How to combat cyber hate crimes while respecting freedom of expression: The challenge of countering anti-Muslim hatred on the Internet
The phenomenal success and expansion of the internet has positively transformed our lives beyond recognition in the past decade. Real-time instant communication at the tip of our fingers have revolutionised the ways in which we interact with each other and have given a voice to individuals and communities that can be heard across the world in seconds. Internet has been praised for its open, egalitarian, and empowering character – everyone with some form of basic access to the web has the ability to express their opinions and influence the opinion of others, often bypassing censorship from authorities that seek to control or ban access to the internet altogether.
We have recently witnessed the empowering potential of internet communication. The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya owe a lot to the ability of people to communicate easily and swiftly via the internet, particularly through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Social media played an important role in mobilising and self-organising civil society, as well as in countering the propaganda of repressive regimes against their own citizens. In the west too, social media have helped organise and sustain protest movements against the power of big political and financial institutions. In all these and other instances, the internet has strengthened crucially freedom of expression and association.
However, we have also seen another, far less positive side of the social media revolution. As a largely unregulated medium of communication, the internet has accommodated a torrent of hate speech, distributed freely and without any control across social media. The medium has been used by fanatics to spread malicious information and stir up hatred against particular groups in our societies. In this instance, the power of internet communication becomes a dangerous liability. Once a piece of information has been transmitted on the internet, it acquires a life of its own, spreading fast and forming other people’s opinions.
Over the last ten years or so Muslim communities have suffered from such malicious campaigns of hate speech conducted through internet social media. Already targeted by some populist media, politicians, and public intellectuals, already suffering from everyday discrimination within their societies after 9/11, they have found themselves so often denigrated by hate propaganda spreading through social media.
Extremist far-right and anti-Muslim groups have exploited the democratic, open, and free nature of the internet to advance their own malicious anti-Muslim propaganda more effectively (and destructively) than ever. But, perhaps more alarmingly, anti-Muslim hate speech has also found outlets in mainstream media, reaching mainstream audiences and influencing public discourse. This kind of hate speech creates a permissive environment that may also facilitate hate crime.
Is it possible to continue to tolerate this kind of (ab)use of the free internet – and of social media in particular? Is there a way to combat hate speech and exhortation to violence fostered by online malicious propaganda while still safeguarding the fundamental rights of freedom of expression? Indeed, is the internet sphere different from the public sphere, where there are stringent laws against hate speech and where expressions of discrimination and deceitful propaganda against others is severely prosecuted? Can the right to freedom of expression exist in a total sense – as an absolute right – on the internet, even when it actively contributes to the violation of the freedom of others or even places their welfare at risk? Is it possible or indeed desirable to limit abuses of freedom of expression in order to protect and advance the very concept of freedom more meaningfully for society as a whole? If so, what checks and balances should be put in place and how can they be enforced consistently? What is the role of internet providers, NGOs and state authorities in this dual process of advancing freedom, on the one hand, and protecting society from diffusion of hatred, on the other?
EMISCO, in partnership with ThinkOut and IGMG is organising an event at the SHDM to address these questions with the participation of experts from of experts from various countries and domains. The event will explore ways in the wave of anti-Muslim hatred fostered through the use of the internet by extremists but also reproduced in mainstream media can be effectively combated without endangering the new medium’s most cherished contribution – freedom of expression and democratic empowerment. We need to explore how we can respond to those who deliberately and cynically abuse this very freedom of expression against the interests of others; and how we can effectively limit and/or counter their dangerous propaganda, using as primary defence the very concept of freedom and fundamental human rights.