When the Fight Against Hate Speech Mandates the Surrender of Free Speech

2016-06-02_Hate_Speech.jpgFacebook recently found itself in hot water over claims of bias and unfair content censoring of conservative political perspectives. Now, Facebook – along with Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft – are taking even more drastic steps to censor material that they deem hateful.

All four social media firms have signed a European Union pledge “to combat online hate speech,” purportedly to prevent terrorist groups from enticing or spreading violence through the use of social media.

Under the terms of a code of conduct, the firms have committed to 'quickly and efficiently' tackle illegal hate speech directed against anyone over issues of race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin.

Among the measures agreed with the EU's executive arm, the firms have said they will establish internal procedures and staff training to guarantee that a majority of illegal content is assessed and, where necessary, removed within 24 hours.

The US firms insisted that following the EU rules would not compromise freedom of speech.

…'The internet is a place for free speech, not hate speech,' said Vera Jourova, the EU commissioner responsible for justice, consumers and gender equality.

It’s great that Facebook and others want to cut down on violence and hostility online, particularly when it comes to terrorist organisations. However, the most pertinent question left unanswered in all this is: who will be deciding what exactly qualifies as “hate speech”? Will a commitment to a 24-hour removal of “hate speech” lend itself to an impulsive and unthinking removal of posts, with no consideration being given to what and what does not constitute hate speech?

The concept of “hate speech” is itself highly subjective depending on the personal feelings of those monitoring online exchanges. Those advocating for the redefinition of marriage, for example, regularly accuse anyone who supports marriage as the union of one man and one woman of being “hateful”. In fact, “hate” has become a strategic buzzword within the LGBTI community as a means of immediately silencing dissenters.

Take a look at Facebook’s own set of “community standards” regarding hate speech, which are generic enough to leave any interpretation up to the moderator:

Facebook removes hate speech, which includes content that directly attacks people based on their: 

  • race,
  • ethnicity,
  • national origin,
  • religious affiliation,
  • sexual orientation,
  • sex, gender or gender identity, or
  • serious disabilities or diseases.

Organisations and people dedicated to promoting hatred against these protected groups are not allowed a presence on Facebook. As with all of our standards, we rely on our community to report this content to us. 

So Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft: tell us who gets to decide which forms of speech are acceptable and which are not. Which viewpoints will be deemed non-incendiary? How far does the definition of “hate speech” extend? These are valid questions that deserve answers, because theoretically, criticism of the EU pledge itself could even be marked as “hate speech”.

The EU and those involved claim that their pledge will have no effect on freedom of speech, but when messages are constantly monitored, when opinions are subject to approval, and when unelected, appointed groups are given supreme power to remove any and all forms of expression they deem unacceptable, the “fight” against online hate speech mandates the surrender of free speech.

Is this the type of society we want for our children – where one can only speak out if he or she agrees with those in power?

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