Home Cover Story Hate speech: Psychological bandwagon of social media

Hate speech: Psychological bandwagon of social media

We are living in the world of hate. Social media has made it even more evident. From the real to the virtual world, humanity has started to immolate itself and we humans have become more merciless towards each other.

In the competition of scarce resources, dominant groups create prejudices by legitimizing myths that takes us away from rationality, to provide moral and intellectual justification for their domination. Legitimizing of myths with bias approach divides the society into groups based on hierarchy.

The exponential countenance of this phenomenon is hate speech. Sometimes it is due to blind favourism towards one’s group, race, gender or community and sometimes due to hatred towards a group or individual. Howsoever, the end result is the death of humanity.

Hate speech is one of the burning contemporary problems in the world of social media. But its not like humans not cannot overcome it. South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and it’s former President Nelson Mandela has said,

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, background or religion. People learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Online abuse, posts and riots

In India, offensive posts on social media targeting SC/ST individuals, women and almost every religious group, be it Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains or Buddhists is very common now a days. In May 2017, violence erupted in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh between Dalits and Thakur community, fuelled by rumours and provocative posts on facebook. Similar communal violence incidents where social media has been like petrol in fire have taken place in Karnataka and West Bengal as well.

Young women have been targeted for voicing their opinions on contemporary issues. Patriarchal hues are violent on social media as well. Gurmehar Kaur, hailed as a “free speech warrior” by the Time magazine, received rape and death threats for the campaign, #StudentsAgainstABVP. Simran Keshwani got a lot of online threats and hatred for just writing an opinion piece. Varnika Kundu, the victim in Chandigarh stalking case, came under trolling when her fake photos were circulated on social media, even by politicians.

Another Delhi University student Simran Keshwani* got a lot of online threats and hatred for just writing an article. The twitter handle of a Pakistani website on defence tweeted a morphed photo of a Delhi University student, Kawalpreet kaur, to spread hate between the two countries. Gladly, in this case the twitter handle was suspended. But according to the student, her photo has been used by Indian websites to spread their hate-based propaganda and no action had been taken on them.

In a study released by cyber security firm Norton by Symantec, it was found that eight out of 10 people surveyed have experienced some form of online harassment in India, with the most common forms being abuse and insults (63 per cent) and malicious gossip and rumours (59 per cent).

The most affected people are in the under-40 age group. But frighteningly, 87 per cent of people with disabilities or poor mental health and 77 per cent of those with weight issues reported experiences of abuse or insults online. Almost half of the perpetrators were reported as strangers.

A staggering 49 per cent of men and 71 per cent of people with disabilities or poor mental health reported receiving threats of physical violence. Sexual harassment is more commonly encountered by women than men but 69 per cent of people who had disabilities or mental health issues also reported this kind of abuse.  Being sent sexual comments and messages on social media as well as receiving disturbing emails were the most common complaints.

Legal scenario in India

After these uprising incidents of hate speech, the Delhi High Court, in July 2017, said that any offensive post on social media targeting individuals of SC/ST community, even if made in a closed group, is punishable. The court made it clear the phrase ‘public view’ in Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of atrocities) Act, 1989, will apply to every social media platform, if a casteist slur is made against them.

While provisions for hate speech exist in the Indian Penal Code, there is no specific law for curbing online hate speech after Section 66A of the Information Technology Act was declared unconstitutional in the Shreya Singhal case. Though this was necessary, but no new law has been laid down since then.

The court did lay down a guide to hate speech and held that only the speech which leads to incitement of violence will be hate speech. Any speech that is even offensive or unpopular will come in the ambit of free speech.

Responsibility of Facebook, Twitter and Google

Thus, the impetus has come on social networking sites to take measures themselves that restricts hate speech. Though Facebook and Twitter have regulations and standards that are supposed to put restrictions on hate speech and allow users to report violent content, many of them have proved to be largely inadequate. In many cases, even content that might be offensive but which doesn’t incite, has been taken down. Thus, hate speech regulations on social media are still in a quandary.

Globally, voices are sharpening on social media companies to better regulate their platforms in curbing hate speech.

The European Union has given an ultimatum to facebook, twitter and others to have a better mechanism with reviewers who can take down racist and violent posts in a timely manner. It has even asked them that there can be legal consequences, otherwise. The European Union has been strict with these fines on companies who don’t clean up.

Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft are trying to solve the problem and promised to remove content within 24 hours, but according to EU, it still takes at least a week, which is not enough.

Ever since stories of involvement of Russian trolls meddling in the 2016 US Presidential elections have come to the fore, promoting fake news and racist comments, Google, Facebook and Twitter have come under the radar of the US Congress. The 3 companies revealed that a sizeable number of 80,000 fb posts, 2,700 twitter accounts and $4,700  worth search &display ads dubiously linked to Russia was active during the time of election.

All these companies were grilled by 3 US Congressional committees on alleged Russian attempts to spread misinformation in the months before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The senators especially gave an earful of criticism to the lawyers of the companies. The lawyers, on their part, acknowledged the problem and said that they are committed to rectify the reviewing mechanism and even increase manpower for that.

While it has been acknowledged that the companies do care about the filtering process of content, however, concerns have been raised that it’s still not enough. After the deadliest mass shooting in US history in October when 59 people were killed by one individual, a fake news of the identity of the accused was floating in top Google searches, apparently taken from a white supremacist forum.

This came under vehement criticism. A lot of emphasis is now on the inadequateness of technology and algorithms in filtering content that can be labeled as hate speech, especially in the times of emergency breaking-news situations. As there is a lot of probability of inciting violence through fake content and hate speech during the time of breaking news, there are calls of adding more humans in the task of monitoring algorithms, at least for the top searches, in a way a journalist would do the same while filtering news.

New German law that fines companies

As these debates go about, Germany has already passed a law that mandates that social media companies to pay fines up to €50million (£43m) if they persistently fail to remove hate speech, criminal material and fake content from their sites. The measure requires social media platforms to remove hate postings within 24 hours after receiving a notification or complaint, and to block other offensive content within seven days.

The name of the law translates to ‘Enforcement on Social Networks’. It’s also referred to as NetzDG, an abbreviation of its full German name.

This was done after it was found that hate crimes in Germany had increased by 200% in the last 2 years and the German government was not satisfied with the measures taken by the social media companies themselves.

It might look the easiest way to go about to remove hate speech but it has also raised heckles among the defenders of free speech, who believe it can kill the positive effects of social media that have increase debate and dialogue amongst communities and even led to phenomenon like the Arab Spring.

Important role of journalists

The governments and social media companies have their role to play in the fight against hate speech. Another pertinent question is what about the role of journalists and media organisations who have a sizeable presence online and getting influenced by sensationalism and click-bait, reporting of news is done that has a negative impact on the minds of audience.

Less talked about globally and least talked about in India is how journalists’ own professional procedures — including how news is defined — may amplify the voices of hate propagandists. Post-moderation, deleting or relegating posts flagged as hate speech are some methods.

What needs to be remembered while writing or speaking on hate speech is there has to be a balance between telling the society about agents of hate and also not providing the agents with a platform that can exaggerate their views uncritically. It’s a tough line but can be done if one focuses on human awareness aspect of news.

The most complex issues for journalists to deal with is when hate speech is against a religious community or a particular historically discriminated community.

There can be cases where hate speech is against such a historically demeaned community that it sounds normal and unobjectionable to many people, even journalists. The current example for this can be the deep prejudices that ethnic Burmans have towards Rohingya muslims in Myanmar.

Also problematic is hate speech against a particular religious group because yes religions need to evolve and reform themselves over time. On the other hand, it is also true that it is unfair that deep biases are created against people of particular religion in the name of criticism. That is what has happened with growing islamophobia around the world.

Reflecting on the controversy over satirical depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in Europe, political cartoonist Garry Trudeau said in an essay in The Atlantic: “Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful … Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean.”

This is the best definition anyone could give for satire. Closer home in India, the Taj Mahal controversy has reached epic proportions. Even the international media is covering it. Journalists kept writing editorials for many days after. This person who started it just wanted his 15 seconds of fame and to propagate his ideology. Media becomes a vehicle for that.

The balance to achieve between informing people and minimizing harm in sensitive cases is easier said than done. There are ways to assess what is acceptable and what is intolerable.

For this, the Ethical Journalism Network has a five-point test for hate speech that can be referred by journalists:

  1. Context of speech and reputation of person- whether they should be listened to or ignored?
  2. The pattern and reach of the speech- Is there a deliberate repetitive attempt to engender hostility.
  3. Benefit and interest of the speaker. Potential impact upon audience. Is it deliberately targeted to cause harm?
  4. The nature of speech has to be clearly identified as hate speech can be directly provocative or subtle as well. Thing to see is can it incite violence?
  5. Social, political and economic climate of the society. History of conflict or discrimination. The community that might be negatively affected. For example, charged atmosphere before elections.

The best example for this last point can be the ‘Padmavati’ movie controversy just before the upcoming Gujarat elections in December. Thousands of articles and videos have been shared on it. Nothing is left to say about this controversy. It’s the best diversionary tactic adopted by the media to divert attention from the election issues that matter to the voters.

This is the perfect set of guidelines by which journalists can do their bit in minimizing hatred from social media and our society, as the big companies and lawmakers play their parts. All has to be done simultaneously.

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