CRANFORD, N.J. — The internet’s combination of relative anonymity and wide reach have contributed largely to hate speech and divisions in America, a panel of government and community officials at Union County College generally agreed.
“I think the internet is the dark corner,” said Walter Fields, former political director of the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP. “Because I think it ferments a lot of this activity that very unstable people can then use as an excuse to commit acts of hate.”
Fields was one of about a half dozen panelists that discussed “The Serious Issue of Hate Speech and Division in America” at an Oct. 10 forum moderated by New Jersey Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick at Union County College.
In addition to Fields, those featured included state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal; Meryl J. Chertoff, executive director of the state and local government program at Georgetown Law School; Jeffrey Chiesa, former New Jersey Attorney General and U.S. senator; and former state Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino.
While none of the panelists defined the term “hate speech,” they largely pointed to extremism they felt had a home on the internet and emphasized the importance of having in-person conversations within communities to address division and bias.
“Part of the way we disarm hate is we don’t play into it and oftentimes, our reaction is as equally awful as the hate that’s being delivered because we take this defensive posture,” Fields said.
Grewal cited statistics that bias crimes have been on the rise in New Jersey during the past four years, matching national trends.
Grewal stated there were 417 incidents deemed bias motivated in New Jersey in 2016. There were 549 incidents the following year and 569 in 2018. As of Oct. 1, there were 705 crimes designated as bias-related. Of the 569 incidents in 2018, 46 percent were committed by juveniles; the majority of these incidents took place on college campuses, universities or elementary schools, Grewal said.
The increase was due in part to improved methods of tracking bias crimes, Grewal said.
“Some of the rise in these numbers we can attribute to increased awareness,” Gewal said. “Some of the rise we can attribute to better reporting and better tracking. … I think what we’re seeing in this state is what we’re seeing in this country, that there is an extraordinary amount of division.”
The panelists also pointed to internet extremism due to isolation and lack of integration. They discussed the failure of society to dissolve hate and said the solution to that is creating conversations within communities through leadership that openly denounces hate and division, as well as through early education. Grewal and Fields specifically pointed to using public schools as a tool to “diffuse hate and bias.”
The panelists also said hate and bias are learned behaviors, and that when people do not have interaction outside of their own demographics, false narratives spread.
“When we start looking at hate, you have to look at what are we doing in our public school systems, so that our children are aware of the great cultural diversity we have in New Jersey and respect that,” Fields said. “New Jersey is the most diverse state in America, but has the sixth most segregated public school system. The reality is, most children are only attending public schools with people that look like themselves. Until we integrate our public schools in New Jersey, we are always going to have a problem. … New Jersey should be ashamed of itself for having such a segregated public school system.”
Former Attorney General Chiesa, who served during former Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure and was later appointed by Christie to replace U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s term after he died in office in 2013, said the internet isolates people and allows them to make statements online they would never say in public.
“In other words, if you were to sit in this room today and say some of the things that you read on the internet, you would immediately be confronted in a way that would remind you how inappropriate and wrong and hurtful and hateful your comments were,” Chiesa said.
Grewal stated the internet has become a place where hateful ideology can go unchecked, but he also blamed social media algorithms that do not censor hateful ideology.
“If you have that hateful ideology, what’s going to pop up on your Facebook feed … social media, political rhetoric. Educators need to be involved, community leaders need to be involved.”
Porrino, who replaced Chiesa as attorney general and finished out the Christie administration, suggested the power of merely stating that hateful rhetoric will not be tolerated, has an impact.
“When I took over in 2016 as attorney general, this conversation wasn’t happening at the same level … and in a couple of months, I realized what mattered was the perception was that those incidents were on the rise. It turned out that they were,” he said. “And surprisingly, throughout my tenure as attorney general, just saying that we reject hate, that we’re not going to tolerate that type of behavior, saying that publicly in groups, was something that meant something more than I thought it would have.”
However, Porrino was skeptical that adjusting internet algorithms and censoring online rhetoric would solve the problem entirely, saying, “I don’t think fixing the internet is going to fix the problem. Before the internet, it was fliers.”
He brought up a hate incident in Lakewood at a Holocaust memorial, in which perpetrators had spray-painted a sheet with swastikas and draped it over the memorial. The reason a sheet was used, he said, was so that no property damage occurred, making the law more difficult to enforce.
“So, my point in telling you that story is that you can fix the internet, you can fix the law, but the problem is ultimately much deeper than that.”
Fields discussed a conversation he’d had at a restaurant in Pittsburgh that was located two blocks from the Tree of Life synagogue where a gunman — who had used an online forum to post anti-Semitic comments about the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — shot and killed 11 worshipers during a religious service.
“The conversation centered around how we have failed as a society that it’s easy to demonize certain groups of people but, overall as a society, we have failed because you never have confronted some of the ugliness that is at the root of the problem,” Fields said.
“I’m old enough to remember the post-Civil Rights era, and getting through that era was torturous. But, we entered a window after the Civil Rights movement where with a hope that we were moving to a better place. We felt that the job was done, and it wasn’t done because successive generations came along and they began to learn the same hate that we thought we had dispensed with.”