Whilst ignoring racist behaviour online won’t automatically make it go away, those trying to quash it through legal threats should recognise their actions may actually make matters worse.
The SMH today reports that:
“The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has threatened legal action against a widely read but controversial US-based website over an article that encourages racial hatred against Aborigines.
In a letter to Joseph Evers, the owner of Encyclopedia Dramatica (ED) – a more shocking version of Wikipedia that contains racist and other offensive articles dubbed as “satire” – the commission said it had received 20 complaints from Aborigines over the “Aboriginal” page on the site. (SMH 17/03/2010)”
As online rights group EFA points out in the same SMH article, trying to censor material on the internet may simply lead to that material being made more widely available. Rather like fighting the hydra, removing one copy of a racist rant or tasteless piece of humour may lead to multiple new versions springing up in its place.
Attempting to gag groups or suppress particular views may also, inadvertently, expose those groups and their views to a much wider audience than would otherwise have been the case.
Over at the Skepticlawyer blog, LE explains the risks of the AHRC’s chosen course:
“ This reminds me of both the recent defamation case filed by Lindsay Lohan against E*Trade for US$100M (after an E*Trade commercial featured a “milkaholic” baby named Lindsay) or the Liskula Cohen “Skank NYC” case. In the end, I doubt I would have known about either piece of defamation if Lohan or Cohen had not sued for defamation.
Similarly, by bringing the action here, the AHRC may have actually given a massive burst of publicity it would not have otherwise had. It’s highly unlikely that I would have ever come across ED or any of its articles without the publicity garnered by this claim, and even more unlikely that I would have lingered for more than 5 milliseconds once I realised what the site was like.” (SkepticLawyer.com.au 17/03/2010)
Ignoring racist sites and groups won’t make them go away. But a head-on assault with all legal cannons firing risks making martyrs out of objectionable characters and giving their message a massive audience boost. Perhaps, in some cases, the way to minimise the harm from online idiots is simply to make sure they aren’t given a bigger soapbox from which to shout their message.
(p.s. mutual hat-tip to LE for notifying me of her post after I’d pointed her in the direction of the ED case and Lindsay Lohan’s latest antics)