When The Right Messenger And Audience Turns Speech "Dangerous"

Mar 22, 2019

Mourners pray following a burial ceremony at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday
Credit Mark Baker / The Associated Press

The Founder of the Dangerous Speech Project says when someone carries out an act of violence like the recent shooting at a mosque in New Zealand, it often follows “dangerous speech.” Susan Benesch will deliver the annual Winnie Veenstra Peace lecture at Western Michigan University Monday night at 6:00 in the Bernhard Center. Her address is called Social Media and Mass Violence.


Benesch says “dangerous speech” is not the same thing as “hate speech.” She says it’s fear inducing, divisive rhetoric that often precedes acts of mass violence. “For every person who is willing to go and commit a massacre, unfortunately there are many others who are reading similar content, often online, and are convinced and inspired by it.”

Benesch says people are more susceptible to dangerous speech if they are afraid. She says that may include anxiety about social and economic change. Benesch says the fear may be of other racial or ethnic groups. She says people who have a strong sense of duty to obey authority figures may also be susceptible to dangerous speech.

The man accused of shooting and killing 49 people at a mosque in New Zealand published an online manifesto. It expressed fear that white people in Western countries are going to be replaced by immigrants with higher birth rates. Benesch says “these are people who feel a particularly strong sense of grievance and they feel threatened by other people or groups of people.” 

Extended Interview with Susan Benesch in WMUK's WestSouthwest Podcast

Benesh says under U.S. law social media companies aren’t held legally responsible for the content other people publish on their sites. But she says some of those companies are starting to take action because of public pressure. Benesch says legally it’s very difficult to suppress dangerous speech. She says it’s also not desirable because freedom of speech is a fundamental right. Benesch says informal social rules have worked in making some words, such as racial slurs, socially unacceptable even though it’s legal to say them. “But online we have not yet figured out very well how to establish and reinforce norms like that.”