Earlier this week, Governor Kathy Hochul (D) announced a sweeping counterterrorism initiative in response to online “hate speech” that is considered, by the state government, to be – mostly – antisemitic.
Hochul and company’s efforts in increasing state awareness of online harassment, bullying, or even threats of violence or action come in the wake of the Israel-Hamas War. Thousands of pro-Palestine demonstrators took to the streets of New York City at the start of the conflict, which saw many disturbing displays, such as burning of Israeli flags and flashing of swastikas. Even now, dozens of videos have circulated online of people tearing down photos of missing children who have been taken hostage by Hamas.
Hochul’s solution to the obvious unrest in her city is to ramp up efforts to surveil people online, trolling for content subjectively deemed “hateful,” “bigoted,” or “inappropriate” by state standards.
In her press conference stating her initiative, the Governor only gave vague plans as to what steps are taken and what the guidelines for detecting questionable online information would entail.
“Our social media analysis unit has ramped up its monitoring of sites to catch incidents of violence and direct threats to others,” Hochul said at the conference. Hochul mentioned no specific websites, social media platforms, or other forums that are to be scanned, and she mentioned no specific words, ideas, or posts for which the state will scan.
Hochul then brought up an interesting topic that has far eluded many citizens in New York: safety.
“No one walking down the street or in a subway should feel they have to hide with any indications of their religious beliefs,” said Hochul.
What’s interesting is that the state of New York recently experienced a year-and-a-half long campaign that was almost entirely rooted in public safety. Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) waged an uphill battle against Hochul that was dominated by his near-daily appearances at subway platforms where innocent passersby were either shoved onto the tracks or stabbed in cold blood, as well endorsements from long-serving Democratic New York City Councilmembers in light of the sordid situation in New York.
Hochul downplayed Zeldin and company’s calls for increased safety, citing them “data deniers,” and chalked up their framing of the race around decades-low public safety as pure demagoguery.
Now, Hochul not only sees the need to increase public safety efforts, but feels the need to do so almost exclusively by increasing online monitoring. Using the dangerous streets and subways as an example to increase the power of “big brother” is a slap in the face to all who have been affected by New York’s embarrassingly low sense of public safety.
While we won’t downplay the severity of some of the anti-Israel demonstrations seen in New York, we overwhelmingly cannot endorse Hochul’s increased police state. With no clear guidelines in sight, there’s plenty of room for doubt that these powers will be taken seriously and ethically. Comparisons have since been drawn to the Biden Administration’s short-lived experiment of the Disinformation Governance Board, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
It’s not the government’s place to patrol every word spoken and every thought conceived by the general public. While the government can and should take note of severe and realistic threats, the problem is that most online content is not only innocuous, it’s an inaccurate portrayal of the population at large. We can’t endorse people writing foolish, false, or discriminatory things online, but we can chalk it up to Internet immaturity and “keyboard warrior” mindset.
In other words, the Internet made people a lot more comfortable with saying whatever they want because the prospect of getting smacked or called out publicly is far lower than it once was. Relative anonymity makes detecting motives and patterns even more difficult, especially since the Internet is mostly full of young people who should be able to make the classic mistake of telling an inappropriate or insensitive joke.
Even if the state is virtuous in their efforts to detect and prevent antisemitic attacks, the problem lies in their thinly-veiled rollout of the plan, which seems to leave the door open a crack for future “detection” and “surveillance.”
In the meantime, Hochul and her team can continue trolling Twitter accounts for sensitive information, while at the same time allowing tens of thousands of unvetted migrants into the city with no regard to their criminal statuses or backgrounds, and intending to sign the Clean Slate Act, which would automatically expunge criminal records for most offenses after set periods of time.
The ongoing migrant crisis also exemplifies Hochul’s lack of esteem for American values, as such a rapid and fundamental change of population and values without true reverence and understanding of the American way of life leads to the frightening pro-Palestine demonstrations we’ve seen over the last month. Such displays would have been unconscionable a few years ago, but now are more commonplace because of the whittling away of American values.
Hochul does not care about public safety for all; she has demonstrated multiple times that it is one of her priorities as governor. If she did, Lee Zeldin would not have had the slightest chance in ousting her last year. She cares about surveillance, policing citizens’ thoughts, and power consolidation through intimidation tactics.
While the attacks on Israel are unfortunate and troubling to watch, it’s sad that a war on the other side of the globe is what made Hochul finally invest in some forms of public safety increases, rather than the last several years of New York City turning into a crime-riddled, drug-addicted dystopian shell of its former self. Jewish New Yorkers and Asian Americans have also been the disproportionate victims of brutal attacks over the last couple of years, a staggering set of statistics that should make any leader markedly more interested in increasing public safety.
Furthermore, the problem with a sweeping, overarching thought police state is that it assumes everyone is guilty. It assumes everyone is capable of hateful speech or thoughts and deserve to be monitored equally. While some members of the public – like career criminals who have slowly been ruining New York City – cannot be trusted in the public square, online or offline, a government must give its citizens the benefit of the doubt. A crucial covenant between government and citizens is mutual trust and respect. When government assumes its citizens are “bad” people with “bad” thoughts and tendencies, that covenant is broken.
Besides, history throughout the centuries around the world has shown that citizens have disproportionately more reasons to be distrusting of their governments than vice versa. But when citizens display a healthy distrust in their government and ask reasonable questions, they are branded as purveyors of “misinformation” or “disinformation,” and are ridiculed by their leaders.
The bureaucratic can of worms has been opened. While we certainly don’t endorse discriminatory and intentionally hateful language, we can’t endorse the police state that New York is becoming. We also can’t endorse the rapidly-changing goalposts that regularly dictate what’s offensive one day and what’s offensive the next. Additionally, a population increasingly wary of their own surroundings and language will only be backed into a proverbial corner, not willingly testing the waters to see if their social media posts are being put into a government file. Speech that is heavily coerced into being restricted under threat of government intervention is not free speech.
We also need to remember that hate speech is also considered free speech. Openly violent and threatening speech must be handled with proper intervention, but hate speech is technically free speech. Even if the viewpoints are invalid, unfair, and/or reprehensible, it’s still free speech. It makes some sense to want to restrict hate speech, but those proponents are unaware of how quickly those government swords can be turned on them. The tears of progressively anxious and “politically correct” society are what makes the slope so slippery. It’s foolish to assume the very laws we support one day to punish our enemies won’t be turned on us when the government feels most opportune.
At the end of the day, language is just language. There would need to be a more empirically-backed link between immature Internet comments and subway shovings, not just what County Executive Steve Bellone (D-West Babylon) calls a “fairly logical assumption.”