accountability for online hate speech. A person can post cartoons of lynchings, spout Nazi rhetoric, deny the Holocaust, and call Mexicans rapists, and their social media account will likely go unchecked. Their actions online, though, do not exist solely in series’ of ones and zeros. The implications of online hate rhetoric are felt in the real world, and over the past week they had fatal consequences.

Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man charged with five federal crimes connected with 13 bombs last week, boasted a Twitter feed brimming with explicitly partisan and hateful content. According to reports from The Root, on October 11, nearly two weeks before the first bomb was discovered, a Black political commentator reported the account belonging to Sayoc to Twitter administrators.

The journalist, Rochelle Ritchie, received and reported death threats from Sayoc’s account. Twitter responded to Ritchie’s reports saying “We have reviewed your report carefully and found that there was no violation of the Twitter Rules against abusive behavior.” Sayoc also tweeted threats to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Days later Sayoc sent live explosives to Democratic leadership and outspoken critics of the current administration.

Social media provides platforms for people to be who they want to be. In the case of Sayoc and others, it acts not so much as an outlet for aggression but as a charging station. Information on the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue continue to roll in, and CNN reports that Robert Bowers, facing hate crime charges for the shooting, allegedly harassed Jewish people on social media. He posted online that he could not “sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your politics. I’m going in,” according to coverage from Slate. Hours later he walked into the Tree of Life synagogue where he killed 11 people and wounded six others.

Kenda Ukru, a first year Philosophy and Public Affairs double major, noted that she was not surprised by reports of hate speech from domestic terrorists. “Even before Trump was president there were always people.” While hate speech is not a new phenomenon, the reality of 45’s tendency to walk or rather skip to and fro across the line of acceptable acceptable speech has its effects. Ukru spoke to that impact, saying, “Well, the president’s saying it. I think it definitely helps feed other people’s fires.”

Like Sayoc and Bowers, 45’s social media has gone largely unchecked, save for the eleven minute outage when a twitter employee disabled the account. While pundits and laypeople alike discuss and decry the constant barrage of tweets from 45, there is no accountability.

Rayshad Williams, a first year student-athlete, commented that people often say hateful things online. “It would probably be easier if people take serious, take it into consideration,” Williams said. His point bears repeating as families and communities around the nation mourn the tragedies of the past week. The tendency to ignore hate speech as just poor social media decorum ignores the real danger that it indicates.

Charleston, 2015. Charlottesville, 2017. Louisville, 2018. Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, October 27, 2018. Hate speech on social media platforms cannot be dismissed as the incoherent ramblings of fringe lunatics. It is the bell tolling to mark the time. Time to pay attention. Time to act.