Can NTIA figure out if social media breeds hate?

A new bill would task two federal agencies with supplying Congress with insight into the connection between social media and hate crimes.

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A new bill aims to give Congress more insight into the connection between social media and hate crimes.

The Stop Harmful and Abuse Telecommunications Expression Act of 2017, introduced by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), would charge the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Agency at the Department of Commerce with crafting a report to Congress every five years that examines the role telecommunications play in fostering hate crimes. The Justice Department would contribute to the report.

NTIA last reported to Congress on hate crimes and telecommunications in 1993. Over the years, there have been other attempts to spur new reporting on this issue for the internet age, via legislation and public advocacy.

While the bill would examine a variety of different mediums such as broadcast television, radio, cable and Internet message boards, Serrano is particularly interested in looking at newer platforms, such as social media.

"As a member of Congress who avidly uses Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to communicate with my constituents, these electronic platforms that have become ingrained in our daily lives cannot be used to support and amplify hateful speech that seeks to demean or harm others," said Serrano. "This legislation will help us better understand the role these technologies play in aiding the spread of hate speech and crimes. It will also help us understand what we can do to prevent the First Amendment from being weaponized in order to hurt other Americans because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin."

The reports to Congress would analyze how different forms of media are used to coordinate groups who advocate and encourage violence against other groups based on gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and other factors.

A Serrano aide told FCW that in the past, NTIA has recommended policy actions such as updating civil rights laws, the use of civil or criminal proceedings by states against perpetrators of hate crimes or simply encouraging consumers to use technologies like Caller ID to trace threatening phone calls. The aide said the office was "still trying to assess what other telecommunications policy changes would be helpful in addressing the huge explosion of hate crimes across the country in recent years."

"That is why a full evaluation from the federal government's leading telecommunications policy agency would be helpful in allowing us to understand the magnitude of the crisis and what the....government, ordinary Americans, and telecom companies can do to protect these valuable platforms from being used to hurt people," the aide said.

The bill comes in the midst of an ongoing national debate about the role that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter play in helping white supremacy groups to coordinate and organize. Most social media platforms have policies that prohibit hateful or discriminatory speech, but organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and SafeHome have tracked an explosion of such groups on Twitter and Facebook with membership in the tens of thousands.

Still, questions remain around how the government might act to curb such activities without wading into sticky issues around free speech. While private social media companies themselves have latitude to police and censor content on their platforms, the First Amendment constrains the U.S. government from following in the footsteps of the European Union and other countries which have passed laws making such online content illegal, and imposing financial or legal penalties on social media companies who do not act to remove them.

This story was updated Dec. 11.

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