A neo-Nazi organisation based in Northwest America plan to build a separatist Aryan white ethno-state in the U.S. Self-labelled group, The New Awakening, describe themselves as a ‘Hitlerite National Socialist movement that adopts the idea of the Northwest Imperative’, and are currently targeting the states of Washington, Idaho, Oregon and western Montana for the creation of a secessionist nation state to be made up of citizens of White European descent only. Amongst their demands under their Five Point program they state they are willing to fight for the advancement of the white race ‘even if it comes at the cost of other nations or peoples’. The New Awakening’s activity can be traced back to December 2017 where they began to develop an official online presence, including continued activity on social media platforms such as gab and 8chan. Their formation and consequential activity come at a time when racism, divisive rhetoric and hate speech have become common place under the Trump administration’s current presidency and recent election campaign.
Griffin Edwards and Stephen Rushin used historical hate crime date from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) from 1992 and 2017, and found that President Trump’s rise to presidency was associated with an increase in hate crimes between the fourth quarter of 2016, continuing through to 2017. Following the Texas Walmart shooting, democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, , accused the president of being a ‘racist’ who unfairly puts targets on migrants and people of colour. Asked if he felt Trump’s hate speech played a role in the shooting he told CNN, “Yes”.
“We’ve had a rise in hate crimes every single one of the last three years during an administration where you have a president who has called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He is a racist. He is stoking racism in this country… and it fundamentally changes the character of the country and leads to violence.”
In response to mass shootings that took place in Texas and Ohio, President Trump stated he wanted to work with social media companies to “detect mass shooters before they strike”.
Yet this statement is inconsistent with the proposed outcome of Trump’s Social Media Summit held on 11th July, where afterwards he declared on Twitter his administration would explore regulatory frameworks and legislative solutions to ensure the free speech of all Americans online.
“Today, I am directing my Administration to explore all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect the free speech rights of ALL AMERICANS. We hope to see more transparency, more accountability, and more FREEDOM!” Additionally, The Conversation states the president designated the summit part of a broader plan to address the silencing of conservative voices on social media platforms, while CNN claimed majority invited to the summit included traditional conservative think tanks, such as the Claremont Institute, and far-right internet personalities, such as radio host, Bill Mitchell.
The New Awakening’s continued operation and presence online has managed to evade legal scrutiny using the protection of the first amendment that states outside of “low” value speech, such as defamation and true threats, most other content-based restrictions on speech, including hate speech, are deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Citing a ruling called Brandenburg vs Ohio case, where a Ku Klux Klan leader reversed a conviction made against him on the basis of abstract advocacy allowed by the amendments, The New Awakening states the ruling is the reason they are able to disseminate their content and ideas without ‘upsetting and annoying people with power’. It is worth noting a common misconception of the nature and scope of the First Amendment; it deals with ‘negative freedom’, which is defined as freedom from government interference. Meaning the First Amendment does not constrain intervening actions of private individuals or entities, including social media platforms.
The liberties of freedom of speech awarded under the first amendment must not be extended to a point where protections provided by antidiscrimination laws are eroded. Guarantees provided by the amendments must not apply to hate speech, or help to encourage violence or discrimination against a group of people, whether that be online or offline. There are fears this is already happening in America’s current climate, and the fact that such an organization as The New Awakening are afforded a continued online presence and permission to mobilize is evidence of this.
Action by both private and government institutions must be taken to prevent the erosion of constitutional rights of citizens the amendment was originally intended to protect, and to put a stop to further mass shootings. Calls for the expansion of the first amendment to include hate speech, and allow governments and courts the power prosecute against speech have been made. Regulatory framework on social media company’s responsibility to work against hate speech and discrimination would also prove invaluable in a new age of digital communication capabilities. Failing this, private institutions, such as social media companies, must practice their ability to remove users and posts that violate antidiscrimination laws and promote hate speech. For social media platforms, such as gab, that openly promote controversial ‘free speech, and the free flow of information online’, research and monitoring mechanisms must be set up to investigate the potential impact these platforms are having on society. If President Trump is serious about “detecting mass shooters before they strike”, an assessment of the first amendment’s failure to impede the promotion of hate speech, particularly online, is imperative.