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Yesterday’s briefing on the agreement between the European Commission and Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft and Twitter on improvements to handling hate speech received a strong positive reaction, almost 300 likes and shares, but also a backlash in the comments from people arguing this was impinging on their free speech. That argument mostly comes from bigots who regard it as their god given right to abuse others. In this briefing we look at some of their responses.

Case 1: Stop infringing my rights!

The first two comments are from the same person. This is a person using a fake account in order to ensure he is unaccountable, both legally and socially, for what he says online. His position is for freedom without any accountability or responsibility. He opens with a general assault on OHPI for censorship then makes an effort to justify incitement of hate against Muslims.

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The attack on OHPI for being “thugs” and “censors” is hard to understand here. We are reporting on the news and expressed an opinion on it. This user wishes to shut down our right to do so. He also feels his views should take precedence over executive government, the US Commission, not to mention the decisions of the social media companies whose platforms he is using without paying for them. This sense of “entitlement” and bullying nature is not uncommon, particularly in the US where there is a common misunderstanding about the nature of the First Amendment.

What about the First Amendment?

The First Amendment to the US Constitution does not give people the right to say whatever they like, where ever  they like, free from consequences. What it means is that outside certain categories of exceptions decided by the US Supreme Court, the US Government cannot pass laws related to speech. That means they can neither insist companies like Facebook remove hate speech, nor can they prohibit them from removing it. Hate speech has not been regarded as an exception by the US Supreme Court, but outside the US, specially across Europe, hate speech and racism are regarded as a valid and important exception to freedom of expression. Freedom of speech in all countries, including the US, means freedom within the boundaries established by law. The problem this agreement fixes is that in Europe social media companies have over the last few years provided a platform that lets people circumvent the law… that loophole is increasingly being closed so existing laws can be applied.

Who decides what is prohibited?

As to who decided what is prohibited, there are two answers. The first is that private companies have a right to remove any content they dislike from their social media platforms. In the case of Facebook, this applies both to Facebook as a whole (where Facebook Inc may remove content they don’t want to host) and to the individual administrators of pages within Facebook. An individual has no “rights” to be posting on a particular page, or indeed on Facebook at all, so there is no infringement of rights is comments are removed. The second answer is that some content posted to a platform like Facebook may actually be against the law. Content promoting terrorism, inciting violence etc are unlawful whether you are in the US, Europe or anywhere else. In Europe certain kinds of hate speech or glorification of the Nazis can also attract criminal penalties. The platforms may remove the content, but the real penalty will be a fine or jail term, which is only given after due process by a court.

What about Cartoons of Mohammed?

The class between freedom of expression and hate was, as this poster mentions, demonstrated most vividly over the issue of cartoons of Mohammed. Our thoughts on the issue of cartoons of Mohammed, the line between freedom of speech and hate speech and the antisemitic nature of the attacks in Paris in early 2015, are all clearly outlined in our report “Je Suis Humain: Responsible free speech in the shadow of the Charlie Hebdo murders“.  The bottom line is that cartoons of Mohammed are not themselves hate speech and should be permitted, but if a particular cartoon uses Mohammed to represent Muslims as a group, and incites hate against them, then that particular cartoon should be regarded as hate speech.

Case 2: Get over it

The next comment comes from a different fake account, this one has a wall for of posts against “social justice warriors” and “liberals” as well as posts promoting Donald Trump. Their comments is the classic “sticks and stones” and a claim those has an issue with hate speech are weak.

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This is an expression of privilege in which a person who clearly has no idea of the impact of racism and vilification tells those who are affected by it to just get over it.  It not only lacks empathy, its also ignorant and based on ideas out of the 1950s. Today we know the real cost of racism in terms of its physical and mental health impacts on people, as well as its damaging role on society as a whole.

The damage to society was reflected in the press release from the EU and the technology companies which explained, “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”. Those saying get over it are not only seeking to whitewash the harm to individuals and communities, they are also undermining democracy and freedom.

Case 3: Censorship and the far-right

Another post by another fake profile, this one European, with only 3 friends and a Charlie Hebdo cover featuring Mohammed as its profile picture. J argues that censorship is what dictatorships do. He goes on to demonize the EU for a supposed law disenfranchising national governments who are “right wing”. We’re glad to see someone else reply and point out that “you are not being persecuted because you are not allowed to persecute others”.

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There is however more to this and it is a twisted path to follow. First the post uses examples of fascism restricting political speech and opposition in order to argue against restrictions on expression. This is a flawed argument because what is restricted here is a very narrow category of hate speech, which like restrictions on incitement to violence, libel, or the promotion of terrorism is something that assists rather than undermined democracy – as the agreement itself pointed out. Then the post goes on to attack the EU for restriction on the “right wing”.

After a further counter speech post explaining that “free speech does not protect threats of violence and endorsement of violence against targeted groups” (thank you to the person who explained this as well) the original poster returns and in twisted logic claims that the agreement is “clearly censorship, as it is unnecessary” given existing laws. This is completely ignores the facts, namely that this is not a new law, but an agreement between the EU and the companies to better implement the existing laws. J also explains he is speaking about Poland when he refers to right wing parties.

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In October the Law and Justice party won an absolute majority in the Polish parliament. With control over both houses of Parliament they have passed laws which damage freedom of the press and undermine the independence of the judiciary.  The EU is considering sanctions against Poland for breaches of basic EU standards of democracy. Politico has compiled and excellent article on question of whether democracy is dead in Poland.  What is clear is that the ruling party is seeking to undermine democracy and is not just right of center but far-right.

So here we have a poster who is arguing that in order not to be like the fascists, undemocratic parties must be given every opportunity and support to grow in strength.  You have to wonder if the 15 people who clicked like understood all that, or if they were just duped.

Case 4: Just turn off!

This posted is from the UK, again using a fake account, and this one is filled with anti-Muslim content. He argues that Facebook and Twitter should have no right to remove content. This despite the fact that the content is on their servers, using their technology and in breach of the rules under which they allowed people to use their systems in the first place. It makes you wonder if L has an open house policy in which anyone can walk in and do as they please at his place. The idea that the platforms should have no right to decide how their service is used simply makes no sense at all.

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L also suggests those who don’t like the hate speech should switch off. This is the sort of exclusion which damages democracy. It creates a digital divide which excludes minorities. It seeks to deny access to the benefits of social media to those who are already facing discrimination.  The benefits denied include access to news and information, including the ability to comment and take part in online discussions about social and political issues. They include access to information on social and community events, and a lack of access means exclusion from friends, family and the community. In today’s world internet access is so important it has been declared a human right and a fair part of what that access is used for is social media. The turn it off option may have been valid back in 1995, it isn’t a reasonable response in 2016.

Case 5: No such thing as hate speech

This one, from Queensland Australia is simply ignorant. Hate speech is not about a different view. Hate speech includes incitement to violence where one person encourages other people to attack someone or their property. That’s not a difference of opinion. Hate speech also include speech which incites people to hate a particularly group of people. That again is not an opinion. Hate speech seeks to tell minority groups they are not welcome in society, it seeks to exclude them and undermine their democratic rights. That too is not an opinion.

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This person needs to learn a little about racism and hate speech and the harm it causes. It’s not differences of opinion or simply offending people, it goes far beyond that.

Case 6: People will leave if you censor hate speech

This user from Australia, Queensland we believe, suggests that people will move elsewhere if social media platforms censor hate speech. In one sense he is right, there is a Russian clone of Facebook which a lot of far-right hate groups are moving to. Platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter will be more than happy to see these people go. Or rather, they will be happy to see the troll accounts move to these platforms while the same people most likely continue to use a real account on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

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Simply put, the major platforms are monopolies. They are so many orders of magnitude bigger than other platforms that if you want an audience that’s where you go. As to capitalism, people are not paying for the social media companies, businesses are paying through advertising. Advertisers don’t want their content showing up near hate speech. As along as major brands and personalities keep using Facebook, the public will keep using it as well. Another market based aspects is that the minority who are on Facebook to spread hate and troll are not using their profiles the way Facebook intends. They data collected on these haters and trolls is useless, and they discourage greater use by others who would be using the platform as intended. Reducing hate speech is good for business in a free market as it means more regular users will spend more time on Facebook and be less likely to take “time out” after being abused. Is the use by these regular people which generates revenue for Facebook, not the time spent on the platform by trolls.

Summary

The arguments against hate speech tend to be put forward by trolls using fake accounts. Although framing their arguments are a freedom of speech issue, scratch the surface and what we are seeing is a push from people wanting to anonymously use social media to spread hate with out consequences. The removal of these fake accounts will reduce abuse on social media and create a better community in which people are willing to spend more time. This increases the value of the social media companies, supports democratic participation and enables greater freedom of speech.

The argument against the agreement appears to be mostly that of the anonymous online bullies wanting their “fun” not to end. There are also those who want to use social media to push extremist agendas and justify the incitement of violent extremism. Both groups harm society and should not be given the power of social media to advance their agendas.

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