Yelling Fire in a Crowded Theater

That’s what Coptic Christian filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley, did this week when he (un) intentionally sparked outrage over a 13 + minute clip posted on YouTube from his film “Innocence of Muslims.” The film, which depicts the Muslim Prophet, Muhammad, as “a feckless philanderer who approved of child sexual abuse”,[1] enraged Muslims in Egypt and Libya prompting attacks against U.S. Embassies in both countries. The film is an example of heinous (and sophomoric), parody with no artistic, political or theocratic merit. However bad it is (and trust me, it’s bad) the real crime occurs in the act of the widespread distribution of a clip. This act alone enters the muddy waters of inciting hate speech via depraved indifference.

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Social media has become a boon to social movements: “Arab Spring” which occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, relied heavily on social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to accelerate protests.  The Occupy Wall Street movement used social media to support strategies and build networks in what was otherwise viewed as a dis-organized crowd of protestors. And in Mexico, students used Twitter and Facebook to protest media coverage of an unpopular presidential candidate. However along with the good of human resolve comes hatred that is more common than not, spewed anonymously across the Internet, as was the case with London riots, which had purportedly been fueled through social media. It is no wonder that the YouTube clip from Basseley’s film was able to promote such hatred; it was used as a tool to do exactly that. The clip an easily digestible, had it been the entire film I doubt that it would have elicited such a response, however packaging it into a short, (and let’s face it) comical video, translated into Arabic and then posted on the largest social network in the world, and you have created a time bomb that was just looking for a place to go off.

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Before I go any further there are some questions we should ask ourselves concerning our stance on freedom of speech and whether or not the “filmmaker (I’m using the term loosely) should be held accountable for his work. Questions such as: where does free speech end and hate speech begin? And who is at fault, the creators of the propaganda, the social networks themselves or those who retaliate against the hate speech? Most would of course blame the “retaliates,” the ones who felt they were offended against who prompted such attacks. But if a person knowingly incites hate, and stokes a fire they already know is burning,a re they not as cuplable? Steve Klein, a Christian extremist and producer for the “film,” admitted just that: “We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen.”

Hate speech in lawful context by definition is: “any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. The law may identify a protected individual or a protected group by disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, nationality, religion, race, sexual orientation, [3][4] or other characteristic.”[2] The definition goes on to describe how speech is thus protected in the United States:

“In the United States, hate speech is protected as a civil right (aside from usual exceptions to free speech, such as defamation, incitement to riot, and fighting words).[54] Laws prohibiting hate speech are unconstitutional in the United States; the United States federal government and state governments are forbidden by the First Amendment of the Constitution from restricting speech.” One final note: “Unlike what has been called a strong international consensus that hate speech needs to be prohibited by law and that such prohibitions override, or are irrelevant to, guarantees of freedom of expression, the United States is perhaps unique among the developed world in that under law, hate speech is legal.”

It is that last line which disturbs me the most; that we are among (if not the only) first world nation which has no federal laws pertaining to hate speech, making us susceptible to acts of retaliation by fundamentalist groups should one of our own create onerous propaganda. No, I don’t want to take away freedom of speech that is not the point here, however creating and then disseminating speech that is hate filled across global networks with the touch of a button poses dangerous risks to everyone.

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Could the film really be the spark that ignited this week’s attacks on U.S. Embassies in Muslim countries? If so, who can be held accountable for the tragic deaths of four innocent people? Has social media finally crossed a finite line from which there is no return? I hope not, for the sake of the good that social media has done, I really hope not.

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