Free Speech

The Campaign Against 'Extremism' Looks Like an Attack on Speech

Efforts against violence are turning into restrictions on ideas.


Some Facebook users have recently received warnings about "extremism" and offers of help for those with acquaintances attracted to "extremist" ideas. It's part of an international push to discourage and restrict communications considered radical and hateful. While often couched in concern about the potential for violence, this effort looks increasingly like a scheme to narrow the boundaries of acceptable discussion and muzzle speech that makes the powers-that-be uncomfortable.

"Are you concerned that someone you know is becoming an extremist?" asks one of the Facebook messages. "We care about preventing extremism on Facebook. Others in your situation have received confidential support."

Taken by itself, the messages are somewhat creepy indications that the tech giant doesn't approve of a subset of its users' communications, politics, and associates. But the messages—which send those who click through to the company's Redirect Initiative to "combat violent extremism and dangerous organizations by redirecting hate and violence-related search terms towards resources, education, and outreach groups that can help"—is part of a much larger international program involving dozens of governments and tech firms.

"One year ago we committed to the Christchurch Call to Action in response to the March 15, 2019 attack in Christchurch, New Zealand," Facebook noted in May 2020. "Since then, our companies have continued our shared work to prevent terrorists and violent extremists from abusing digital platforms."

Cofounded by the governments of France and New Zealand, the Christchurch Call to Action promotes "collective, voluntary commitments from Governments and online service providers intended to address the issue of terrorist and violent extremist content online and to prevent the abuse of the internet as occurred in and after the Christchurch attacks." It has since been joined by governments from Australia to India to the United Kingdom, and by companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

The U.S. joined the Christchurch Call in May, despite earlier concerns about threats to free speech posed by state action against ill-defined "extremism." At almost the same moment, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a bulletin warning about the potential dangers of messaging from domestic terrorists. "Social media and online forums are increasingly exploited by these actors to influence and spread violent extremist narratives and activity," it cautioned

The RAND Corporation, the well-connected granddaddy of think tanks, recently joined in with an effort "to gather and then analyze first-hand accounts of extremist radicalization and deradicalization." Researchers added that "the interview protocol was designed to engage all participants in talking about radicalization and its prevention at four levels—individual, relational, institutional, and societal."

Like Facebook, but unlike DHS and Christchurch Call, RAND didn't entirely confine its concerns to extremism of the violent variety. It's eyebrow-raising enough when private organizations creep in terms of their concerns from "violent extremism" to "extremism" to "radicalization," but it becomes dangerous when governments, with the power of law backed by police and prisons, do the same—and that's exactly what is happening.

"If your intent is to incite hatred against them, then potentially," New Zealand's Justice Minister Kris Faafoi answered last month when asked if a pending hate speech bill would criminalize criticism of boomers by millennials. "But again, it's up to the police and what you say."

Commentators point out that the proposal would even punish criticism of "political opinion."

New Zealand's government, let's remember, is one of the cofounders of the Christchurch Call which inspired Facebook's extremism warnings. The proposed legislation—including hefty fines and prison terms for speech offenders—is crafted to implement the Call's intent.

America's strong traditions of respect for speech, embodied in the First Amendment, should prevent any similar laws against vigorous, vitriolic, or even overtly hateful speech, so long as they stop short of incitement to violence. But that doesn't mean that powerful people wouldn't very much like to narrow the parameters of acceptable speech far more than the Constitution might allow.

In January, former CIA director John Brennan assured an MSNBC interviewer that the Biden administration is focusing on "what looks very similar to insurgency movements that we've seen overseas," consisting of "an unholy alliance" of "religious extremists, authoritarians, fascists, bigots, racists, Nativists, even libertarians."

"Notably, Brennan did not distinguish between those who use extreme tactics and those with whom he disagrees politically," observed Max Abrahms, a professor of public policy at Northeastern University and expert on political violence. "For Brennan, both are enemies worthy not only of contempt, but action or at least government scrutiny."

Fortunately, Brennan no longer holds a government job. But he remains a high-profile media commentator and security adviser with continuing ties to those who do wield power. It's not difficult to believe that his sentiments are more widely shared at a time when the U.S. government endorses the Christchurch Call's plan for curbs on speech and issues terrorism advisories about extremism.

And private companies aren't constrained by the First Amendment. Facebook and other companies have every right to interpret "extremism" as they wish, purge it from their platforms, and ostracize or refer for reeducation its advocates. Politicians limited in their abilities by constitutional constraints or political opposition may well see their preferences about the acceptable boundaries of speech enforced by private parties that share their prejudices and have signed on to the same mission.

The Christchurch Call and related efforts against extremism have their roots in efforts to battle violence, not speech. Most people would agree that the majority of "extremist" ideas targeted so far are vile even when not explicitly dangerous. But already we're seeing one of the founders of the Christchurch Call suggesting that criticism of political opinion, or of one generation by members of another, might deserve criminal penalties. Concerns about violence are being replaced by warnings against disapproved speech itself.

"Extremism," it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder. And too many campaigners against extremism seem eager to turn their efforts into restrictions not just on what people do with their ideas, but also on the range of ideas they are allowed to voice.