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The Online Hate Prevention Institute welcomes the news that the European Union has just reach agreement on a code of conduct to tackle hate speech with the largest social media platforms providers: Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube and Twitter.

Under the agreement the platforms will “quickly and efficiently” tackle illegal hate speech relating to race, color, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin. A press release states that the European Commission and the companies, “recognise that the spread of illegal hate speech online not only negatively affects the groups or individuals that it targets, it also negatively impacts those who speak out for freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination in our open societies and has a chilling effect on the democratic discourse on online platforms.” This reframes the prevention of hate speech as something that promotes free speech rather than something which undermines it.

The press release also states:

While the effective application of provisions criminalising hate speech is dependent on a robust system of enforcement of criminal law sanctions against the individual perpetrators of hate speech, this work must be complemented with actions geared at ensuring that illegal hate speech online is expeditiously reviewed by online intermediaries and social media platforms, upon receipt of a valid notification, in an appropriate time-frame.”

This appears to be a concession by the EU not to pursue criminal sanctions against senior managers of the companies as almost happened in Germany last year, and in return a concession by the companies that they acknowledge a responsibility to act to remove dangerous content in reasonable time. Up until now the usual argument from the companies has been to blame it all on the users and claim they have no obligations or responsibility.

As the agreement is with the European Union, the definition of what constitutes illegal hate speech will be based on European law as implemented in the various states in Europe. At this point it is unclear to us whether the content will be blocked in Europe, or removed altogether.

We were first updated on these negotiations at a meeting in Romania last week. At the meeting Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission’s Coordinator on combatting antisemitism, demonstrated the European Union’s deep awareness of the issues involved. A number of the problems OHPI have been raising for years were on the EU’s agenda. The platform providers’ efforts to shift the cost of hate speech monitoring and removal to charities or the tax payer was high on the list. We have argued for years that hate speech is a form of pollution and as such keeping the platforms clean is part of the cost of doing business and must be paid for by the platform providers. The European Commission has now made similar arguments urging the platforms to put more money into grants for charities which tackle online hate.

Katharina von Schnurbeinat IHRA

Katharina von Schnurbein addresses Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

We’ve also noted the over reliance on counter speech as the only solution to hate speech – an issue we raised in last week’s meeting. Counter speech certainly has its place, but it is not the whole solution and often an inappropriate suggestion when an immediate response is needed. Take for example the incitement to violence and hate recorded by the Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the Holocaust in Romania, counter speech is simply not the right response to the immediate threats they are recording on a daily basis. Counter speech can help reduce the problem in the long term, but when the incitement is there in front of you, the first response must be to remove it “quickly and efficiently” as stated in the new agreement between the European Union and the platform providers. The EU gets that Counter Speech is only one part of the solution and on its own is insufficient.

Responding to the agreement Karen White, Twitter’s European head of public policy said, “We remain committed to letting the Tweets flow, however, there is a clear distinction between freedom of expression and conduct that incites violence and hate.” This is a major shift in policy for Twitter which as recently as February made it clear to OHPI that their just announced trust and safety council was to be entirely focused on counter speech and not on the removal of content inciting hate. We hope Twitter’s support of this agreement signals a change of policy and a change to the work of the trust and safety council. If the approach is widened beyond counter speech alone we’d welcome an invitation to join it.

Also responding was Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, who urged users to continue to report hate speech using Facebook’s inbuilt reporting function. She highlighted how “teams around the world review these reports around the clock and take swift action”. Facebook is certainly the faster in responding to reports, but unfortunately as regular Facebook user’s know, that first response is almost always a rejection stating that the reported content does not violate Facebook’s Community Standards. This occurs even in cases which are clearly legitimate reports of incitement to hate and sometimes violence. We again urge Facebook to change the message and instead saying the report has been reviewed as non-critical and will be further reviewed within a few days. This is in reality what is happening with many item removed after a report is later reviewed. The negative message to the reporting user, that Facebook doesn’t care, does no one any good.

OHPI strongly supports Facebook’s urging for users to use the inbuilt reporting tools. We also recognize that most of the time the response, while fast, is not accurate. We therefore also urge the public to report the contents, a second time, to our FightAgainstHate.com online tool. This allows us to collect an independent record of what has been reported to the platforms and to use it to access how quickly and how accurately they respond. The tool is a world first and has been described as innovative by UNESCO and endorsed by the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism.

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Our results so far indicate there is much room for improvement with 80% of antisemitic content, across Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, remaining online after 10 months as reflecting in our world leading report “Measuring the Hate: The State of Antisemitism in Social Media“. Our research into anti-Muslim hate, which we are currently raising funds to complete and publish, is focused on Facebook alone and shows an even lower removal rate. Preliminary data can be seen in our interim report. Data from both reports were presented at a UNAOC Conference at the UN in New York last December ahead of their publication.

OHPI’s CEO, Dr Andre Oboler, stated, “The European Union agreement with the platform providers is an excellent and welcome start. For it to be truly meaningful we need to measure the results and track the improvements of the platforms in both speed and in accuracy. Accuracy means not rejecting or delaying positive action on complaints regarding legitimate cases of hate speech, but likewise, not removing content which has been inaccurately or maliciously flagged as hate speech. There is plenty of room for improvement and while it won’t happen overnight, thanks to the European Union’s leadership we hope things will now start to change.”

OHPI has led the way in tackling hate speech in social media over the last four years and we’re pleased to be in discussions with a number of European and international bodies about future cooperation to take this work forward. The are particularly worth mentioning:

  • At last week’s meetings we heard of the renewal by the Council of Europe of funding for the No Hate Speech Movement. We’ve worked online with this youth led campaign in various countries over the last few years and look forward to working with them again in the years ahead. We congratulate the Council of Europe on creating this initiative which has delivered so much and renewing its funding.
  • We met with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). They too are taking a greater look at hate speech online. They have amazing projects planned both with civil society and with youth. We have reported our work to them over the last few years and been cited in their reports and we look forward to working more closely with them going forward.
  • We’re particularly pleased that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) approved a proposal we suggested for a report supporting the Working Definition of Holocaust Denial. The report will provide social media examples on a range of different types of Holocaust denial discussed in the IHRA definition. We hope it will prove a valuable international tool for explaining Holocaust denial to stakeholders who need to respond to it both in government agencies and within social media companies.

Online hate has been rapidly rising and now, at least in Europe, so are the efforts to tackle this problem. Here in Australia we have done some of the pioneering work in the field and if the funds can be raised we can continue to play a leading role in shaping the future of a safer online world. We look to Federal and State Governments to note the developments in Europe and urge them to invest in supporting our work here in Australia that promotes harmony, resilience and innovative approaches to today’s and tomorrows challenges. To Europe our message is well done, now let’s start measuring the hate and pushing for improvements not only in speed but in accuracy. At OHPI we have the tools and know-how to make that happen.

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