Above, a banner in London last year protesting a visit by President Trump.
By Mark Hemingway, RealClearInvestigations
May 1, 2019
Last year, Amnesty International published an extensive eight-part report, “Toxic Twitter – A Toxic Place for Women.” According to the report, female journalists and politicians are sent 1.1 million “problematic” or “abusive” tweets every year, which works out to an influential woman receiving an insulting tweet every 30 seconds.
If you saw anything in the news about Amnesty International last year, there’s a good chance it was related to its “Toxic Twitter” report. It received extensive coverage, with articles in New York magazine, ABC News, Bloomberg, Financial Times, Reuters, Wired, NPR, and many others. Rep. Diana Degette, D-Colo., even cited the report when grilling Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey during his testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last fall.
Certainly, Amnesty’s report provides several vulgar and alarming examples of online rhetoric. But in crucial respects, the kind of issues highlighted in “Toxic Twitter” appear to be at odds with Amnesty International’s founding purpose and ultimately present troubling questions about the organization’s priorities.
More than anything, the report seems to highlight a growing trend with human rights organizations: They’re increasingly abandoning their core mission to chase issues that scratch a political itch and generate splashy news coverage. The issue perhaps most negatively impacted by this trend is free speech. Amnesty International is not unique in this respect — a number of the organizations previously identified with free speech causes, including the ACLU and PEN America, are backing away from the issue.
Amnesty’s stature in the human rights community means its politically correct turn could be a bellwether.
“The political NGO [nongovernmental organization] community, human rights, democracy building, all of those things began largely in the ’60s. Amnesty International was the first one,” says Gerald Steinberg, founder of NGO Monitor, one of the few organizations dedicated to watching the watchdogs. “It was very much a volunteer, low-intensity operation. There was not a lot of money involved. It was very focused, and they only dealt with one thing and that was doing activities — writing postcards, letters and gradually doing some demonstrations — on behalf of political prisoners.”
Ostensibly, Amnesty International’s mission hasn’t changed, even if it portrays its role in a more sweeping way. “We bring torturers to justice,” its website proclaims. “Change oppressive laws. And free people jailed just for voicing their opinion.” These causes are far more urgent, and even at odds with policing social media.
To Amnesty International’s credit, it still does work more in keeping with its foundational purpose, such as pressuring the U.S. military recently to admit that airstrikes in Somalia had resulted in two civilian deaths. But the coverage of that was paltry compared that generated by the “Toxic Twitter” report.
Even within social media, sexist insults and abuse aren’t even close to the foremost global human rights concern. Chinese citizens have been thrown into labor camps for expressing anti-government thoughts on Weibo, the microblogging service that’s the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. In Amnesty International’s home of Great Britain, new hate speech laws mean that police can now arrest you for arguing online about controversial topics. Graham Linehan, creator of the popular British sitcom “The IT Crowd,” found himself visited by police after a Twitter spat over the country’s Gender Recognition Act. And in April of last year, a 19-year-old from Liverpool posted the lyrics to a Snoop Dogg song on Instagram. Clearly, she meant no offense, as the posting was done in tribute to a friend who had died in a car crash. But because she forgot to excise the N-word from the original lyrics, she was convicted of a “hate crime.”
Even as this is happening, Amnesty International maintains that the top three causes the organization spends money on are “protecting refugees and migrants, fighting abuses of legal systems and promoting free speech.”
However, it’s hard to imagine that the "Toxic Twitter" report isn’t making the case for censorship. Throughout Amnesty’s report, it prominently and deliberately refers to all forms of written insults — not just tangible threats — as “online violence.” Jailing dissenters from the political orthodoxy becomes much easier when you falsely recast mean tweets as a threat to someone’s physical safety. Amnesty International also now declares that “Governments have an obligation to prohibit hate speech,” even though the act of defining what that term means has spurred a lot of well-founded accusations that hate speech laws are ultimately a tool for censorship.
Asked for comment, Amnesty International spokesperson Ruby Stockham replied circumspectly: “All categories of violence and abuse online require state and company responses but not all forms require takedown measures or criminal remedies. It should be noted that the right to freedom of expression protects expression which may be offensive or disturbing. States and companies should not to impose restrictions which violate this right.”
‘The NRA of the Left’
There’s a simple, and perhaps charitable, explanation for what’s going on here. From the vantage point of Amnesty International and other human rights groups, chasing after issues that generate attention is invaluable from a fundraising perspective. Amnesty International is no longer a volunteer organization — far from it. According to Amnesty International’s latest financial report, the group raised about $330 million in 2017. If highlighting a comparatively trivial issue like insults on Twitter keeps the organization in the news, that helps pay for the more important work the organization does, such as highlighting civilian deaths in military conflicts.
Yet, the exigency of fundraising doesn’t fully explain why protecting free expression has become a devalued and discarded issue by so many organizations once dedicated to upholding it. In the United States, the ACLU, the group most associated with the defense of free speech, is thriving. Last year, the organization reported that in the 18 months since Donald Trump took office, it had raised $120 million and dues paying membership had more than quadrupled, from 400,000 to over 1.8 million.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the ACLU also began to reevaluate its commitment to free speech last year. The organization circulated a memo saying the cases it takes up may be determined by “the extent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values; and the structural and power inequalities in the community in which the speech will occur.”
Although this might sound benign, it is a seismic change in policy for the ACLU that has the potential to redefine its historic purpose, as free speech is a much more clear-cut and absolute value than the sorting out who might be harmed in a morass of competing “structural and power inequalities” debated by the left.
Yet, the turn away from speech is very much in step with the political priorities of the current crop of progressive activists — many of whom now work at the ACLU. Where before the organization had become famous for being so principled on free speech they defended neo-Nazis’ First Amendment right to march down American streets, ACLU employees and the ACLU’s membership were upset that the ACLU played a role in securing permits for the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that ended in violence, and that they blamed Donald Trump for enabling.
The ACLU appears to be leaning into its new overtly political identity, even as it calls its foundational commitment to civil liberties into question. In a lengthy political profile in the New York Times magazine last July, the organization explicitly asserted that it was trying to become the “NRA of the left.” The ACLU’s national political director later told BuzzFeed, “We talk about the NRA often here. Not because we agree with them, but because they have effectively created an organizational model around the single issue they care deeply about. … They make their members and volunteers feel like they have a duty to vote.”
The question is, if the ACLU abandons civil liberties, what’s going to be the single issue its members care deeply about? Major human rights organizations "really are the equivalent of corporations with these kinds of budgets,” observes Steinberg. “And without the oversight, without checks and balances, they will migrate towards where the organizations see the greatest amount of influence, power and growth. So the old issues that they began with are much less important.”
For some time now, Wendy Kaminer, who was on the board of the ACLU from 1999 to 2006, has been sounding the alarm about the organization’s drift away from free speech. (The ACLU did not respond to requests for comment from RealClearInvestigations, but it has been vocal in rebutting Kaminer.) She’s been critical for so long that she cautions against seeing the current trend as being related to short-term concerns about cash flow or who occupies the White House. “Fundraising probably plays a role, but I think ideology is more important,” she said. “I think it's an ideological shift.”
That shift did not start recently. “The ACLU has also been changing … not just the last year or the last two years, but really over the last 15 years it's becoming more of a progressive organization,” Kaminer added. “There's always been a healthy tension between its civil rights and civil liberties agenda. And I think in recent years the civil rights agenda has begun overwhelming the civil liberties agenda. And you see that most clearly in the retreat from free speech.”
Kaminer notes that those changing beliefs are hardly unique to the ACLU, and in fact one way of looking at the timing of the change in attitudes regarding free speech, is that it’s largely a generational divide. She observes that in America, at least since the early ’90s, students on college campuses have been educated under speech code regimes and this has produced different attitudes toward free speech than those in their 40s who experienced a very different educational climate. From a more international perspective, younger people who came of age after the Cold War have no sense of the powerful and oppressive censorship that was happening behind the Iron Curtain as recently as the 1980s.
As such, the younger leaders and members of organizations once concerned with free speech are defining the issue much more narrowly. Like the ACLU, the PEN America literary organization --whose “mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible” -- is now embracing progressive politics in ways that directly undercut its historic mission.
When PEN America tried to give an award to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical publication that was the victim of a terror attack that killed 12 and injured 11 others, the organization found it facing an open revolt from dozens of members and prominent literary figures. They signed a letter arguing that Charlie Hebdo should not be honored, because cartoons of Muhammad “marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises.” PEN America also put out a lengthy report last year that, according to Inside Higher Ed, “disputes lawmakers' characterization that free expression on college campuses has reached disaster level,” even as several universities erupted in violence in response to the appearances of mainstream conservative speakers.
Since many major organizations specifically dedicated to preserving free speech have traditionally been left of center, the abandonment of the issue undercuts their credibility when fighting free speech threats from the right, especially since they have been very critical of Trump’s attacks on the press and threats to reexamine libel laws. Even before Trump arrived on the scene, the lack of “healthy tension” between civil liberties and civil rights was proving to be a source of tension within progressive organizations.
Hypocrisy and Southern Poverty
In March the Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights organization long celebrated for its work combating the Ku Klux Klan and American white supremacist movements, imploded after the organization’s founder, Morris Dees, and its president, Richard Cohen, stepped down. A raft of accusations surfaced involving financial mismanagement and the mistreatment and sexual harassment of minority employees, even though corruption at the SPLC had been openly reported on for decades.
“The question isn’t what went wrong at the SPLC; it is why it took so long for the rest of the country to learn what local reporters already knew,” Jim Tharpe, the former editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, wrote in a recent column in the Washington Post. Under Tharpe’s supervision, the Advertiser had published a lengthy exposé highlighting longstanding problems with the SPLC over 25 years ago. The reporting was even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Yet, the SPLC made no meaningful changes and continued to operate in an irresponsible fashion.
Although the exposure of the SPLC’s internal corruption was long overdue, the organization had long been corrupted in a more fundamental way: It had been a partisan organization that sought to silence critics and tarnish conservatives in ugly and dishonest ways. The SPLC once reserved its powerful “hate group” label to undeniably bad actors such as neo-Nazis, but in recent years it had begun applying the label to mainstream conservative and religious organizations in an obvious attempt to delegitimize their viewpoints. The double standard became impossible to ignore.
After Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot by a deranged gunman in 2011, many partisans seized on the fact that former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin had put out a map with cross hairs over Giffords’ district as part of a list of Democratic House seats “targeted” for defeat. But Giffords’ shooter, Jared Loughner, had serious mental problems. There is no evidence whatsoever Loughner saw this map or that political rhetoric was a cause of the Giffords shooting. Nonetheless, the SPLC published a blog post headlined, “Expert: Political Rhetoric Likely a Factor in Arizona Shooting,” that further argued Palin’s map “could have provided a facilitating context” for the shooting.
In 2012, a security guard at the Family Research Council building in Washington, D.C., was shot after a disgruntled gay activist with a gun and a backpack full of Chick-fil-A sandwiches entered the building intending to shoot as many people as possible. He had located the FRC offices on a “hate map” on the SPLC’s website. The SPLC refused to take down the map after the shooting, which, according to its own arguments, made the group complicit.
Although the mainstream media routinely treat the SPLC as a legitimate clearinghouse on extremism, the organization’s obvious bias and dubious conclusions have long made it a farce. Perhaps this is best shown by its decision to name Ayaan Hirsi Ali an “anti-Muslim extremist,” even though she was internationally famous for the threats on her life as the result of making a film about how Muslim radicals threaten women’s rights. (Terrorists did succeed in killing her collaborator on the film, Theo van Gogh.)
As the Southern Poverty Law Center tries to rebuild itself back into a credible civil rights organization, it’s worth asking why the organization’s internal corruption was ignored for so long. Was it because its allies on the left — even those that claim to focus on free speech issues — were happy to let the organization use its powerful “hate group” designation to help scare away donors and ultimately silence common political enemies on the right?
Going forward, one of the biggest dangers to free speech is the growing number of institutions that have surrendered the credibility necessary to speak to both sides of a given political debate.
“We're getting to a place where the people on the right will defend the speech rights of their allies and the people on the left will defend the speech rights of their allies,” Wendy Kaminer says. “There aren't a lot of neutral arbiters anymore.”