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by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

I was thinking about writing a column about the “tech angle” of the Buffalo shooting but wound up changing subjects at the last minute. Unfortunately, the topic is back in the news because of the horrific slaughter of innocent children in Texas.

To be clear, technology isn’t to blame for these shootings. It was bullets, not bytes — that took the lives of 10 people in Buffalo and 21 people, including 19 elementary school students, in Uvalde, Texas. Still, some are blaming video games and social media, along with mental illness. And there are some who claim that social media is causing a breakdown in mental health that’s leading to mass shootings.

It is appropriate to revisit the data on the relationship between violent video games and aggressive behavior, but based on what we know at this point, such games are not a major factor. I’m all for increasing funding for mental health programs, but, according to the 2019 report of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Global Burden of Disease, mental illness is the U.S. is very close to that of countries where the mass shooting rate is much lower. Australia and New Zealand, which have seen a significant reduction in gun violence, both had a higher reported rate of mental illness than the United States.

Violent video games

Some are blaming violent video games for these shootings, but as a policy document from a division of the American Psychological Association put it, “Scant evidence has emerged that makes any causal or correlational connection between playing violent video games and actually committing violent activities.” That’s not to say that such games are necessarily appropriate for all children and teens, nor does it belie data suggesting that such games can cause aggressive behavior shortly after playing, but as the late justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his majority Supreme Court decision throwing out a California law regulating video games, “They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”

Social media

When it comes to violence, there are four aspects of social media worth considering:

  • One is its impact on mental health in general.
  • Second is the way it can radicalize and divide people in ways that make it more likely they will attempt to harm certain groups or individuals
  • A third factor is the way social media is used to telegraph people’s intentions, perhaps serving as a warning that they might do something to harm themselves and others.
  • Fourth is the way social media is used to broadcast or celebrate violence or as a platform to share the grievances of the perpetrators.

I think it’s fair to say that social media can have an impact on mental health, but in addition to the negative impacts, there are positive ones as well, depending on how it’s used. Obsessive use of almost anything, including social media, can affect your self-esteem, especially if you’re comparing yourself with others. There is evidence of a recent increase in teen mental health issues, but this can be attributed to numerous factors, including the pandemic and social isolation. But I have seen no compelling evidence of a general increase in aggressive or violent behavior as a result of social media, except in cases where people have been radicalized or desensitized to violence as a result of participation in online forums that spread hatred or misinformation.

As per my second criterial, as the Associated Press put it, “The 18-year-old gunman accused of a deadly racist rampage at a Buffalo supermarket seems to fit an all-too-familiar profile: an aggrieved white man steeped in hate-filled conspiracies online, and inspired by other extremist massacres.” Online radicalization is a serious problem, but it’s fair to point out that there are far more young people using social media to spread messages of love, harmony and decency.

Per my third point, there are many cases where killers have signaled their intentions on social media. In some cases, these have been reported to authorities, and the crimes were prevented. In others, they slipped by either unnoticed or unreported. That’s why it’s important to say something if you see anything to suggest potential violent behavior.

As per number four, in addition to being radicalized online, the young Buffalo killer took to Twitch to live stream his attack and went online to post a 180-page  “manifesto” to share his racist and anti-immigrant views that were related to his murdering patrons of a supermarket in a predominantly black area of Buffalo.

To its credit, Twitch removed the killer’s content within minutes as is generally the goal of social networks. Still, social networks including major ones like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, continue to be used to spread hate speech and misinformation that can lead to violence, despite the companies’ policies to ban such content and remove it when it’s discovered.

Right to moderate hanging by a thread

If the Texas legislature has its way, social media companies could be banned from removing hate speech and misinformation as well as other content they deem offensive or inappropriate. A recently passed law, HB 20, was temporally blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it only put the law on hold while it’s litigated in lower courts. The law, according to an analysis by the Texas Law Research Organization, “could create an incentive for companies to not remove content that may be objectionable but not unlawful, such as bullying, misinformation, or even hate speech.” At issue is whether private companies can be held to the same standards as government agencies when it comes to an almost anything-goes approach to free speech. Yes, you are allowed to spread lies or spew racist, sexist and homophobic rhetoric on a public street, but I have the right to kick you out of my house if you do it in my living room, and so far, social media companies have that same right.

Going forward

Assuming that so-called anti-censorship laws like the one passed in Texas are ultimately struck down or repealed, social media companies will continue to have the right to enforce their rules. But I would strengthen that by saying they have the responsibility to do so when it comes to hate speech and incitement to violence. I know there are gray areas and slippery slopes whenever you restrict speech, but if I were running a company, I’d do everything I could to avoid aiding and abetting bigotry and radicalization.

But words, no matter how vile, don’t kill people, though they can inspire violence. The bullets that pulverized the little bodies of those Robb Elementary School fourth-graders came from an AR-15 style weapon that should never have been sold to an 18-year-old or, for that matter, anyone outside of the military or law enforcement. Just as the First Amendment isn’t absolute when it comes to child sex abuse images or yelling fire in a crowded theater, neither does the second amendment give the right to own any weapon that can be manufactured. If so, it would be legal to own fully automatic weapons or, for that matter, nuclear bombs, or for convicted felons to carry firearms.

Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, a non-profit internet safety organization that receives financial support from social media companies. 

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