By Anna Lekas Miller
Many in the Jewish community’s worst nightmare came to life on Saturday when an armed gunman stormed a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, murdering eleven worshippers. It is the worst attack on the Jewish community in US history, and comes after a steady rise in antisemitic incidents and rhetoric across the country and around the world.
It is not the only instance of hate speech seeping into the real world in the past few days. Earlier in the week, the US postal service intercepted several suspicious “pipe bomb” packages addressed to prominent Democratic party affiliates, including but not limited to Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the CNN New York City offices. Later the bomber was identified as Cesar Sayoc, an ardent Trump supporter who routinely made threatening statements on social media.
Both events show that the notoriously inflammatory slogans and slurs that many thought were confined to Trump rallies and right-wing Twitter accounts now have real life, deadly consequences.
“The reality is, words have consequences,” Anti-Defamation League Senior Vice President of Programs George Selim told NPR after the attacks.
“When antisemitic rhetoric or dog whistling or rhetoric that’s of an extreme nature is really allowed in our public square without condemnation, it gives the green light to anti-Semites, bigots, xenophobes and Islamophobes to keep spouting it and acting on it.”
Many prominent politicians and media figures have condemned the attack as a hate crime. However the violent, brazenly antisemitic rhetoric leading up to the attacks poses a more difficult question. How can we condemn hate speech, without advocating for censorship—which many argue is equally dangerous? It is one thing to engage in an online debate about whether or not to allow white supremacists, anti-semites, racists and misogynists to express themselves online. It is another entirely when eleven people are dead on the floor of a synagogue.
It is even worse when the killer’s intentions are published on social media—and blatantly ignored.
While Gab, the self-described "extremist friendly" right-wing social network that the Pittsburgh shooter used has since been taken offline, trolls continue to exploit social media platforms to do everything from impersonating leftists to spreading hate speech and forming online communities with like-minded trolls. While major technology companies, particularly Twitter and Facebook, have attempted to curb the spread of hate speech, their policies of depending on users to report content that they deem dangerous or abusive allows many trolls to get away with continuing to spread hateful content on these platforms. Many times, these complaints are ignored—as happened with complaints to Twitter about Sayoc—leaving individuals to fend for themselves when it comes to discriminatory, and even dangerous sentiments expressed online.