Penalties, but also media literacy against hate speech

Why do people spread hate speech?

Hate speech is more than just harsh words. It encourages, propagates or justifies intolerance and violence against individuals or groups of people on ethnic, religious or gender grounds. For some, it can be humiliating; it can affect their self-esteem and lead to depression, isolation, anger and antisocial behaviour. Hate speech is often based on stereotypes and negatively affects the ability to solve the root causes of social problems.

In the online sphere, hate speech and fake news are intercepted when disinformation and provocations are spread through social networks with the intention of causing harm. Some media outlets deliberately do not use their administration privileges to manage comments under the content they post on their social networks and thus allow users to further share disinformation and hatred.

Hate speech can reflect the true beliefs of an individual that are considered distasteful to a particular group of people. Such individuals may also be deliberately engaged to provoke other people and are called “trolls”. They often come from environments where fake news is common. An analysis by the Macedonian Institute for Media (MIM) states that “public figures publish content containing hate speech through their profiles on social networks or websites, especially on the basis of political affiliation.”

Hate speech can also be the result of simple ignorance of the relevant facts and the inability to distinguish that what is said is offensive and harmful. People may not be aware that they use hate speech when they use, for example, religious stereotypes, without any personal knowledge of the beliefs of that religious group, in situation when they are feeling angry. The analysis of MIM writes that “in the period from February to May 2020, there was an increase in hate speech on ethnic grounds before the Christian holiday of Easter and before the beginning of the Ramadan fasting, when, in this period, religious leaders had opposite views and recommendations from the recommendations of the Government for compliance with the measures for preventing the spread of Covid-19. The drastic increase in newly infected people with Covid-19 has also created hate speech based on the health situation, combined with the ethnic affiliation.”

However, not all negative speech is hate speech. Of course, you can criticize public officials or disagree with a policy, ethnic group, or religious doctrine, but criticism must be based on what is said or done, not on someone’s identity.

Hate speech is a crime

The United Nations has prepared a number of documents against hate speech and recommendations that the states should follow. As early as 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulated that “any appeal to national, racial or religious hatred that incites discrimination, hostility or violence must be prohibited by law”. At European level, the Council of Europe opposes hate speech with legislative recommendations and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. In line with their recommendations, the majority of European authorities consider hate speech a crime. This allows for hate crime to be punished under conditions, manner and assessment of the courts, but the judiciary cannot solve all cases of hate speech on the Internet. On the other hand, there are dangers and risks that trials will give even greater visibility to hate speech, and that the authorities will label legitimate dissent as “hate speech” and restrict freedom of expression. That is why the recommendations of the UN and the Council of Europe are for the states to criminalize “only serious and extreme forms of hate speech”, i.e. those who actively incite violence and discrimination against a particular person or group. In all other cases, states should seek alternative means of preventing or combating hate speech.

How does hate speech spread online?

Online hate speech is characterized by the anonymity of the authors, the permanence of the content and the possibility of spreading across different platforms and across state borders. Online portals, blogs, search engines and social networks are not just content intermediaries. They should adhere to the same human rights norms and standards that apply offline and act more decisively and expeditiously against the spread of hate speech. Thus, in May 2016, the European Commission, on the one hand, and Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft, on the other, adopted a code of conduct to prevent illegal hate speech. Although the measures are not legally binding, these companies have committed themselves to removing illegal hate content within 24 hours of reporting.

However, they are not always able to do so because the content may not be reported, the content moderators may not have reached it or it may not be part of the content they are banning, and sometimes suspicious content is part of private group discussions. Although popular social networks are often criticized, we should bear in mind that many young people move to new online gaming spaces (live), to share images and other content generated by users and influencers, as well as various forums that cannot be constantly moderated.

Media literacy to combat hate speech

Although the legal basis and instruments are necessary against hate speech on the Internet, prevention must include media literacy, especially of young people. The skills of critical thinking and ethical use of digital platforms are starting points in media literacy and are crucial in combating online hate speech. These skills will increase the ability of young people to recognize hate content, expose assumptions, biases and prejudices and take action against them. Young people are not only users but also creators of online content, and media literacy includes the skills to master technology and communicate effectively through a variety of digital formats (videos, infographics, vlogs, memes, etc.).

Young people, more than any previous generation, are growing up with digital technology, and social media is a central place for their social, political and cultural cognition and debate. In Macedonia, according to the mapping of media literacy levels from 2019, as many as 94.6% of respondents aged 16 to 29 said that they go online every day via their mobile phone. But, this does not mean that they do not need to actively learn the skills they need to be critical users of information and competent citizens on the Internet. The activities that this age group most often does online are communicating through social networks (96.1%) and chatting or texting through various interpersonal communication applications such as Viber, Messenger, WhatsApp, etc. (91.9%). Only 16.1% of young people aged 16 to 29 post or share content they have created, 14.6% maintain a website or blog, and a negligible 6.4% said they participate in debates and forums on societal or political issues. According to this, the advanced use of the Internet is significantly less prevalent, which may be due to the lack of appropriate skills, states the research.

Among the negative content that the young respondents recognized on the social networks were the constructed and false information that was intentionally spread for political and other purposes (38.9%), as well as insults, humiliation and threats on political grounds (37.4%), on ethnic or religious grounds ( 33.1%) and based on sexual orientation or gender identity (29.1%). When they noticed content on social networks that could upset, insult, harm someone or otherwise negatively affect people, most of these respondents did not react at all, i.e. ignored the content (63.9%). Far fewer respondents blocked the person who shared such content or wrote such a comment (17.6%), shared the problematic content along with their own critical comment about it (17. 2%) or stopped following the person who shared such content or comment (16.1%). An insignificant number (4.3%) reacted regarding the content to the social network provider, and only 1 percent of respondents answered that they reacted to the Ministry of Interior, Directorate for Personal Data Protection or other competent institution, according to the survey.

Hence, the development of media literacy in formal and non-formal education is a long-term sustainable solution against hate speech. In order to promote media and awareness against misconceptions, prejudices and hate crimes, the Agency for Media and Audiovisual Media Services, as the competent body and regulator, and the Council of Media Ethics, as a self-regulatory body, which oversee hate speech in the media, the Ombudsman, who should pay special attention to protection against discrimination, as well as the Ministry of Interior, which has a special Sector for Computer Crime and Digital Forensics should be included in the educational practices.

Instead of trying to focus only on preventing young people from accessing hate speech content, they should be trained in critical thinking and media literacy skills to expose such content, to act appropriately when confronted with hate, offensive or illegal content and make a positive contribution to the social media. This will equip young people with the skills they need to thrive as proactive and powerful citizens.

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