On December 30, the UK's Security Minister Ben Wallace harshly criticized tech giants like Google, Facebook, and YouTube for not doing enough to combat "terrorism online". He called on them to remove online content that could lead to radicalization. "2018 is a time to deliver. We know they can do more," he said in remarks carried by the local press.
The introduction of digital communication tools initially heralded greater access to information and greater expression of freedom. This was particularly poignant in countries were restrictive policies implemented by authoritarian governments curbed the sharing of ideas and opinions.
With the Internet and social media, new public spaces were created that provided an opportunity for the voiceless to be heard. But they weren't the only ones who embraced digital technologies, and the anonymity and mobility they provided.
Extremist, fascist, racist, and radical groups found these technologies heaven sent and soon began mass producing carefully scripted messages to new audiences in a bid to indoctrinate and recruit. This has brought us to the age of hate speech and in a roundabout way, fake news.
Firstly, hate speech is the use of divisive narratives to dehumanize and demonize the other. It is designed to incite to fear and hatred of race, group, ethnicity, origin, religion, creed and gender, and sexual orientation. Hate speech is not new.
From the medieval anti-Semitism which falsely accused Jews of killing Christian boys in the blood libel stories of the Middle Ages to the Nazi depictions of Jews as evil untermenschen in pre-WWII German magazines such as Der Sturmer, hate speech has sowed fear and hatred.
From Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, considered the pinnacle of Western literature in the 13th century, where the Prophet Muhammad and his cousin Ali are cast to the ninth circle of Hell—one created for schismatics and sowers of discord to Giovanni Da Modena’s 1415 painting The Last Judgment, which adorns a cathedral in Bologna.
In the latter, the Prophet is depicted as a scantily-clad, turbaned and bearded man writhing in agony as he is pulled into Hell by demons. Hate speech has always been around, and in the above, fueled by the economic and political diatribes which birthed the Crusades.
Although the terms fake news and hate speech have become noms du jeure in the media, particularly during the 2016 US presidential election, the instruments did not originate with Donald Trump. Still, by 2017, hate speech had completed its transformation from the incendiary rhetoric at the pulpit of a rally, or the disseminated pamphlet on the streets, to a vehicle of the uncontrollable fully penetrating virtual world.
And just as the authorities in the so-called Arab Spring countries were unprepared for the explosion of dissent and public space online, so too have Western countries been either unwilling or unprepared to acknowledge the rise in hate speech in their countries for fear of shaking that enshrined pillar of libertarianism called freedom of speech.
While countries around the world are experiencing a rude awakening to the dangerous spectra of hate speech online, it is sad that this was given impetus only following the election of a US president who spoke freely and uncontrollably in language that oftentimes was alluded to by racist and xenophobic groups as ammunition to carry out their nefarious agenda against minorities and the other.
The 21st century, sadly, has seen a perfect storm of historic events that have helped hate speech grow like a cancer. Many people today would equate hate speech with jihadist incitement and propaganda, something to do with the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda. However, it is important to highlight the fact that this characterization is irrefutably false. For example, hate speech has been partially blamed for the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda because of the use of print and radio media to disseminate incendiary messages targeting a particular ethnic group—the Tutsis.
Over the course of the past 20 years, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda discovered a direct relationship between hate speech and genocide and took action to try the world’s first “incitement to genocide” cases, convicting radio broadcasters, a newspaper editor, and even a pop star of the crime. Following suit, the International Criminal Court has indicted a Kenyan radio host for broadcasts preceding the post-election violence of 2007-2008 in Kenya.
Just four years after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, a global recession raised unemployment numbers in Europe and as economic prosperity dwindled there was an inversely proportional function that gave rise to a new wave of racism. The growing racism and Neo-Nazism in many European countries was further exacerbated by backlash against the mad rush of Middle Eastern and North African refugees fleeing deconstructed and dysfunctional nations that had crumbled precisely due to Western intervention. There could have been no better meeting of circumstances in a perfect recipe to foster distrust and suspicion of the other unseen for generations. And where better to express this distrust and hatred for the foreigner than online.
With the growth of social interaction and integration online, hate speech found a best friend in fake news. Fake news has been around for a while, but we used to refer to it as propaganda. Hate speech along with fake news is the bane of all modern day communication and is rapidly slipping through the fingers of those who would seek to combat it.
Where there is one there is likely the other. Fake news and hate speech are mutually inclusive having formed the perfect symbiosis to faster growth and widespread reach. They feed into each other, where one proliferates, so too does the other. Hate speech has become the anathema of online public spaces.
So prevalent has the specter of hate speech become that we no longer talk about just social media but we have also introduced new phrases such as social media radicalization. When we talk about social media radicalization on the heels of hate speech, what we are really talking about is youth radicalization. In the digital age it is the young that are online and most vulnerable and susceptible to such dangers.
A recent UN report showed that ISIS foreign fighters are likely to be young, disadvantaged economically and educationally, and from a marginalized background. It is in this marginality that hate speech resonates—the disenfranchised now find common ground, a grouping and a sense of belonging. Hate speech targets their angst and shows them that they are not alone.
Not surprisingly, the top five countries where jihadist hate speech is accessed are Turkey, the US, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the UK. Egypt is the sixth. These countries have either been ravaged by war and suffered a total societal breakdown or there are socially and politically disenfranchised youth with no clear vision for the future and/or first and second generation immigrants looking for a place to fit in.
The United Nations says it is time to act to thwart the effects hate speech has on what it says is the dangerous blend of online and off-line lives of youth. It says that researchers, policy-makers, youth NGOs, experts, and practitioners from a “range of institutional types and disciplines must come together to provide education, intercultural teaching, and most importantly, media and information literacy to the digital young citizens of the world.”
As extremist and terrorist groups continue to preach intolerance and spread hate speech against minorities, more and more government's around the world are waking up to the fact that they must take action to minimize the explosive effects of such narratives.
In September 2017, the London-based Policy Exchange think tank published a series of surveys about what it called a “net war” between radical groups using online media to spread hate and recruit young initiates on the one hand, and governments and Internet companies on the other.
According to the survey, 75 per cent of respondents said that internet companies should create protocols to find hate speech and delete it. Sixty-five per cent said that Internet companies were not doing enough to monitor and curb access to radical material while another 75 per cent said that the government should step up a regulatory body for just such a purpose. Most of the respondents believed that the government should criminalize the possession of hate speech and make viewing it illegal.
Earlier, during the opening session of Parliament on June 21, British Prime Minister Theresa May reiterated that her government believed regulation of cyberspace was necessary to stem incendiary language that ignited racism and hate speech. Her speech came after a wave of ISIS-inspired attacks killed dozens in London, and Manchester as well as Islamophobic attacks against Mosques and Muslims. Three months later, May criticized Internet companies and social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter for allowing hate speech to remain online for sometimes as long as 36 hours. She called on these companies to develop mechanisms to remove such content at most two hours after publication.
Global momentum to combat the specter of hate speech and youth radicalization has increased considerably since 2015. In 2015, UNESCO published a study on measures to counter online hate speech which goes beyond a protection paradigm and proposes a comprehensive social response including “monitoring online hate speech, creating civil society coalitions, fostering Internet companies’ role in countering online hate speech, promoting media and information literacy and mobilizing news media to counter online hate speech.”
In January 2016, Facebook launched the Online Civil Courage Initiative (OCCI) in cooperation with European initiatives to challenge hate speech and extremism online. Facebook, like the UN, likes to call this “counterspeech”. In May 2016, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube signed up to an EU-sponsored code of conduct that pledged to establish improved ways to take down illegal hate speech and other extremist material.
But combatting hate speech and thwarting youth radicalization faces many challenges. First of all is the question of ethics and freedom of access and expression. Different countries, organizations and institutions define hate speech differently. While there are UN and Geneva conventions that cover issues related to hate speech, there is no definitive article that all governments agree to: Some countries may argue against a definition that is accepted by others.
The global community needs to harness all diplomatic efforts to come up with an accord, treaty, or convention specifically defining hate speech. This is a necessity because of the speed at which pictures, text, and video cross borders.
In the meantime, the Policy Exchange warned that any such effort to slow or end the flow of hate speech would need to be constrained to avoid “undue infringement of civil liberties;” it called for a new approach to combat the threat. Such a new approach would require the establishment of a new universally accepted code of conduct, a new set of definitions about freedom of speech and free access. Since hate speech is a global problem, a global solution is required.
This is absolutely vital—it can’t be stressed enough how this should be a shared responsibility on a global scale—because the dangers of social media radicalization can ultimately unravel the great potential of online engagement and threaten access to information, freedom of expression and on-line privacy as governments bend ethical and human rights considerations under the sheer weight of hate speech's reach. It should be doubly stressed that governments must not turn to silencing criticism by labeling it hate speech—this will breed media cynicism.
For the moment, Germany being the most obvious exception due to its stringent anti-hate speech statutes, most countries have let Internet giants take the helm in online monitoring. Internet companies and social media networks are under extreme pressure to come up with solutions—fast.
Google and YouTube have said they are increasing their use of technology to help automatically identify videos. Twitter suspended 299,649 accounts between 1 January and 30 June last year, with 75% of accounts suspended before their first tweet. Facebook has also stated publicly that it is looking at researching and developing artificial intelligence to routinely identify terrorist content and material online. Facebook’s announcement is a welcome one because it indicates that there are those among the tech giants, and likely with official government prodding, that the global community cannot afford to remain reactionary but must be pro-active in defeating online hate speech.
We need to acknowledge and plan for the fact that as the technology develops to curb this specter so too will radical groups, from the far-right and Neo-Nazi groups to the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, develop, adapt, and circumvent these measures.
The best example of this is perhaps the far-right, neo-Nazi American publication Daily Storm, which is credited with lobbying and organizing the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Daily Storm’s ISP and host revoked the publication’s online registration, prompting it to move to the dark web, which can only be accessed with a special, yet available, browser. This browser does not fall under the scrutiny afforded to the open web.
Et tu, Media?
But as much as governments, such as the UK’s Theresa May and her ministers, pressure tech giants, so too must they shed light on mainstream media’s culpability and responsibility in this challenge. There can be no comfort taken in the technology as a countermeasure; aggressive and effective counter narratives, or counterspeech are a necessity. Mainstream media is both the proponent of hate speech, and a self-styled often confusing opponent.
For too long mainstream media has allowed racism, prejudice, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and other forms prelude hate speech to fester, particularly during times of conflict and under the guise of nationalism or national security. During a recent United Nations Alliance of Civilizations symposium on hate speech and the refugee crisis held in Cairo, delegates agreed on the important role the media can and should play.
When mainstream media allows mechanisms which deconstruct the humanity of the opponent and dehumanize for political and nationalistic purposes it is inadvertently (or purposefully) engaging in hate speech. Now, the media all across the world finds itself in an uncomfortable position of having to combat the very monster that it created. Or, to be more precise, it helped to create.
The media should encourage its own engagement in conflict sensitive reporting and multicultural awareness campaigns, UNESCO suggests. In an article written by Poni Alice JameKlok, UNESCO urges that:
“Journalists should be taught conflict sensitive reporting skills. Multicultural awareness campaigns should emphasize knowledge about and respect for the diversity of cultures and traditions. Journalists must exercise professional standards in this and can write articles, air programs, and even speak with people without taking sides.”
The above quote highlights that media ethics are more important than ever. And in tandem, media ethics education can be done simultaneously with training about media and information literacy.
Until governments do more, and until the media wakes up to the Frankenstein it has unleashed on itself, the greatest success in countering hate speech remains in grassroots or independent spaces, which educate youth from radicalization.
One such successful endeavor is the Arabic-language glossary of hate speech terms and phrases developed by the Ethical Journalism Network in conjunction with the American University in Cairo.