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Online hate speech undermines society

International Day of Education 2024 is dedicated to the role of education in countering hate speech. Assistant Professor Michael Klos says, 'When people are constantly derided online and that goes unpunished, they may start to withdraw from public discourse.'

Today is International Education Day – a day founded by the United Nations. UNESCO, the UN organisation for Education, Science and Culture, says the following about this year's theme: 'Education and teachers play a crucial role in countering hate speech, a phenomenon which has snowballed in recent years with the use of social media damaging the fabric of our societies.'

That’s quite a bold statement, Michael. Is the situation that serious?

'It may be a bold statement, but there’s a grain of truth in it. Certain types of behaviour are punishable because certain interests are worth protecting. Take defamation and libel, for example – they tarnish someone's name and honour, which should actually be protected. It’s no different with revenge pornography cases, which concern somebody’s right to privacy. These examples all involve individual interests. On the other hand, group defamation, hate speech and spreading discriminatory remarks all affect something bigger and transcend the interests of the individual. They affect how you live together in society.'

'The direct impact that online hate speech has on an individual is difficult to measure, but I can imagine that female journalists soon get fed up of seeing rape threats on the internet. And I can imagine that an activist of colour gets tired of seeing discriminatory remarks... When someone is constantly discriminated against and no action is taken, they will withdraw from public discourse and no longer want to participate in it.'

Whenever you share a post, and for whatever reason, you’re giving that message airtime. It’s seen by even more people.

Does the government have a role to play in countering online hate speech?

'Yes, but only when it comes to criminal content. When somebody reports an online offence, a common response from the police and Public Prosecution Service is: 'Hmm, that’s a tricky one …' And they often say that they lack the capacity to deal with it. I can understand that investigating a murder takes priority over handling an insulting message on the internet. However, if these offences aren’t dealt with as a matter of course – if there’s no warning letter and no efforts are made to trace the account holder even in the event of gross discrimination, which would definitely be prosecuted in the real world – then online and offline standards become vastly out of sync. And that's not good.'

Jon Tyson through Unsplash

Is online hate speech a new phenomenon?

'From the very beginning of the internet, online rules have served two main purposes: to regulate pornographic material and to prevent copyright infringements. More recent legislation has shown that we’ve started taking issues such as terrorism and hate speech more seriously. This February, a European law will come into force that requires online platforms to actively inform their users why they have taken specific user content offline. It has to be clear to users which rule they have violated through which content.'

'One of my own messages was deleted once. I racked my brains because I simply didn’t know what the problem was. I’m a legal expert, and even I couldn’t understand it. Something’s going wrong if it’s unclear to users why their posts are punishable.'

'By contrast, while some content isn’t punishable, it’s still verging on morally unacceptable. Take deliberately addressing somebody with the wrong gender pronouns, for example. It’s not necessarily punishable in the Netherlands, but it is behaviour that various online platforms identified as harmful early on. Suppose you’re completely unaware of the rule and your post is deleted. It makes you wonder what you did wrong, and then you do it again. There’s something to be gained: if an online platform explains why certain behaviour violates its policy, people can actually learn something.'

What can the university and teaching staff do to counter online hate speech?

'On platforms like X, people often see posts from others that they completely disagree with. They share those posts with their own network and express their disagreement. It’s important to realise that whenever you share a post, and for whatever reason, you’re giving that message airtime. Sharing a post means it’s seen by even more people – when you actually disagree with the content. Universities could discuss when sharing serves a purpose and when it contributes to public discourse.'

More information

Listen to Leiden Lawcast’s episode on freedom of speech featuring Michael Klos here or through another streaming service (season 2, episode 1).

From 30 January onwards, Dr Michael Klos will be teaching the elective course ‘Disinformation: an interdisciplinary challenge’. This course will run again in the 2024-2025 academic year.

Text: Helena Lysaght 
Image at top: Igor Omilaev through Unsplash

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