This study seeks to understand the opinions of internet users toward extreme speech on social media platforms and their willingness to censor such speech. The purpose of this paper is to examine how norms of freedom of expression are changing in an online communication environment dominated by these platforms.
Four focus groups were conducted in this study. Participants needed to use at least one social media platform daily. Groups were homogeneous in terms of race and gender: African-American females, African-American males, white females and white males.
Participants in general did not report a strong willingness to censor extreme speech on social media platforms. Rather, they expressed apathy and cynicism toward both their own and social media companies’ ability to combat extreme speech and make online discourse more positive. Female participants tended to value the overall health of public discourse and protection of more vulnerable social media users on social media platforms. African-American female participants called for platforms to recognize a special duty to protect minority users, whom they saw as responsible for the platforms’ success.
Focus groups are useful for providing exploratory rather than generalizable data. However, by increasing the understanding of how individuals define extreme speech on social media, these data can reveal how individuals rhetorically shape the social media platforms and interpret their role in democratic discourse.
This research takes the rich field of studying tolerance toward extreme speech to new territory: the online realm where public discourse (and especially extreme discourse) is hosted more and more.
Funding: grants from the University of Minnesota Mixed-Method Interdisciplinary Graduate Group and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication 2016 Emerging Scholars Program provided funding for this research. The author would like to thank Neeley Current, Kenneth Haggerty and Shahzaade Cannon for their valuable assistance in facilitating this research. The author would also like to thank Rachel Grant and Marina Hendricks for moderating three of the focus groups in this research.
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