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Countering hate speech on social media

Published Jul 17, 2012 08:21am


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Social media has proven itself to be the greatest bastion of free speech on the Internet. Governments have usually refrained to interfere in this domain and until now the arena is marked with a great sense of openness. People express their political and social views publicly and in a rather frank manner. But this fondness for freedom of expression has lead to emergence of a disturbing trend over the years as the line between freedom of speech and hate speech has become blurred. Users online are posting, uploading photos and videos and commenting without considering how it vilifies other groups or persons.

Hate speech is communication that denigrates a particular person or a group on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or other characteristic. It can be in the form of any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display and usually marks incitement, violence or prejudice against an individual or a group. The Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe issued in 1997 covers the internationally accepted definition of the term. Accordingly, “the term “hate speech” shall be understood as covering all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance.” As a result it generates stigmas, stereotypes, prejudices and discriminatory practices against those who are constructed as being different.

International Law and national legal frameworks both prohibit such speech. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law. The United Nations, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), Article 4 also provides for states to declare an offence punishable by law "all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another color or ethnic origin”.

The laws of individual countries most often regulate Internet content. Some countries have imposed codes of conduct on Internet service providers (ISPs), and some service providers have willingly agreed to create their own. Traditionally, content on the Internet was provided by the person or group that created a website, and user contribution was limited. Social media is more dynamic as users provide most of the content and therefore they share its responsibility along with the service provider or the host of the website.

Most countries have sufficient laws to prohibit hate speech on the Internet and social media but governments rarely intervene except for matters that concern them politically. Hate speech, especially racism on the social media is an often ignored phenomenon. However, the problem is not the law but its implementation.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are open and public forums where users can shoot and upload videos; freely express their views on politics, race, religion and sexuality. They can also create pages and groups to join for or against a cause. Hate speech is a very distinguished feature amongst many of these forums. Anyone can create a group that opens up hate against certain religions, sexual preferences, disabilities and racial/ethnic groups. The standards set by these sites and their response to hate speech make for some interesting observations. Content regulation standards are often vague and vary. It is usually outsourced to low-paid employees of third companies. Facebook and Twitter have different approaches to content regulation. Twitter, self-described as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” has largely resisted any restrictions on content by either governments or citizen groups. In 2010 the Government of Pakistan asked both social media websites Facebook and Twitter to take down references to a page that asked the users to celebrate a day by drawing caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. But micro-blogging site twitter refused to entertain any such request that resulted in its ban in the country. Facebook also initially refused to do so but then complied with the request after the government banned it. Facebook has also taken down anti-semitic content. Nevertheless, the decisions to take down content are made usually after the intervention at the highest level or only when the companies itself has a lot at stake. Users still contribute to hate speech every day and even take it for granted while companies pay little attention to it.

Content with marks of hate speech will always exist and social media has made it more interactive which augments chances of direct conflict. There is need to review hate speech legislation. It should be a living, dynamic document that leaves room for refinement and modification over time. The law should also have specific definitions in place for social media, such as regulating abusive and threatening language or if that language is used to stir hatred against a specific group of people. Nevertheless, this approach will have its limitations because of the problems with its implementation. The law may not always be a panacea to hate, neither do I advocate government censorship. In fact it's very hard to create a legal prohibition or prescription against the free flow of information on social media.

There is need to deal with hate speech on social media in other, more creative ways. The best antidote to hate speech is more speech. Public awareness of hate speech on social media can do a lot to help sensitise users, Internet companies and governments. We may perhaps be more vigilant by removing or reporting news portals, readers’ comments, groups and messages to diffuse hate speech. There is need to popularise and circulate reports and materials related to hate speech on the Internet. Social media has taken our lives from private to a more public sphere. Its influence in our lives grow day by day and it has changed the ways we communicate and interact with each other in a society. This new communication paradigm must be embedded with tolerance and acceptance.


The author is currently pursuing a masters degree in International Law and Justice at the Fordham University School of Law. He researches and write about legal issues that relate to human rights and freedom of expression.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (11) Closed

Zeeshan, Peshawar Jul 18, 2012 01:07pm
Not only on social media but due to the "creative efforts" of some private TV channels to disgrace our leaders has seriously damaged the mindset of our nation. Now we are unable to respect our political, military, religious, judiciary, sports and all national leaders and administrators. The social media is the reflection of that mentality. It is very disappointing to see the public and specially the educated ones watching such programs and "selected" news reports to get entertained and ignore the national responsibility to maintain a regard and respect for our dignified institutions and influential persons. In such a scenario I feel if an angel will come from the sky to lead us will find itself very uncomfortable due to the criticism which it will receive by the “highly intelligent” community.
AReluctantPakistani Jul 17, 2012 11:14am
Forget hate speech on social media, the much more incendiary hate speech in the local mosque is what really should be tackled and highlighted in such articles!
El Cid Jul 17, 2012 06:18pm
"...electronic media as this one,the only allow what they see fit. I don't encourage peed off they can't help but be hateful." Dawn provides people of your persuasion ample opportunity and space to down load your abuse and hate, as people of your ilk so very often do, on every international online media they can group on. Seems like a concerted organized effort to spread disinformation about Islam, Muslims and Pakistan by lying,deceit, and propaganda—yet act as if 'butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth'. Should Dawn allow as much 'free speech' to others as it does to you and your agenda you wouldn't have a leg to stand and your falsehoods—lies and innuendo with which you abuse Dawn's generosity—loading its pages with garbage, rubbish, filth, with the cunning that is your forte.
Gerry D'Cunha Jul 17, 2012 11:05am
My advice to Muslims in Pakistan, in the west and else where in the muslim world : stop hating/enemity to other faith and religion and you will join 'peace-loving club' with other religious group. I say this because most Islamic channels are fanning hatred and enemity to its viewers where other faith and religions are concern.
RDW Jul 17, 2012 01:10pm
Frightening to see how all-inclusive the definitions of "hate speech" are. It's even more frightening to see that self-styled liberal western democracies buy in to imposing such subjective censorship.
desi Jul 17, 2012 04:00pm
Regardless,if the media can enjoy the freedom or freedom of speach,so can the public.As a citizen,you have complete right to vent your displeasure.Yet the electronic media as this one,the only allow what they see fit.I don't encourage hatred,but then again,sometimes the public is so peed off that they can't help but to be hateful.Either way,this is where you comment and no one has the right to decide what they will or will not publish.You talk about democracy,how about freedom of speech.Double standards suck.
RAJIV Jul 18, 2012 02:21pm
How about examining religious texts for hate speech and discarding those that preach disdain for other races, religions, forms of worship or "castes"? Everybody knows what I am talking about, but spelling it out would probably earn that brave fool a lynching or a beheading .
Shahzad Salam Kasi Jul 18, 2012 06:54am
Agreed. Also, those so called Imam's should be dealt according to the law.
nyla Jul 19, 2012 09:41am
After reading every ones comments i would simply say that to every medium , be it social media or any thing that one uses , its totally up to that individual that how they will perceive it, what message is being delivered and what is taken is totally on the takers disposal. Like its said its easier to blame then to amend ones mistake. We should try not to point fingers at , instead try and work together to get things right. be it social media or any other , as I have seen that there have been very delicate and debatable topics which the pinchers are trying to put up on Facebook or twitters, but there are also people who learn to ignore, rather than being an emotional fool. Like for example there have been various such events related to jobs, where there is immense amount of biasness is shown towards, minority or people without references , which provokes further hate and wrong doings, these people are not openly aware that even through social media or online sites there are people who are offering jobs and that too good ones. Nonetheless
@douglasbass Jul 20, 2012 09:23pm
There are two approaches to speech that is found offensive by someone. The first approach is to enact a law or treaty banning certain kinds of speech. The bad part about this is that if one succeeds in getting a certain kind of speech they don't like banned today, perhaps some speech they find benign or even beneficial will be banned tomorrow, as a result of the offense of someone else. The second approach, which I prefer, is to conquer bad speech with good speech, in the light of day, where good ideas defeat bad ideas. This is the spirit of Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I not only do not assert the right to not be offended, but I reject the assertion by anyone else of the right to not be offended.
NASAH (USA) Jul 27, 2012 03:48pm
Freedom of speech is like the freedom to travel on the roads with exceptions -- there must not be freedom of hate speech and bigotry against another community -- SAME way there is no freedom to run the red light -- or there is no freedom to travel in a one way lane against the oncoming traffic -- for the traveler's own safety -- and for the SAFETY of the OTHERS.