U.S. society is obsessed with social media and online networks while a deep unease is pervading our use of these tools. What should the faith community’s response be to this phenomenon at the local, regional, national, and transnational level? This article explores faith community and civil rights advocate approaches to net neutrality and ethical blocking of hate speech in the U.S.
In the U.S. the public is beginning to recognize that ethical and religious values should be brought to bear on personal and community use of social media and technology. This recognition could be used more extensively to, not only assist people in their individual and community-level dilemmas, but also bring people of faith and moral conscience to advocacy. In the words of the U.S. women’s rights movement—the personal is political. Connecting individual experience to broader values would meet individual needs and also facilitate challenges to the unjust structures of media and technology.
Faith-based activism on two of the most critical media justice issues in the U.S., net neutrality and reducing hate speech online, offers onramps into media justice work. These are two good examples of the faith-based communities’ unique role and also demonstrate why multiple policies and campaigns are essential to support social justice. Some might view these two campaigns as contradictory in that net neutrality prohibits content moderation while hate speech proposals require it. But in fact both efforts promote maximum participation and fairness in our online public square. Both rely on values and teachings of great importance to the faith community. A look at the current personal ethical questions surrounding technology and the faith-based activism in these areas offers a template for additional work around the U.S. and around the world.
Importance of media and technology policy
Although the value of media and technology policy may be self-evident in a publication produced by the World Association of Christian Communication (WACC), it is nonetheless important to keep in the forefront their importance to civil rights and social justice. As the WACC’s core principles affirm, communication builds and shapes community, enhances participation, promotes freedom and demands accountability, celebrates cultural diversity, and affirms justice and challenges injustice.
Media and technology policy – whether they be policies adopted by corporate entities or public policies and laws requiring particular action – shape communication the world over, including all of the things that communication facilitates. For example, the U.S.-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human rights has long placed importance on media policy “because meaningful protection of civil rights and advancement of key policy objectives rely on an accurate, independent, and diverse media that serve civil rights constituencies.”
Emerging moral techniques to aid with personal technology use
Around the U.S. several faith-based and secular organizations and movements are emerging to encourage people, at the individual level, to be more ethical and mindful in their use of technology. Much of this work originates from a recognition that the overuse of technology is detracting from the quality of life rather than enhancing it. While in some cases the work is merely outcome driven, in many cases the efforts are drawing on long-held religious and ethical practices. For example, Sabbath Manifesto, a project of Reboot – which aims to bring Jewish traditions to millennials and make them their own – aids Jewish organizations and synagogues in participating in a #techsabbath and a national day of unplugging. These events help individuals gain a sense of distance from their use of technology and creates an opportunity for a moral discussion about technology use.
In a parallel vein, a secular “humane technology” movement is emerging from the very engineers who helped to create huge companies like Google. This effort prompts individuals to re-evaluate their personal technology use – in everything from setting smartphone screens to black and white to limiting notifications. Another source of wisdom comes from the current efforts to bring mindfulness (often based in the Buddhist tradition) into technology use and other sectors. Likewise, popular education techniques have produced toolkits and demonstrated real opportunities for teens and adults alike in how to understand both the technology and broader economic forces at work surrounding their use of mobile phones and other devices.
This is a key opportunity for local faith communities. In fact, one digital leader wrote, “If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation.” In an era when loneliness rates have skyrocketed in the U.S. – and when loneliness has been equated with as much harm to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day – the role of the appropriate use of social media appears to have an impact not only on loneliness but also empathy. Faith-based and morally based individual work with adherents and congregants could provide a meaningful connection to others, apply ethical teachings in a modern setting, and meet a serious need in modern society.
Importance of net neutrality
As early as 2000, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission began considering the implications of new technologies that could do more than transmit the still-early Internet. At the time, it became clear that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could favour some content over others, and charge for beneficial treatment. Thus, advocates began to call for protections against these kinds of practices, which eventually became known as “net neutrality”. In short, net neutrality requires ISPs – the companies that connect a business or residence to the Internet – to treat all content equally and fairly. Specifically, the most recent iteration of net neutrality policy prohibited blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization.
With net neutrality protections, a user can reach any web content she wishes without concern that her ISP is favouring some content over others. Because in the United States a little more than one-third of the population has more than one internet provider and almost no one has more than two or three, the importance of net neutrality is paramount. This policy is sometimes called the “first amendment of the Internet” because it protects speech and communication from every source, no matter its financial resources or identity.
One harm is a good example for the faith community. The Associated Press was able to verify that Comcast was blocking large file transfers by repeatedly interrupting the AP’s attempt to transmit the King James Bible. Because most users could not choose a provider that did not block the Bible, any effort to transmit large files would face significant costs and barriers. Further prohibitions on paid prioritization stop a monopolistic provider from accepting payments to favour some content over other content, thereby forcing into a “slow lane” faith-based content, or civil rights, or any manner of less-well-financed content. Net neutrality protects content no matter its source or the financial assets.
Hate speech on social media
Since just before the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, a rise in hate speech, abusive speech, and other media manipulation has been widely noted. The phenomenon has been difficult to document because no social media companies have released consistent – or in some cases any – data about their own platforms. Nonetheless, several organizations have conducted studies to document examples and statistics. For example, the Anti-Defamation League documented a total of 2.6 million tweets containing anti-Semitic language on Twitter between August 2015 and July 2016 reaching an estimated 10 billion impressions. Data & Society, a research institute based in New York, found that “almost three-quarters (72%) of American internet users have witnessed online harassment or abuse, and almost half (47%) of Americans have personally experienced one [of three] harassing behaviors.” Research by Amnesty International found similar results for women around the world.
Even worse, harassing behaviour limits people’s speech. For example, Data & Society found that “more than a quarter of Americans (27%) say they have at some point decided not to post something online for fear of attracting harassment.”
Addressing hate speech in the U.S. has often been complicated by misunderstandings about the scope and limits of free speech protections in the U.S. Constitution. While the First Amendment places high barriers around government regulation of speech, some kinds of speech – such as words that incite violence, harassment, threats or defamation – can be regulated, and the First Amendment does not apply to private companies’ moderation of speech at all even though principles of due process and fairness should apply to corporate content policies, as described below.
Calling for corporate accountability: Change the Terms Campaign
Over the course of a year of deliberations, several leaders in the fight for technology rights and against hate groups convened to develop proposed terms of service – if adopted by social media platforms – that would reduce the amount of hate speech on those platforms. The proposed policies not only offer a definition of hateful activities grounded in First Amendment jurisprudence, “activities that incite or engage in violence, intimidation, harassment, threats, or defamation,” but also lay out careful recommendations for due process, transparency, training and accountability to protect users whose content is flagged as violating these policies.
Some groups have claimed that hate speech policies would be a danger to free speech, harming the very voices targeted by hateful activities. But these groups do not consider that many companies have already voluntarily adopted content moderation and are not likely to abandon it and research demonstrates hate speech suppresses speech. Because the model terms’ creators were painfully aware that often the targets of hate speech can also be victimized by people using the very tools designed to stop hate speech, the model terms insist on transparency and the opportunity for users to challenge decisions and understand the reasons for company action.
Just as important, the model terms insist on the release of data quarterly so that outside groups can monitor the overall impact of the decision, such as the total number of appeals and reversals. If social media companies are going to adopt terms of service related to content, it is imperative that they are done in a transparent and fair manner. Further, the model terms originated in the experiences of people of colour and religious minorities who were best positioned to balance the harms to their own speech versus the harms of being subjected to hateful activities.
Commonalities among the two campaigns
Net neutrality prohibits ISPs from moderating content and Change the Terms other promotes a careful, transparent intervention by internet companies: but the two policies have more in common than might appear at first glance. Both policies are designed to maximize the number of people who are able to both share and receive information over communications technology. In one case – net neutrality – the concern is that monopoly owners of infrastructure will block or disadvantage content that has less financial backing or is otherwise disfavoured. In the other case – hate speech – activities that threaten or defame others, and thus reduce their willingness or ability to participate in public dialogue – are clearly and transparently prohibited in a fair and even-handed manner. In fact, in some ways, the two policies go hand-in-hand. With net neutrality, the government ensures that all speech – no matter how abhorrent – can find an audience on the web.
The hate speech policies, in contrast, are recommended for company adoption – most of which have already chosen to curate content on their platforms – and push them to enforce these policies fairly, transparently, and with adequate due process so that no group suffers unfairly from their enforcement. Advocates have always urged companies to live out their values in their advertising, marketing, and in the provision of the products themselves. Boycotts are a long-standing civil rights technique often focused on improving the behaviour of corporate entities. Responsible terms of service for content moderation do the same.
Faith community’s part of media policy advocacy
Perhaps because of its moral approach to social justice, faith-based organizations are critical players in the dialogue about digital rights. A few faith communities, particularly the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) media justice ministry, OC Inc., and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have been key players in net neutrality advocacy from the beginning. The National Council of Churches adopted a resolution in support of net neutrality. And the Faithful Internet campaign, developed by a UCC leader and a Sikh leader, successfully brought home the importance of net neutrality and its relevance to people of faith and moral conscience. For example, during one action a video produced by Valarie Kaur for Faithful Internet, titled “First We Pray, Then We Organize” attracted more than 1 million views.
Similarly, advocates against hate speech online are deeply rooted in the faith community because of centuries of religious discrimination and recent horrific attacks – for example, the Anti-Defamation League, Muslim Advocates, MPower, and the UCC have each played important roles in the current advocacy against hate speech. These organizations have done a good job in pressing companies to improve their policies, dialoguing with policymakers, and developing resolutions. A number of faith-based groups signed up to support the Change the Terms campaign, including Muslim Advocates, Church World Service, Faith in Public Life, Franciscan Action Network, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. More can be done to bring in the faith community and offer leadership in this space. This is a particularly potent area for interfaith work.
As the worldwide Christian community prepares for the World Council of Churches’ Assembly in 2021, several lessons and opportunities for action present themselves. Net neutrality has already been and will continue to be debated across the globe. International faith-based bodies should follow the lead of the National Council of Churches and develop their own policies supporting Net Neutrality. Similarly, these same bodies should join forces with existing efforts to demand accountability and civility of the modern public square and adopt policies that endorse the work of the Change the Terms campaign and similar efforts.
Moreover, these organizations should follow the lead of civil rights organizations insisting that social media companies conduct civil rights audits and routinely test their new products and services to determine whether they could overtly or inadvertently violate civil rights or promote hateful activities. Such pronouncements could also be adopted at the national and denominational level around the world.
On a parallel track, local churches and denominational resources could be put toward collecting and synthesizing the existing efforts to bring ethical and moral teachings to personal technology use. These local efforts could develop a personal experience for participants necessary to create a connection to a worldwide effort to pressure governments and corporations to ensure media and technology support social justice. Through personal experience and popular education many people could learn, as the UCC’s media justice ministry often says, “media justice is necessary to achieve social justice”.
1. Communication for All: Sharing WACC’s Principles, available at: http://www.waccglobal.org/who-we-are/our-organization/principles
2. See, e.g., letter from The Leadership Conference to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (Nov. 9, 2012) available at: https://civilrights.org/fcc-letter-on-media-ownership/
5. David M. Levy, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives (Yale University Press: 2017). Mindful Tech is based off a university class, but its sequence of reflection and practice and journaling could easily be adapted for a faith-based setting such as adult education. See also Jerome Socolovsky, Many Look To Buddhism For Sanctuary From An Over-Connected World, NPR, available at: https://www.npr.org/2018/07/07/625332469/many-look-to-buddhism-for-sanctuary-from-an-over-connected-world.
6. Center for Urban Pedagogy, Dialed In: A Cell Phone Literacy Toolkit, available at: http://welcometocup.org/Store?product_id=42
7. Andrew Sullivan, I Used to Be a Human Being, New Yorker (September 2016) available at: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-my-distraction-sickness-and-yours.html).
8. Fiza Pirani, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Why are Americans so lonely? (May 1, 2018) available at: https://www.ajc.com/news/health-med-fit-science/why-are-americans-lonely-massive-study-finds-nearly-half-feels-alone-young-adults-most-all/bbIKsU2Rr3qZI8WlukHfpK/; Shainna Ali, What You Need to Know About the Loneliness Epidemic (July 12, 2018) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/modern-mentality/201807/what-you-need-know-about-the-loneliness-epidemic; Tim Elmore, Why Empathy is Declining Among Students and What We Can Do, Psychology Today (March 20, 2014) available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/artificial-maturity/201403/why-empathy-is-declining-among-students-and-what-we-can-do.
9. Kaleigh Rogers, More than 100 Million Americans Can Only Get Internet Service from Companies That Have Violated Net Neutrality, Motherboard (Dec. 11, 2017) available at: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/bjdjd4/100-million-americans-only-have-one-isp-option-internet-broadband-net-neutrality.
10. 1A, The Internet’s First Amendment: The New Fight For Net Neutrality, (May 31, 2017) available at: https://the1a.org/shows/2017-05-31/the-battle-over-net-neutrality
11. Anne Broache, FCC: We’ll investigate Comcast-BitTorrent flap, C-Net (Jan 8, 2008) available at: https://www.cnet.com/news/fcc-well-investigate-comcast-bittorrent-flap/
12. Between You and God: The Spinning Wheel of Death | A guest post by Cheryl A. Leanza (FEBRUARY 26, 2015) available at: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/2015/02/between-you-and-god-the-spinning-wheel-of-death-a-guest-post-by-cheryl-a-leanza/
13. Anti-Defamation League, Anti-Semitic Targeting of Journalists During the 2016 Presidential Campaign (October 19, 2016) available at: https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/press-center/CR_4862_Journalism-Task-Force_v2.pdf. ADL also found a significant uptick in anti-Semitic tweets from January 2016 to July 2016 and over 19,000 tweets directed at Jewish journalists who criticized Donald Trump as a candidate.
14. Amanda Lenhart, et al., Online Harassment, Digital Abuse, and Cyberstalking in America (Nov. 21, 2017) available at: https://www.datasociety.net/pubs/oh/Online_Harassment_2016.pdf
15. Amnesty International’s report documenting the experiences of women online found that in the US, New Zealand and Sweden, 1 in 3 women stated they had experienced online abuse or harassment. Of the women they polled who stated they had experienced abuse or harassment online, 1/4 (26%) had received threats of physical or sexual assault and almost half (46%) of the women who experienced abuse or harassment said it was sexist or misogynistic in nature. Amnesty International, #ToxicTwitter: Violence and Abuse Against Women Online (2018) available at: https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ACT3080702018ENGLISH.PDF
16. Id. at 4.
17. Marwick, Alice E. and Miller, Ross W., Online Harassment, Defamation, and Hateful Speech: A Primer of the Legal Landscape, Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy Report (June 10, 2014), available at: https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=clip
18. See, e.g., AJ Willingham, “The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee you the rights you think it does,” CNN (September 6, 2018) https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/27/politics/first-amendment-explainer-trnd/index.html
19. Change the Terms campaign, https://www.changetheterms.org/
20. Corynne McSherry, Corporate Speech Police Are Not the Answer to Online Hate (October 25, 2018) available at: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2018/10/corporate-speech-police-are-not-answer-online-hate
21. For example, Facebook prohibits hate speech “because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may promote real-world violence.” Facebook Hate Speech Content Policy available at: https://www.facebook.com/communitystandards/objectionable_content
22. For example, over 80 organizations wrote to Facebook pointing out examples where racial justice advocates’ posts were taken down as supposedly violating hate speech policies. https://centerformediajustice.org/2017/03/04/570k-people-call-facebook-stop-censoring-activists/
23. Emily Baxter and Aseem Mehta, God in the Machine: The Role of Religion in Net Neutrality Debates, Religion & Politics (Feb. 24, 2015) available at: https://religionandpolitics.org/2015/02/24/god-in-the-machine-the-role-of-religion-in-net-neutrality-debates/; www.faithfulInternet.org
24. National Council of Churches resolution, supra.
26. Bea L. Hines, Once again, a house of worship desecrated by hateful violence, Miami Herald (Nov. 1, 2018), available at: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/community-voices/article220974375.html
27. See, e.g., Muslim Advocates and Color of Change Demand Independent Civil Rights Audit of Facebook. https://www.muslimadvocates.org/muslim-advocates-and-color-of-change-demand-independent-civil-rights-audit-of-facebook/
28. For example, Letter from Andra Cano, United Church of Christ, OC Inc. et al. to Senator Harry Reid, et al. (October 12, 2011); Resolution on Network Neutrality and Internet Freedom by the Communication Commission, National Council of Churches USA (October 18, 2010), available at: http://www.ncccusa.org/news/101018netneutrality.html
29. Michael Geist, Canada and the U.S. stand divided at the crossroads of net neutrality, The Globe and Mail (Nov. 22, 2017) https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-commentary/canada-and-the-us-stand-divided-at-the-crossroads-of-net-neutrality/article37053783/; Clément Nicolas, Net neutrality compliance in France better than elsewhere in Europe, (tr. Rob Kirby) available at: https://www.euractiv.com/section/digital/news/net-neutrality-compliance-in-france-better-than-elsewhere-in-europe/; BBC News, India adopts ‘world’s strongest’ net neutrality norms (July 12, 2018), available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-44796436.
30. Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Facebook Must Change Policies and Practices to Protect Civil and Human Rights (Nov. 28, 2018) available at: https://civilrights.org/facebook-must-change-policies-and-practices-to-protect-civil-and-human-rights/.
Cheryl A. Leanza is a former member of the Executive Committee of WACC North America. She is the President of her consulting firm, A Learned Hand, LLC, www.alearnedhand.com. In this capacity she serves as policy advisor to the United Church of Christ’s historic media advocacy ministry and as the Co-Chair of the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights Media & Telecommunications Task Force. Ms. Leanza plays a key role at the intersection of civil rights and media justice, with a focus on advocacy on behalf of those who are least served by the media and communications ecosystems. Ms. Leanza co-founded the Faithful Internet campaign and helped to lead the victorious effort to pass the Local Community Radio Act. She has been a leader in public interest advocacy for more than 20 years, including advocacy for diversity in media ownership, net neutrality, capping predatory prison phone rates, and other policies furthering First Amendment principles. She has represented non-profits before the Federal Communications Commission and in the U.S. Appellate courts, and has been widely quoted in the trade and mainstream press on these issues. Ms. Leanza is a cum laude graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the Ford School of Public Policy.