hate speech

Online Use Continues to Grow, And So Do User Concerns

A United Kingdom annual study shows internet use continues to grow at a steady pace, while concerns by online users about email spam, scams, violent videos, cyber-bullying and hate speech have spiked. The report adds more fuel to the debate over government regulation of the internet.

A United Kingdom annual study shows internet use continues to grow at a steady pace, while concerns by online users about email spam, scams, violent videos, cyber-bullying and hate speech have spiked. The report adds more fuel to the debate over government regulation of the internet.

Internet use continues to increase. So are concerns about the Internet.

A study by Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s communications regulator, shows average UK adult time online has risen to 3 hours and 15 minutes, an increase of 7 percent per year. Its annual report, Online Nation, said user concern over the internet rose from 59 percent to 78 percent last year.

The report indicates 61 percent of adults claimed to have a potentially harmful online experience in the past year. More than three-fourths of young online users between 12 and 15 years old made the same claim.

Government regulation of the internet has become a hot topic, fueled in large part by privacy concerns and abuses linked to Facebook.  The Conversation  published a recent essay headlined, “It’s time for a new way to regulate social media platforms,” which explores various approaches, some of which are advocated by the leaders of high tech firms, to protect our digital town squares.

Government regulation of the internet has become a hot topic, fueled in large part by privacy concerns and abuses linked to Facebook. The Conversation published a recent essay headlined, “It’s time for a new way to regulate social media platforms,” which explores various approaches, some of which are advocated by the leaders of high tech firms, to protect our digital town squares.

Sharply higher rates of concern, especially about harmful content, have caught the attention of regulators, not just in the UK, but also in the United States.

Yih-Choung Teh, group director of strategy and research at Ofcom, said, “As most of us spend more time than ever online, we’re increasingly worried about harmful content – and also more likely to come across it. For most people, those risks are still outweighed by the huge benefits of the internet. And while most internet users favor tighter rules in some areas, people also recognize the importance of protecting free speech, which is one of the internet’s great strengths.” 

Spam emails top the list of potential harms experienced by internet users. Close behind are experiences with fake news, scams, offensive language, violent videos, unwelcome friend requests and offensive videos or pictures. Users also are perturbed by misleading advertising, viruses and hate speech. Social media was cited as the biggest offender.

Almost four in 10 young internet users reported encounters with offensive language, 23 percent said they experienced cyber-bullying and 20 percent had been trolled. 

Despite all that, the study showed nearly 60 percent of UK’s 44 million internet users think benefits outweigh risks. Slightly more young people agree, saying the internet makes their lives better.

Growing internet usage along with growing concerns about what happens online will surely add fuel to the debate over whether and how much the government should regulate online content.

 

College Students and the First Amendment

A Brookings Institution survey reveals that college students may not be completely comfortable with freedom of expression on campus – or fully familiar with what the First Amendment protects.

A Brookings Institution survey reveals that college students may not be completely comfortable with freedom of expression on campus – or fully familiar with what the First Amendment protects.

US college campuses may be a harbinger of evolving American attitudes on free speech, hate speech and the First Amendment. Survey research conducted for the Brookings Institution reveals sharp divisions by political affiliation, gender and type of university over what speech is acceptable and what isn’t.

The research also demonstrates college students may not know what the First Amendment says.

Regarding hate speech, 44 percent of the 1,500 current undergraduate students at US four-year colleges and universities who were interviewed in the latter part of August, said the US Constitution does not protect it, while 50 percent said it does. (It does.) Students identifying as Republicans, private college undergraduates and males were more likely to say there is constitutional protection for hate speech than Democrats, public college students and women. The gap was largest between men and women. Fifty-one percent of men said hate speech is protected as opposed to only 31 percent of women.

When it comes to controversial speakers on campus, 62 percent of students identifying as Democrats think it is acceptable to shout down an objectionable speaker, contrasted with only 39 percent of Republican students.

There is no difference in attitudes by public and private college students, but again males and females sharply disagree. Fifty-seven percent of men agree it is okay to disrupt a controversial speaker compared to 47 percent of women.

Jason Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, said the most disturbing aspect of this finding is that overall 51 percent of students find it acceptable to shout down a speaker they find offensive. In response to a separate question, 19 percent of all students thought it was acceptable for student groups to use violence to block a speaker. Again, there was a significant gender difference, with 30 percent of males saying it was okay to use violence contrasted to 10 percent of females.

“The survey results establish what has been clear anecdotally to anyone who has been observing campus dynamics in recent years: Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on US campuses,” he says.

Villasenor attributes student views to a lack of knowledge about what the First Amendment permits. For example, he posed a question about whether colleges are legally required to offset an offensive speaker with someone with an opposing view. Sixty-two percent of student respondents agreed colleges are required to balance offensive or hurtful speech with the other side, though Villasenor said there is no such constitutional requirement.

“Many of the respondents appear to be confusing good event design, which under some circumstances can indeed benefit from the presentation of counterpoints, with the completely different issue of what compliance with the First Amendment requires,” Villasenor says.

He also expressed dismay at student response to his question about whether they preferred a college atmosphere that prohibited offensive viewpoints on campus as opposed to an open learning environment that exposed students to a range of viewpoints. Fifty-three percent of students expressed a preference for a more sheltered college atmosphere. On this question, the widest gap was between Democrats and Republicans/Independents. Sixty-one percent of students identifying as Democrats favored limiting exposure to offensive speech, while only 47 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Independents shared that preference.

Villasenor believes college faculty should assume greater responsibility for “fostering freedom of expression on their campuses.” He is doubtful that will happen because he suspects faculty members may share the same viewpoints as students.

He suggests starting earlier in middle and high schools to teach students about the First Amendment. “We don’t need to turn students into experts on constitutional law, but we can do a better job of giving them a fuller explanation of the scope of the First Amendment,” Villasenor says.