Online Hate and Freedom of Speech: (how) dare you?

This year, the United Nations has held multiple conferences on the issue of Hate Speech, and more specifically on its presence online and its impact on minorities. In each of these meetings, key speakers of the Human Rights Committee stressed the importance of “identifying, preventing and confronting” online hate as well as how these measures would not put an individual’s freedom of speech at risk. On the 21st of October, before the launch of the annual report on Internet and Freedom of Expression, UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye expressed his concern regarding our tendency to underestimate hate speech. At the most recent meeting with the General Assembly, he addressed how “the prevalence of online hate poses challenges to everyone, first and foremost the marginalized individuals who are its principal targets”. He fears hate speech is destined to become the next ‘fake news’, an “ambiguous and politicized term subject to governmental abuse.” I agree with him to some extent.

It’s true that when we do not wish to acknowledge a problem, we tend to dismiss it as something inevitable. However, we must also keep in mind that, like many other UN ‘utopic’ goals, a big reason why we struggle to deal with hate speech online is its magnitude and immediateness. From an individual basis, we look up at such large-scale ‘monsters’ that are unfortunate consequences of the age of social media, and we are left overwhelmed. If we try to weaken them, who is to say they won’t evolve into something stronger, worse? Is it indeed inevitable? If so, I urge readers not to see ‘inevitable’ as a negative word, as giving up. It simply means that we must focus our attention on removing the fear and the power associated with such ‘monsters’.

In many of these Human Rights meetings speakers use the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide as an example. The United Nations was created as a result of WWII, after the world saw hate speech against Jews culminate in genocide with the Holocaust. Almost 75 years later, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke in New York about how “we are in danger of forgetting this lesson”. The world is constantly riddled with xenophobia, racism, misogyny and much more. We notice and give more weight to the larger-scale catastrophes that occur because of hate speech. but we must not forget that the harm on a micro level eventually adds up, and reaches a toll that is high, if not higher. From mass immigrations of people escaping conflict, to a specific rise in teen suicides and concerned parents. Online and offline hate comes in many forms, just like its effects do. Therefore, whatever solution we find must be tailored to meet certain requirements, no matter how small these differences may be. This aspect is part of what makes any solution we come up with difficult to implement, as we are forced to peel back every potential layer.

At the Second Global Summit on Religion, Peace And Security in Geneva, Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng spoke of all the recent tragedies, like the attack on churches in Sri Lanka, Burkina Faso and a synagogue in California. With these as ‘inspiration’ and so much hate paving the way, we risk heading toward another genocide or severe hate crime. Soon. He referred to the need for “strong institutions” and that “it’s easy to accuse the extreme right-wing leaders, but what are the others doing?”. Political opportunism is a real threat and measures must be put in place to stop extremism from turning violent. Already as the word suggests, and as history has proven, nothing good can come out ‘extremism’. But as part of the argument of freedom of speech, there are many people in the world with extreme, black and white views. Are we saying we need to label their views as wrong? Is silencing them a necessary ‘discrimination’ for the greater good? Or is there a way to moderate their position? Antonio Guterres has a very strong stance regarding the opinion that equates the violation of freedom of speech to the silencing of hate speech. He argues that “addressing hate speech should never be confused with suppressing freedom of expression”. The goal is to actually stop online hate from “escalating into something more dangerous” and ultimately stripping others of basic human rights. This is where a large part of the debate comes from, the removal of some freedoms for the sake of other freedoms. Someone will always lose. Who deserves to lose more?

Language is a very powerful thing, exactly because of how insignificant one or two words may seem. Adama Dieng goes on to say: “Big massacres start always with small actions and language”. This is a fundamental concept, because referring to a person, race, sex, religion and so forth with degrading terminology ends up depriving that someone of their humanity. In doing so, a switch is turned off in the subconscious, and hurting that person suddenly becomes acceptable. Leading up to the Rwandan genocide, the popular local radio station RTLM, supported by the government, had been encouraging the Hutus against the Tutsi minority, repeatedly referring to the latter as inyenzi, “cockroaches,” and inzoka, “snakes.” You don’t have to be a political leader to rally people behind your words. That’s both the beauty and curse of our modern day world. It’s just so easy to get your voice heard. But is it as easy to face the consequences?

I often hear that no one says what they really mean anymore. That people are no longer honest and hide their true feelings behind a façade. But then when they are honest, hiding behind their computer, and when they say things we wish they didn’t, we call it hate speech. Is this true? Or are we being dishonest with ourselves? Perhaps, ultimately, we don’t want people to say what they really mean. We could also argue that too many positive comments are bad for us. A very minute example of this could be Instagram, and how too many likes and followers could lead to a more vain, self-obsessed population. After all, it is human nature to seek validation, as it strangely increases our fundamental chances of survival. I am obviously not using social media as an example of ‘survival of the fittest’, but I do think that with the Internet comes a big dilemma.

In a way with the Internet we can never win. If someone wants to kill, it is not enough for murder to be illegal. We can place algorithms that track key words and generate ‘are you sure?’ pop-ups or block certain comments from being posted. But we cannot track the mind behind those comments, the true emotions and reasoning behind them. Are they actually being sincere? Does it matter? The UN discusses the importance of resolving the issue from its ‘roots’, but we must keep in mind that we are not always dealing with the same plant. From one’s upbringing to their emotional state, what makes a person feel entitled to broadcast their views to the world is extremely subjective, not to mention likely unknown to them.

Maintaining the Holocaust example, anti-Semitism was widespread long before Hitler rose to power. Hitler was the political ‘thumbs up’ of hate speech and turned pen to sword. There was no social media at the time, so while we cannot attribute all fault to the Internet, we can say it made things worse. As we can now hear about people’s opinions from all over the world and not just our friends’ and neighbors’, hateful words are normalized. The ‘if they can do it, so can I’ mentality. Strengthening those targeted by hate speech and reducing this level of normalization are the best ways to overcome the consequences of online hate.

Consequences may be fatal, but as adults we know that already. So, do we blame it all on age? Or should we acknowledge that the problem does not involve naïveté and lack of awareness, but conscious posting with the sole intent of causing harm. How do we fix that? How do we convince people that their actions and choices are wrong? Morals might not even be their priority.

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