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Opinion: Recent Fatal Incidents Show Dangers of Social Media

As if on murderous cue, two new developments in Erie County have underscored the need to require social media companies to better police their virtual landscapes, including a crash where four teens died.

Social media apps on a smartphone screen.
Shutterstock/Cristian Dina
(TNS) — As if on murderous cue, two new developments in Erie County have underscored the need to require social media companies to better police their virtual landscapes. Four teenagers died last week in a car that may have been stolen in response to an online challenge, while videos thought to be associated with the massacre of 10 innocent people at a Buffalo supermarket in May remain circulating on YouTube.

No one need doubt the difficulties involved in monitoring for dangerous posts and the blocking or removing them, but neither should anyone doubt the need to hold social media companies to a higher standard. Lives depend on it.

The two issues arose only days after Attorney General Letitia James issued a report in response to the racist murders at the Tops supermarket on Jefferson Avenue. In the report, which was requested by Gov. Kathy Hochul, James recommends changing a section of federal law so that internet platforms are protected from liability only if they take "reasonable" action to rein in "unlawful violent criminal content." She also proposes changing New York law to criminalize the recording of photos and videos during a homicide, and introducing civil penalties for people who share such content.

Consider TikTok. Like other social media sites, it offers a mix of posts, ranging from the innocuous to the dangerous. TikTok challenges have become especially troubling. Last year, for example, school superintendents contended with damage to school bathrooms, based on a challenge posted to the site.

More troublingly, the easily suggestible have been encouraged to steal certain Kia and Hyundai car models with anti-theft flaws. Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia believes that may well have inspired the theft of a Kia that crashed on the westbound Kensington Expressway last week, killing four passengers between the ages of 14 and 19. The 16-year-old driver faces a felony charge.

Both TikTok and YouTube have hosted instructions on how to hotwire and steal those models, Gramaglia said. YouTube, meanwhile, continues to present videos that the accused Tops gunman is said to have used to plan the attack that targeted Black people in the store. One explained how to remove a lock that prevents semi-automatic rifles from accepting high-capacity magazines while another offered military-style instruction in conducting gun battles. Other, similar videos also remain on YouTube, as The News reported in Sunday's editions.

It's typical for laws to lag behind the challenges posed by new technology, so while it's disturbing that such posts continue to proliferate, it's not entirely surprising. But as the severity of their threat becomes more glaring, it's essential for legislatures, governors and presidents to respond.

As necessary as that work will be, it will be challenging. The First Amendment is, appropriately, a high hurdle to restrictions on speech. Objections to such restrictions may, for some, recall the 1977 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court rejected efforts to prevent American Nazis from marching in Skokie, Ill., a majority of whose residents were Jewish. The decision was painful, but correct.

And, in truth, governments must be careful in limiting even horrifying speech. But it's fair to distinguish between marchers representing a vile ideology and actions that encourage — some might say, incite — violence and other forms of criminality.

In defending her recommendations, James compared the obvious First Amendment issues to those surrounding child pornography, which enjoys no such protections. It's a fair point. Speech that is meant to promote violence has no place in any society. TikTok and YouTube are helping to make the point.

© 2022 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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