Rabbi Abraham Cooper: Trump is right to work with social media firms to reduce gun violence and online hate

As we debate how to respond to the plague of gun violence so tragically illustrated by the weekend mass murders of 31 people in Ohio and Texas, President Trump has taken an important step by inviting social media company executives to a meeting Friday to discuss how hatred and violent extremism are fueled online.

The meeting Friday at the White House will be just the first step in what will certainly be a long and critically important effort, but it is a welcome start.

The president said Monday that he has asked the Justice Department to “work in partnership with local state and federal agencies, as well as social media companies, to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”


We all recognize that there is no one solution to sharply reduce gun violence in the U.S., of course. But without question, an important factor we have to deal with is social media and the role they play in mainstreaming hatred and encouraging violence among a small fraction of the 4.8 billion people around the world who are social media users.

More from Opinion

Among other needed steps, the American people should demand that our leaders dial back their rhetoric on immigration. We should work harder to keep weapons out of the wrong hands. And we should restart a national discourse on how to best treat mental illness without stigmatizing it.

None of these things will happen unless we demand our elected officials drop the posturing and get to work on a bipartisan basis, replacing confrontation with cooperation. Shooters don’t inquire about political party affiliation when they open fire on innocent men, women and children. Elected officials should reach across the aisle on this issue that is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.


The Anti-Defamation League reports that in 2018 domestic extremists killed at least 50 people in the U.S. – more than the 37 extremist-related murders documented in 2017, though still lower than the totals for 2015 (70) and 2016 (72).

The 50 deaths from domestic terrorism make 2018 the fourth-deadliest year since 1970. And last year marked the fifth consecutive increase in hate crimes involving minorities, with Jews in the lead among religious targets.

Woe to us if the young and the angry are convinced they can find meaning only through hate and violence.

Space doesn’t permit a full discussion here of all the many things that need to be done to address gun violence, so I’ll focus on the pivotal role of social media.

The Wall Street Journal featured an article this week in which experts referenced a “loneliness epidemic” among teens, which leaves them increasingly vulnerable to toxic influencers with a gift for speaking their language.

To reach these vulnerable young people we have to turn to social media to counter the influence of hate groups and individuals that play an important role in recruiting would-be lone-wolf domestic terrorists.

An important early step will be for Congress and the president to enact legislation that makes domestic terrorism a federal crime. This would provide the FBI with increased leeway to monitor social media so agents can identify and track dangerous individuals before they act. Only the FBI can bring to bear the tools and expertise needed for this huge effort.

But it’s just not the feds. Silicon Valley must do more, and this is why it is so encouraging that President Trump has reached out to tech companies to begin a dialogue Friday.

For more than two decades, the Simon Wiesenthal Center – where I am associate dean and director of global social action – has tracked how hate merchants use the Internet to recruit vulnerable young people. We’ve seen how the most prolific messengers are not just the usual suspect hate groups, but often loosely tied consortiums hiding behind screen names.

We’ve pressured Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to make a dent in the online marketing of extremist hate and terrorism.

But even as the social media companies have taken proactive measures, bigots have migrated to platforms that allowed them to open 24/7 online hate communities. The most recent mass killers found their voices on 8chan.

Democracies have to begin to deconstruct vicious online breeding grounds of hate and terror. And parents must also intervene to keep the online merchants of hate from preying on our kids’ vulnerabilities.

Woe to us if the young and the angry are convinced they can find meaning only through hate and violence. 

Social media – despite the name – too often have the opposite effect of bringing people closer. Rewarding human interaction has suffered. When kids are in their bedrooms “virtually engaging” with others, they are in reality still alone.

As challenging as it may be, it is imperative that we engage with our children so they know they are valued and loved as human beings – and that they have something other than a clever meme to offer society.

We all have a role to play in modeling behavior so our kids will emulate us by seeking out experiences that create the positive feedback loop they crave. As hard as it may be to get through to teens, we must work even harder at giving them opportunities to become active members of a goodwill community.

Old-fashioned “good deeds” may be the best inoculation against the seeds of hatred and alienation that have resulted in tragedies in El Paso, Dayton, Poway, Pittsburgh and Charleston.

These days, it seems that every mass shooting triggers a pseudo-cathartic exercise of hurling as much vitriol as we can muster against the other side – namely people whose views on issues like gun control differ from our own.

Inevitably, the vitriol begets more vitriol and our civil discourse becomes even more toxic, until the next tragic episode. Americans are in uncharted water, but we shouldn’t be searching for a “morning-after-a-hate-crime-or-terror-attack” pill to ease our pain after each outrage.

The only historical analogy we can point to where discourse led to bloodshed is the Civil War. But the Civil War was fought on far less morally ambiguous grounds. There was a clear “right” and “wrong.” Slavery was immoral and a stain on our national conscience that needed to end, whatever the cost, as President Abraham Lincoln insisted.

But in 2019, we must wage a different battle with an atomized legion of lone-wolf wannabees inspired to deadly attacks by white supremacists via social media. The war isn’t to end a repugnant institution like slavery by defeating a visible enemy, but rather for the hearts and minds of new generations against an enemy that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.


We need to find some answers quickly.

In this war, our points of reference should always be how we can ensure that our children and grandchildren are safe and that all Americans get the respect they deserve – with the right to be heard.