Technological advances like social media create countless opportunities that come with many negative consequences.

That was the key emphasis in Interfaith Alliance President Paul Brandeis Raushenbush’s opening statement on the impact of the internet and technology on religious freedom during a virtual panel discussion.

“With social media, the possibilities were endless. It’s the greatest invention since the printing press, and even more so, as it will radically transform our lives,” he said. “And yet, the negative consequences have become very clear. Humans, whether technology or not, are going to human, and the technology has been used for very dangerous ways.”

Interfaith Alliance, a national organization that champions an inclusive vision of religious freedom, has worked for years to draw attention to the uniquely damaging impact of bigotry and hate – particularly against minority religious groups and communities of color.

On Wednesday, January 25, Interfaith Alliance hosted a virtual panel called “Big Tech, Hate and Religious Freedom Online,” examining how hate is amplified on social media platforms and threatens the freedom of belief for targeted groups.

In addition to the panel, Interfaith Alliance released a report detailing the issues with technology and its impact on social connection and speech. The report also discusses the unique and practical ways we can alleviate these issues without devaluing the importance of technological advancement.

Panel members included Paul M. Barrett, deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at the Stern School of Business, Zaki Barzinji, program director at Aspen Digital, Lauren Krapf, counsel for Technology Policy and Advocacy at the Anti-Defamation League, and Raushenbush, hosting.

The panel discussion, which was held over Zoom, highlighted the numerous factors that come into play in faith-based hate online and how social media platforms benefit from its dissemination.

Krapf stated: “We at Interfaith Alliance received data from a 2022 poll where 78% of Muslim respondents and 68% of Jewish respondents who experienced harassment attributed that harassment to their identity characteristics. 44% of all respondents who were harassed due to religion feared future harassment.”

Currently, the technology sector, due to the pandemic and inflation, are enacting massive layoffs, specifically at social media companies like Twitter and Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram). Often the workers getting laid off are quality control safety operators who are enforcers of policies that would prevent hate and bigotry.

Panelists pointed to Elon Musk laying off over two-thirds of Twitter staff as an example of this trend. Interfaith Alliance tracked data across Musk’s career at Twitter and “saw a 61% spike in antisemitic tweets referencing Jews or Judaism two weeks after Elon Musk became CEO of Twitter.”

Barrett addressed this trend, stating: “I fear that among one of the first corporate functions to suffer in this environment will be content moderation operations and general policy-making and enforcement concerns that are the best hope for the form of self-regulation we need in this industry.”

Global terrorism is bred on sites like Twitter and Facebook, panelists noted, which impacts world events like the January 6th insurrection, in addition to creating a host of other challenges in places like India, Iran and Pakistan.

The report dove into solutions for the myriad of issues created by technological advancement without downplaying or discrediting its positive factors.

“Social media platforms and their parent companies must be held accountable for their role in the spread of hateful content,” the report said. “When one industry wields such an enormous amount of power over how we connect, we must address critical failures in content moderation to protect the safety and wellbeing of our communities.”

Interfaith Alliance presented a three-pronged approach for handling hate online: becoming social media literate, holding platforms accountable for hate speech, and regulating big tech. In their estimation, these approaches could do a great deal in creating an atmosphere for hate to become less prevalent.

The panelists ended the event by suggesting that young people are the key in spearheading change to online hate speech. Barzinji stated: “I think young people are the ones who truly understand how to hold power accountable. They don’t take for granted the same-old corporate lines that have worked on previous generations, and for that reason I have hope.”

The full report is available here. A recording of the panel discussion can be viewed here.

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