Hate and harassment are urgent threats to religious freedom. And as a growing number of Americans find community online, many encounter the same, or increased vitriol in digital spaces as they do in person. In recent months, Twitter has become a hub for extremism as changing moderation policies create new opportunities for the far right.
Upon taking the helm of Twitter, Elon Musk fired staff responsible for addressing misinformation and hateful content. The result was a company too short-staffed to handle the increase in harmful posts. To make matters worse, on January 24th, 2023, Twitter allowed Nick Fuentes back on the platform, a right-wing podcaster known for espousing antisemitic and white supremacist ideas.
Platforming extremists like Fuentes directly impacts the safety of other users. Interfaith Alliance is committed to advancing an inclusive vision of religious freedom, one where all feel safe to choose belief or non-belief. It’s impossible to fulfill that vision without addressing the role of social media in disseminating hate and the acts of violence it inspires.
Online Hate is a Unique Threat to Our Communities and Democracy
The power of social media is revolutionary. As the COVID-19 pandemic drove many religious communities to change when and how they gathered, online spaces opened new opportunities for connection. From Twitch Bible studies to Facebook food drives, freedom of religion is no longer confined to the physical world. But with substantial progress in technology come new sets of challenges. As these platforms facilitate understanding and innovation, they also provide bad actors with broader means to cause division and inspire fear.
Engagement is the driving force behind how platforms lift up and suppress content. Algorithms, which run social media platforms and decide what content to show users, have picked up on the fact that hateful or “controversial” posts receive much more engagement than others. This means that even if something is shared to voice disagreement, the algorithm recognizes it as something that will engage users and shows it in more and more feeds. This is how users like Fuentes reach exponentially more people on a social media network than through his podcast or traditional news media. The ability of hate online to reach millions presents a uniquely damaging consequence of an industry focused on innovation, progress, and ultimately financial gain.
Stopping the Proliferation of Hate Through Cross-Cutting Solutions
Fuentes’ reinstatement – and re-banning only a few hours later – is indicative of a much larger issue with Big Tech. Together, through education and action, we can make clear that hate has no home in our communities on and offline. On January 25th, 2023, Interfaith Alliance hosted a panel of leading experts to discuss this issue. The same day, Interfaith Alliance released a new resource on online hate and its impact on religious freedom.
Urgent action is needed around three key policy areas to protect our communities and our democracy: 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.
These solutions ensure promotion of the public good in an increasingly online world. No one deserves to feel unsafe because of their faith or identity. We must protect our most sacred freedoms from the whims of an industry largely focused on growth above all else.