The Anti-Defamation League’s mission—combating anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry—seems uncontroversial. But the civil-rights organization has a checkered history: For all the good the ADL does (supporting gay rights in the face of opposition from many Orthodox Jews), its record isn’t without blemishes (opposing Park51, the “Ground Zero Mosque”). Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, is divisive in his own right, most notably for denying that the Armenian genocide was, in fact, genocide. As Foxman himself is evidence of the double-edged nature of constant vigilance and heightened sensitivity against bigotry, so too is Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread On The Internet, his new book with privacy and Internet lawyer Christopher Wolf.
Stated charitably, Foxman and Wolf’s goal is to investigate the harmful effects of bigotry on the Internet and examine possible solutions. Stated uncharitably, their thesis is “People are mean on the Internet, and we should totally do something about it.” It’s unsurprising that their argument is, then, pitched squarely at people who perceive this as an actionable problem. The authors assert that the obvious, commonsense reaction is to clamor for laws banning this sort of online hatred, rather than simply acknowledging that this country allows free speech. Their intended audience requires Foxman and Wolf to present their case with clunky but generally clean prose, meant to outline their argument in terms that a child could understand. Also, each time the authors make an assertion, they condescendingly try to guess how a reader will respond (and they’re probably wrong).
The book does convey much of the basic information surrounding the history of Internet speech questions, including various cases that bring these speech questions to the fore. But it doesn’t present the questions as relevant to people for whom the Internet is an important part of everyday life, instead appealing to an older audience who conceive of the Internet as a purely theoretical cesspool of hatred. This well-meaning, tone-deaf nature is best exemplified by an extended riff on the episode of The Newsroom where Jeff Daniels’ blowhard news anchor Will McAvoy gets angry at trolls on his show’s website. Foxman and Wolf extensively quote from the script when McAvoy tries to convince Indian IT-guy stereotype Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) to remove anonymity from the site.
Viral Hate makes a complete argument, from the exposition of a problem through a proposed solution. Each part is broadly informative, though generally fails to make a case for Internet hate speech as a unique public-policy problem. Some brief discussions do make a credible case for dealing with other problems, like an overview of research suggesting high-school students have extreme difficulty differentiating hate-group sources from reliable academic research. These passages present important, if somewhat isolated problems in understanding and combating misinformation on the Internet (which research suggests is extremely difficult), without completely cohering into a case for decisive collective action against it.
The best part of Viral Hate is the discussion of counterspeech—a much more reasonable alternative to regulations on speech. Foxman and Wolf’s biggest and most legitimate problem with the Internet as a communications tool is that it creates insular communities where hate speech is the norm. This is best combated by simply changing those norms with alternative discourse. The dilemma created by using counterspeech as a tactic, and the biggest problem with Viral Hate, is that it makes sense in several situations, not just online. People say mean things all the time on the Internet, but they also value the right to say dumb shit too highly to do anything about it.