Is Combating Online Hate Speech Censorship Or Protection?

Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft signed a new EU code of conduct agreement to review content flagged as hate speech and remove it within 24 hours of flagging. While all of these companies have long claimed to have zero tolerance for online hate speech, the new code of conduct gives them a time limit of one day, within which they must respond to complaints.

The response on Facebook and Twitter did not take long to come. Many posters wrote about their apprehension that the new rules will effectively shut down free speech on the Internet.

A new trending hashtag on Twitter expresses this quite clearly: #IStandWithHateSpeech.

Some of those contributing to the discussion prefer to remain more open and ask if this means simply increased but ineffectual restriction to freedom of speech or sincerely combating online hate speech.

Commentator responses varied from those who believe this constitutes censorship to those who ask who defines the term, hate speech, to those who are in favor of the anti-hate speech code of conduct as long as it is sufficiently well defined.

comments on Facebook regarding online hate speech

Targets of Online Hate Speech

An online site,, lists the potential targets of online hate speech. These include women, the LGBTQI community, Jews, Muslims, and individuals targeted for cyberbullying by people they know in real life. The FBI publishes an annual report on hate crime statistics. Their report concerns actual real-life attacks, but the statistics regarding targets offline may mirror online hate speech targets. The 2014 data are the most recent data available.

FBI hate crime stats may reflect online hate speech
There may be a similarity between actual hate crimes and online hate speech. [Image from:]
Perpetrators of Online Hate Speech

It is difficult to characterize the perpetrators of hate speech on the Internet because of the easy apparent anonymity achieved by the use of fake profiles. The UNESCO brochure, entitled Countering Online Hate Speech, claims that anonymity is not necessarily easily achieved, since high-level technological knowledge is required to successfully hide the user’s identity. However, the identities behind anonymous hate speech perpetrators can often only be discovered by legal authorities.

This apparent anonymity encourages many people to post hate messages toward the objects of their hate. Middlesex University psychology professors William Jacks and Joanna Adler discuss the effects of anonymity on online hate speech.

In an online environment, where individuals often perceive themselves as anonymous and insulated from harm, confrontation between those subscribing to differing ideologies was common, especially on open-access sites. Hate postings were often followed by other hate postings expressing a polar opposite extremist view, which only served to increase the ferocity of both arguments and further reduce the validity of either point of view.

They also characterize the perpetrators of online hate speech, dividing them into browsers, commentators, activists and leaders. Browsers are commonly referred to as “lurkers” on social media, those who read but do not interact openly. Commentators actively respond to the posts of others. Jacks and Adler found that 87 percent of online hate speech was perpetrated by this group. Activists engage in real-life hate activities as well as online hate speech. Leaders go even further.

A Leader will use the Internet to support, organize, and promote his extremist ideology…. They will be at the forefront of developing Websites, storing large amounts of extremist material relating to their ideology, and organizing hate related activities on and offline.

According to Jacks and Adler, perpetrators of online hate speech seek to purposefully insult a given group, to scorn beliefs of others, to rationalize their own beliefs and to support those thinking as they do. The activists and leaders promote offline events, some of which could be classified as hate crimes.

Can the EU Code of Conduct Combat Online Hate Speech?

In the discussion of their study, Jacks and Adler believe that this is a step in the right direction. They refer to Holocaust expert Debra Lipstadt to support this idea, as she studiously ignored the Holocaust deniers who tried to spread hate in response to her publications.

Some would suggest that simply ignoring hate content and pressuring Internet service providers to remove content as soon as possible could be the most effective option… By engaging with those who are purporting hate, no matter how vociferous the debate and ridiculous their views, the fact that the debate is happening at all would cause others to perceive the views as legitimate and allow them to enter mainstream consciousness.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of tailored search results, whereby individuals are presented with materials based upon their online behaviors may mean that simply ignoring the hate speech online would have no effect at all. Alternatively, Jacks and Adler conclude that careful interaction with the haters may eventually bear fruit.

As search engines ‘learn’ about individuals’ extremist views, they will provide searches that preference hate material, increasing the likelihood of further entrenchment. In order to combat this narrowing of search results and affirmation of beliefs, it may be necessary to safely but actively engage and challenge hatred online… For early intervention, the best hope may be through engaging with users on hate sites, posts, walls, and blogs — although the question remains as to whether an alternative point of view will be able to break into a hate user’s cocooned online experience.

The UNESCO report supports this approach of engaging in hate speech incidents as a means of education toward tolerance. They add that the social media giants have a major role to play in combating online hate speech.

Internet intermediaries, on their part, have an interest in maintaining a relative independence and a “clean” image. They have sought to reach this goal by demonstrating their responsiveness to pressures from civil society groups, individuals and governments. The way in which these negotiations have occurred, however, have been so far been ad hoc, and they have not led to the development of collective over-arching principles.

And changing that ad hoc approach to a more systematic and formal method for combating online hate speech is the purpose of the EU code of conduct. Future studies will demonstrate whether or not this is effective. In the meantime, Jewish groups have had negative experience with reports of hate crime to Facebook.

Facebook responds to report of hate speech against Jews

It is questionable whether or not the new EU code of conduct agreement will help in such instances because this is more related to a definition of hate speech than the willingness to remove it. It seems that an agreed upon definition for hate speech is the first order of the day.

[Image via Pixabay]

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