Using online technology to beat hate

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Germany's PEGIDA movement has frequently been criticised for its use of social media to spread Islamophobic and anti-immigrant ideologies. [LEGIDA/Facebook]

Hate is brewing in society, and its expression through online speech is real and corrosive. Internet companies and NGOs are now working with the EU to fight back, writes Robin Sclafani.

Robin Sclafani is director of the CEJI-A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe.

We all know people who are the victims of hate crimes and hate speech. They are people of colour. Perhaps from another country or ethnicity. Or with a distinctive religion. Maybe they are disabled people, or people who are gay or lesbian. Or maybe they are just the wrong gender. Whoever they are, they are blameless people attacked for just being different.

It is easy to assume that as time goes by we become smarter, kinder, and more decent to one another, but evidence around us today suggests otherwise. Hate is still a powerful political force, and sometimes even a winning one. This year’s American elections showed how poisonous politics can become, yet recent campaigns in Europe have been characterised by just as much bile and rage. Nor does the ugly political discourse of these votes end on polling day, as hate crimes often spike in the weeks afterwards, tearing at the fabric of our communities.

Hate speech is easier than ever today, thanks in part to technologies that can spread anonymous, unverifiable smears and abuse around in an instant. So even if our laws and codes address racism, sexism and bigotry in advertising, traditional media, or political discourse, it is much harder to patrol the online world. This is where the rumours, insults and lies can spread with abandon. It is where fake news festers and is taken as real. It is where trolls flood message boards and news feeds. And it is where pictures are routinely doctored to feature swastikas, mushroom clouds, monkeys and other offensive imagery.

This is not just about words. There is a correlation between hateful discourse, which circulates quickly online, and hate crime, which includes harassment, vandalism and violence. Social media is one of the tools that terrorist groups use to radicalise young people and spread their destructive ideology. As the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels remind us, some of these ideas lead to murder.

But what can be done to combat hate speech?

Internet companies are now working with the EU on fighting hate speech. Earlier this year, the EU launched an online code of conduct aimed at fighting racism and xenophobia. Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft have all been involved, working to take quick action as soon as a valid notification is received. And since the US elections, social media companies have gone even further to improve their anti-hate speech activities, working with activist groups and NGOs to fight back against racist trolls and violent extremist rhetoric on the Internet.

While online abuse is new, hate speech is old. It greets us frequently at CEJI-A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe, and it has been a constant in the lives of other outreach groups that aim to build bridges. We believe that even in the face of attacks, we still need to work closely with individuals and organisations of all religions, cultures and backgrounds to fight prejudice and discrimination, through training and education, dialogue initiatives and advocacy.

One of our initiatives is Facing Facts, which we launched in 2011, aimed at tackling hate crime in Europe in all its forms. We work with a broad range of partners, from police to universities to NGOs tackling hate crime targeting nationality, ethnicity, religion, the LGBTQ community, the Roma, and other victims of hate crime and hate speech.

The result is a new e-learning platform for civil society organisations, police, prosecutors and policy makers on hate crime and hate speech. The platform, called Facing Facts Online, launched its first course on hate crime monitoring on 5 December at Google’s Brussels office with remarks by European Commission’s Coordinator on anti-Semitism Katharina von Schnurbein.

Funded by the European Commission, Open Society Foundations, Google, Facebook and Twitter, and implemented by a large partnership of civil society and law enforcement organisations, this initiative is an example of how governments, civil society and private companies can cooperate to address a pressing social problem. Another course on hate speech and counter-speech for civil society organisations is due to launch next spring.

Everyone involved in these projects wants to keep an open Internet, free and decent. No one wants censorship. But hate is brewing in society, and its expression through online speech is real and corrosive. This is our way of doing something about it.