Countering hate speech on social media

Freedom of expression vs. hate speech

Freedom of expression is a fundamental civil and political right, which is inextricably linked to freedom of opinion, but also refers to the right to information. This right is guaranteed by international documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, Повелбата на основните права на ЕУ, но и со Уставот (Article 16 of the Constitution of the Republic of North Macedonia).

Hate speech is a complex communicative and social phenomenon for which there is no one-size-fits-all definition. Samuel Walker defines defines it as “any form of expression deemed offensive to any racial, religious, ethnic or national group”, while Sandra Coliver describes it as “speech that incites violence, hostility and discrimination”. Hence, hate speech is a violation of the freedom of expression that incites intolerance, discrimination and violence against certain groups.

The Covid-19-related hate speech was manifested by stereotyping, stigmatization, and the use of misogynist, racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic language. These phenomena were “intensified” by creating and spreading disinformation as to the origin and spread of the virus.

In May 2020, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Antonio Gutierrez, in his video message warned that: “Covid-19 does not care who we are, where we live, what we believe or about any other distinction. We need every ounce of solidarity to tackle it together. Yet the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering”. He called on political leaders, educational institutions, the media, and especially the social media companies, to get involved in the fight against hate speech.

Yet, in some cases it was them that spread hate speech. For example, now former US President Donald Trump called the corona virus “the Chinese virus”, prompting a trend of hate speech against the Chinese and Asians on social media through hashtags such as #Wuhanvirus and #chinaliedpeopledied.

This trend is evidenced by the fact that the organization “Light” has seen a 900% increase in hate speech against the Chinese people in Britain since the beginning of the pandemic.

Hate speech against Muslims has also been reported in the UK as a result of disinformation that they are violating quarantine rules and spreading the virus. Former journalist Katie Hopkins and right-wing activist Tommy Robinson are among the celebrities who have spread these hate-mongering allegations on social media.

Hate speech on social media in Macedonia during the pandemic

Unfortunately, Macedonia is no exception when it comes to the increased spread of hate speech during the pandemic. In April 2020, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights noted a 100 percent increase in hate speech compared to the same period in 2019. Most of the cases referred to the situation with the Covid-19 pandemic, the state of emergency and the increased quarantine during the state of emergency, and what is interesting is that hate speech increased before the Christian holiday of Easter and the beginning of the Ramadan fast, i.e. during the longest quarantine period.

This can be confirmed by the display of hate speech reports on the website in the period from April to June 2020, where it can be seen that most reports are about hate speech based on ethnicity and religion. Most of them associate members of a certain ethnic group and religion with spreading the corona virus and disrespecting curfew.

This kind of hate speech can also be linked to media coverage. In the research of the Macedonian Institute for Media on the attitudes of the citizens about the media coverage during the pandemic, the majority of the respondents (39.7%) stressed that the fake, unconfirmed misinformation and disinformation was what bothered them in the journalistic reporting during the pandemic with the Covid-19, while 13.5% said that they were mostly bothered by the discrimination against certain groups in society and hate speech. When asked about the topics in which they noticed misinformation and disinformation in the media, 8.8% of Macedonians and 8.7% of Albanians underlined the religious celebrations for Eid al-Fitr and Easter.

How can the media and social media networks help in the fight against online hate speech?

In his speech in 2020, Guy Berger, the UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, said that journalists, not technology, are key to fighting hate speech online. He said that the media should emphasize the risks of hate speech, while avoiding the trap of normalizing and inciting hatred with their own reporting.

Media reporting must be accurate and impartial, based on verified facts. It must avoid stereotyping and generalization, as well as unnecessary reference to factors such as race, ethnicity, nationality or religion. It is important to give a voice to the marginalized groups on topics that do not refer only to them. Media reporting should help educate the public about the dangers of disinformation and hate speech, but also encourage tolerance and inclusion.

In the fight against online hate speech, social media networks should also be proactive. First, they need to adopt clear and precise hate speech policies that are based on the standards of international law. At the same time, when reporting, they must include an evaluation of the social and political context, the intention of the creator of the content, the content itself and the likelihood of causing harm. Furthermore, they need to ensure content curation, i.e. selection and organization of relevant content for certain topics that will allow users easy access to verified information. It is also necessary to improve content checking mechanisms in all languages, which will enable easier detection of disinformation, hate speech and other harmful content. Media and social media networks need to work on education and development of the user digital skills so that they would be able to recognize and report such content.

Media literacy plays a key role in combating disinformation, hate speech, stereotypes, prejudices and media manipulations. That is why the cooperation between social media networks, the media, educational institutions and non-governmental organizations in the formal and informal educational processes is important. Developing skills for critical thinking, analysis and evaluation of media content, but also educating about the responsible use of digital media will enable the audience to detect disinformation, hate content, stereotypes and prejudices, and at the same time know how to react and where to report them. In this way, the audience will become a content controller and will help social media networks in the fight against hate speech.

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