Should The U.S. Government Try To Control Use Of Social Media By Terrorists?
This week, U.S. Representative Ted Poe introduced H.R. 3654, legislation which “requires the Administration to outline and report to Congress on its own efforts and those in coordination with private companies to combat terrorist use of social media.”
Stopping terrorists from using social media – who could argue with that? Well, if federal government efforts to “combat” terrorist use of social media go forward, maybe no one will be able to.
“Terrorist use of social media” is not terrorism. It’s use of social media by terrorists. It’s speech.
If, on social media there is specific incitement to violence, or the creation of a conspiracy to commit violence, that’s a crime, and can be prosecuted. Accounts used for such criminal behavior can be shut down. There’s no problem with that.
However, that’s not all that Congressman Ted Poe is going after with H.R. 3654. Poe is trying to criminalize religious conversion to certain types of Islam that he doesn’t approve of. “Social media has given ISIS leaders in the Middle East the ability to reach and radicalize teenagers in Western basements—instantly and for free,” Poe complains. He worries about the spread of “the cancer of radical Islam” in America.
In America, though, we have something called the First Amendment. It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Ted Poe has made it clear that he wants to pass H.R. 3654 to use the power of the federal government to interfere with the free exercise of certain types of religion, which he calls “radical Islam”. He also wants to criminalize speech that seeks to “radicalize teenagers”.
It’s not a crime, however, to be radical. Violent radicalism is criminal, but only because it’s violent, not because it’s radical.
Representative Ted Poe is repeating mistakes of the Red Scare of the 20th century, which supposed that Communists had powerful techniques to instantly convert ordinary American teenagers into raving Marxists, using secret Russian “brainwashing” techniques. There was nothing of the sort actually going on. What was really happening is that some Americans decided for themselves that they agreed with Communist propaganda.
Likewise, today, no Islamic organization has developed the ability to instantly radicalize American teenagers, using radicalization rays or hypnotweets or anything of the sort, whether teenagers are in their basements or in another part of their homes. If an American teenager decides to join an organization known for its brutal violence, there are other problems going on with that teenager’s psychological development, family life, or community. Nobody becomes an instant terrorist just because they read a 144-character post on Twitter.
Ted Poe calls the Internet the “cyber-battlefield”, but in truth, the only thing that’s at all akin to warfare online is the sabotage of hackers. That’s not what Ted Poe is trying to address.
Violence and violent conspiracies should be opposed by the American government. Radicalism can be an ugly thing or a beautiful thing, depending on its content, but whatever it is, it isn’t the business of anyone in the federal government. Censorship of religion and of speech is unconstitutional, but it isn’t an effective tool for suppressing ideas anyway. When ideas are banned, they become more alluring to people who are sick and tired of the social establishment.
The best way to diminish the appeal of violent organizations is to encourage open discussions about their brutal acts. Giving them the allure of being banned from public discussion helps no one, and weakens the liberties we all enjoy. When one group of unpopular ideas can be banned, so can others, whether they are violent or not.