Originally published in Newsweek.
Jack Rosen is the President of the American Jewish Congress. Denver Riggleman is a former Member of Congress (R-VA) and Co-Chair of American Jewish Congress’ Advisory Board to Counter Domestic Terrorism and White Supremacy.
The American political system is under attack from far-right extremists and white supremacists. This battle for the democracy and diversity that define America has already spilled into violence and insurrection. It begins not in the streets but in the shadows of online chat rooms and social networking sites that spread lies and disinformation, foment anger and hatred, and coordinate dangerous action.
How our country deals with this challenge will have a direct impact on our political process, as divisive politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) are actively leveraging these networks to build their political power.
It’s worth remembering that the FBI says that domestic extremism represents a worse terrorist threat to Americans than ISIS and Al Qaeda, which is why the Biden Administration’s decision to join the “Christchurch call” to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online is a good first step. Among the first targets should be the far-right social networking site called “Gab.”
Gab grew to notoriety in 2018, when the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter posted antisemitic messages there just before committing the worst killing of Jews in the history of our country. Unchecked, this platform still provides space for users to espouse and consume white nationalist, antisemitic, neo-Nazi and other extreme content. For example, law enforcement officials have documented that the planning and rhetoric leading up to the January 6th Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol were massive mobilizing efforts and recruitment campaigns for Gab.
Yet instead of taking responsible action to tone down the dangerous content on his platform, Gab leader Andrew Torba revels in it, claiming the Constitutional right to do so.
The Constitution is not a suicide pact for American democracy.
Recently, the American Jewish Congress spotlighted Gab’s activities by releasing a report that documented the platform’s online radicalization efforts and incitement to violence and insurrection. After releasing our report and condemning Gab’s threat to American democracy, we conducted a simple online poll, asking whether politicians should use Gab, considering the site’s extremism. The response from Gab’s users was furious.
Within hours of posting the survey on our website, more than 10,000 Gab users filled out the survey in an effort to “hijack” the results of our poll. Not only did Gab’s distortion create 98 percent approval by their users, the American Jewish Congress’s website and social media channels were bombarded with hate-filled, antisemitic vitriol the likes of which would have been perfectly normal in 1937 Germany.
These responses proved our point: No responsible politician who rejects hate should seek support on a platform like Gab.
That said, the platform has more than four million monthly visitors and is growing. Members of Congress like Rep. Greene recognize this and fundraise on the site to grow their political power and influence and find-like minded audiences.
Undoubtedly, some of the more than $3.2 million Rep. Greene raised in the first quarter of 2021 came from her presence and appeals on Gab. She also found support there for her grossly irresponsible and inflammatory comments equating mask-wearing with the Holocaust.
There are two options for dealing with online platforms that promote hate—and potential violence—in our political system. The first is to ban them. There are precedents in law where exceptions to the First Amendment regarding hate speech exist. These standards could be applied to political campaigns as well, making it clear that hate speech in support of political candidates will not be tolerated and that, by extension, funds raised by politicians on hate-based platforms like Gab will not be permitted.
The second is transparency. Politicians should, at a minimum, disclose how they raise funds from online sources. We need to know where the money is coming from. Candidates raising money from and associating with Gabbers who promote hate should not hide, but should do so in broad daylight, so that the marketplace of voters can decide who to support with full information.
We must take this seriously. While the First Amendment ensures that Congress will make no law respecting the freedom of speech, speech is not without any limitation. If it were, shouting fire in a crowded theater would be protected speech. It is not.
We cannot turn a blind eye to this growing threat. For if we do, one thing’s for certain: Online hate and its political power will only continue to grow, threatening American democracy.
The question now, when it comes to these online platforms of hate, is if the theater is already on fire, should we just worry about the speech or instead condemn the whole building?
The views in this article are the writers’ own.
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