Europe acknowledges online hate speech as a serious threat


The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has just released its annual report.

The Annual Report always starts by discussing the main trends in the fields of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance in Europe. The first finding in its latest annual report is on “online hate”, and here is what it says:

“The Internet has become an important vehicle for promoting racism and intolerance. Hate speech through social media is rapidly increasing and has the potential to reach a much larger audience than extremist print media were able to reach previously. In this context, ECRI continues to recommend that member States sign and ratify the Council of Europe’s Additional Protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime, concerning the criminalisation of acts of a racist and xenophobic nature committed through computer systems.”

OHPI was set up because we foresaw how the Internet was being used to spread hate speech, and how social media had given bigots and hate groups a megaphone to spread their vile propaganda. We take no pleasure in seeing our warnings confirmed by the Council of Europe, the body under which ECRI operates. But at least, it means that countries around the world are waking up to the serious challenge that online hate speech present to our social fabric. We also whole heartedly endorse the call for states to sign and ratify the Council of Europe’s Additional Protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime. Australia is a non-member signatory to the main treaty and we continue to urge the Australian Government to also sign the Additional Protocol.

The report also confirms a dramatic rise in antisemitism, Islamophobia, transphobia and homophobia, and hate against asylum seekers and refugees.

On antisemitism, the report highlights a worrying rise in Holocaust denial and trivialisation of the Holocaust in some European countries. OHPI takes a very strong stand against Holocaust denial, and in fact, our online hate reporting tool has a specific sub-category to report Holocaust denial within the category of online antisemitism. A briefing we did in January discussed specifically how social media is used to promote Holocaust denial. Sadly, the response to our briefing on Facebook was so antisemitic, that we had to publish a follow-up briefing in response. One of our recent briefings also highlighted the role of YouTube as a tool for the promotion of Holocaust denial. We are currently discussing this problem with YouTube.

The report notes greater levels of antisemitism among Muslim youths, particularly during the Gaza conflict last year. The report states there is a “need to distinguish between criticism of the actions of Israel – to the extent that the latter is held to the same standards as any other state – and the public expression of racism and hatred of Jewish people in general”. OHPI published several briefings during the Gaza conflict highlighting how this trend could be observed in social media discourse. They can be viewed here, here and here.

Commenting on Islamophobia, the report states that “the rise of extremist and violent Islamist movements is often manipulated to portray Muslims in general as unable and unwilling to integrate into European societies and therefore as a security threat”. In fact, portraying “Muslims as a security threat” is a social media trend that has been building for a few years on the Internet. OHPI’s 2013 report “Islamophobia on the Internet” detailed the many ways in which Muslims are subjected to generalised stereotyped hatred on the Internet on the basis of what a few extremist groups do. The trend has only worsened over the last year with the rise of Daesh (ISIS) in the Middle East.

OHPI welcomes the report’s forthright recommendation to criminalise “acts of a racist and xenophobic nature committed through computer systems”. In Australia the Commonwealth Criminal Code makes the use of the internet “to menace, harass or cause offence” a criminal offence throughout Australia (s 474.17). This can include activities which “menace, harass or cause offence” in a manner which is racist or xenophobic. The existing law needs to be used more by police and prosecutors.

In Australia racial vilification is not itself a criminal offence, but it is unlawful. We have previously called for S 18C, which makes it unlawful, to be expanded to also cover religious vilification. We have specifically called for the formulation of words in the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (2001) to be used. This prohibits vilification “on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons”.

New legislation needs to be drafted carefully and take proper account of the role and responsibility of the posters, the administrators, and the social media platforms in posting, publishing and hosting online hate.

To read all publications by OHPI on racism, go here

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