The NYC subway shooter, the media, and the strange failure of content moderation

The NYC subway shooter’s social media profile revealed hundreds of anti-racist and other disturbing rants, where he argued the races should be separated and asked “black Jesus” to kill all white people.  The media, however, thinks he’s anti-black, and no one has even bothered to ask how these inflammatory, racist posts made it past the social media censors.  Instead, they fear Elon Musk.

Last week New York City and the country at large was rocked by a mass shooting right outside a subway station in Brooklyn when Frank James, a 62-year old black man, donned a gas mask, set off a smoke canister, and opened fire on innocent commuters.  He continued peeling off 33 rounds, all into a crowded subway car approaching 36th Street Station before fleeing the scene and launching a massive 24-hour manhunt.  Miraculously, no one was killed and Mr. James was apprehended by authorities without further violence the next day.  In the meantime, the media took the opportunity to dig into his social media profile, attempting to determine some motivation for the seemingly insane and unprovoked attack.  What they found was disturbing, but perhaps not as much as it revealed about social media and the media in general.  “White people and black people, as we call ourselves, should not have any contact with each other,” he ranted in one of hundreds of YouTube videos posted to his channel.  “These white motherf—ers, this is what they do,” he said in another, commenting on the war in Ukraine, believing it was a prelude to a black genocide.  “Ultimately at the end of the day, they kill and commit genocide against each other. What do you think they gonna do to your black ass?”  He also had strong words for  New York Mayor Eric Adams, claiming, “You got your Ph.D. career and nice shoes. You got an education but now you’re just a carbon copy of the person who made you a slave … you’re there to serve these motherf—ers.”  He was equally incensed that newly minted Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was married to a white man, “You hear black people [inspired by Jackson] say my daughter … dreaming to be a part of something that does not want you be a part of it … You’re not white, you’re not European … You want to force yourself on these people and they’re going to kill you.”  In another meme, he insists the simplest solution to these challenges is to kill every white person, “O black Jesus, please kill all the whiteys.”

As a result, conservative media outlets have taken to calling him a “black nationalist,” and surely, there is more than a tinge of anti-racism and Critical Race Theory in the ramblings.  It seems Mr. James has absorbed the idea that white people cannot be trusted, and thus there can be no peace between the races, two essential components of the prevailing white supremacy dogma.  At the same time, one should always be careful trying to impart logic and anything resembling regular motivations to the mind of a madman. The mainstream media, however, is taking a completely different approach.  They believe he has an enemy other than white people in mind, and when they aren’t dismissing his rants entirely like The Daily News, who characterized the subject matter as merely about “homelessness, the conditions of the subways and societal decay,” they insist Mr. James is actually anti-black.  CNN believes Mr. James “repeatedly espoused hatred toward African Americans” and  The New York Times concurs, putting a slightly different spin on it by ultimately placing the blame on white people, of course.  “The videos he posted frequently devolved into outbursts of homophobia, misogyny and offensive comments about Black people, Hispanic people and white people.  Mr. James, who is Black, directed much of his hatred toward Black people, whom he often blamed for the way they were treated in the United States.”

Perhaps, we shouldn’t be all that surprised at the media’s attempt to spin this as something other than what it is, doing everything they can to ignore the obvious inspiration. It was only a few years ago when The New York Times actually hired a reporter, Sarah Jeong, that had posted similar antiracist rhetoric. She frequently said things like “Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men” and “Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins.” Ms. Jeong was also fond of the hashtag “#CancelWhitePeople” while complaining about “white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.”  Rather than fire her when these statements surfaced, the Times extended their full support, painting her as the victim, claiming she was just a young Asian woman, and couldn’t help it because her race “made her the subject of frequent online harassment.”  Besides, she’d done “exceptional” work at “a range of respected publications,” none of whom apparently had any problem with canceling white people either. Strangely, in none of these incidents has anyone in the media stopped to wonder precisely how these videos and tweets made it past the social media arbiters of safe discourse.  The ubiquitous content moderation policies that are supposed to protect us from harmful, racist thought.

The internet, after all, has been cleansed of former President Donald Trump because of his dangerous rhetoric and misinformation.  You cannot post on January 6th, coronavirus, elections, and other topics without drawing the ire of the censors, and yet ugly, racist, inflammatory, vulgar, and incoherent rants against white people somehow persist, freely disseminated by everyone from insane mass shooters to journalists.  How is that possible?  Consider that YouTube’s parent company, Google regularly censors scientific polls that come to conclusions the progressive company doesn’t like.  Last month, the conservative leaning publication, Issues and Insights, reported on a poll conducted by the company who most accurately predicted the last five presidential elections, the respected group, TIPP.  In the survey, a full 65% of Americans believe coronavirus policy has been “driven by politics” compared to only 21% who feel it was “driven by science.”  Google’s AdSense business unit immediately deemed it “dangerous and derogatory content,” and removed any advertising from the page.  The publication appealed, and yet Google would not budge.  This is after AdSense had previously labeled Issues and Insights “unreliable and harmful” for releasing a poll finding that 67% of Republicans want former President Trump on the ballot in 2024 while only 37% of Democrats say the same about President Joe Biden. 

Are we really supposed to believe a legitimate publication posting scientific polls is more dangerous than lunatics calling to cancel and kill white people?  Of course not, but it’s also impossible not to conclude that Google and other social media companies really do think that way, or else they would extend their so-called content moderation policies to cover extreme ant-racist and related rhetoric.  Content moderation is, after all, now critical to saving democracy itself, or at least that’s the claim from establishment quarters at the news that Elon Musk is attempting a hostile takeover of Twitter in the name of free speechThe Washington Post’s Max Boot actually said this out loud on Twitter, “I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter.  He seems to believe that on social media anything goes.  For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.”  Former Clinton Labor Secretary, Robert Reich is equally concerned.  He took to The Guardian to advance his pro censorship views, arguing that “Elon Musk’s vision for the internet is dangerous nonsense.”  Mr. Reich begins by noting that “Years ago, pundits assumed the internet would open a new era of democracy, giving everyone access to the truth. But dictators like Putin and demagogues like Trump have demonstrated how naïve that assumption was,” and therefore speech needs to be controlled to protect us all.  In his view, forcibly removing Mr. Trump from social media was equally “necessary to protect American democracy,” and he is concerned that “Musk has long advocated a libertarian vision of an ‘uncontrolled’ internet. That vision is dangerous rubbish. There’s no such animal, and there never will be.  Someone has to decide on the algorithms in every platform – how they’re designed, how they evolve, what they reveal and what they hide.”

Here, Mr. Reich actually gets close to the truth:  There are billions upon billions of posts made every day, by billions of people with billions of connections.  Some algorithm, somewhere needs to delegate the prominence (or lack thereof) of each, otherwise you’d never find anything as you drowned in a deluge of never ending content.  This algorithm, however, need not be a censor.  It could easily consider content neutral things like the number of connections the source shares with other users, the frequency of the source’s other posting, the history of views of those posts, and also how many other users are posting related information.  There is no need to suppress some speech in favor of others, merely to monitor the marketplace of ideas and better surface those that are the most popular coming from the most connected sources.  This, of course, would mean that the social media companies no longer have control over the content.  They would merely facilitate its dissemination.  Interestingly, Mr. Musk has already suggested this is the approach he would take, and even gone one step further in promising to make the reasoning behind these algorithms public for all to see.  “I wouldn’t personally be in there editing tweets,” he told a recent TED talk, “But, you’ll know if something was done to, to promote demo or otherwise affect a tweet.”

Alas, this is a far cry from how it works now, where Twitter and Facebook do whatever they want, don’t share their reasoning beyond the vaguest references to already vague policies, or even let you know if the content was suppressed by an algorithm or an actual person.  Incredibly, Mr. Reich and most of the mainstream media seem to think this is an acceptable approach, the town square turned into a black box with Jack Dorsey, former CEO of Twitter, and Mark Zuckerberg, current CEO of Facebook, in charge.   On the other hand, the idea of someone more libertarian in charge of these algorithms, making changes for openness and transparency, terrifies him.  It is we the people, however, that should be truly terrified of both the current regime and the regime media’s willingness to openly advocate in favor of censorship and content controls of the kind that allow an unhinged lunatic like Mr. James to post whatever he wants, while blocking the oldest newspaper in the country from disseminating a completely accurate story during an election.  Until someone like Mr. Reich can explain how this can be so, and how it’s in any possible sense a good thing, much less one needed to protect democracy itself, we shouldn’t take anything they say seriously.  After all, this is the same media trying to claim that advocating genocide against white people is anti-black.  Why should we believe anything they say?

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