Combatting illegal hate speech on the internet: does it work?

In May this year the European Commission signed a code of conduct with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that included a series of commitments to combat the spread of illegal hate speech online in Europe.

The Commission and the IT Companies recognized that the spread of hate speech online not only affects negatively the groups or individuals that it targets, it also negatively impacts those who speak out for freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination in our open societies and has a chilling effect on the democratic discourse on online platforms.

By signing this code of conduct, the IT companies committed to continuing their efforts to tackle illegal hate speech online. This will include the development of internal procedures and staff training to guarantee that they review the majority of notifications for removal of illegal hate speech in less than 24 hours and remove or disable access to such content, if necessary.

Monitoring of online hate speech

How did it work? The Commission published recently (6 December) the first evaluation of how IT companies applied the code of conduct to combat illegal online hate speech. The evaluation was limited to a sample of 600 notifications of hate speech in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, and United Kingdom.

For 6 weeks, 12 NGOs based in the nine Member States applied a common methodology to record, when possible, the rates and timings of take-downs in response to the notification. On-line hate speech was dominated by anti-Muslim hatred, anti-Semitism and hate speech related to national origin.

The results showed that 28 % of all notifications of alleged illegal online hate speech lead to the removal of the flagged content. 40% of all responses were received within 24 hours while another 43% arrived after 48 hours.

It is noteworthy that the results differed by country and IT company, with a higher deletion rate in Germany and France (above 50 %) and by Facebook (45 %).

Differences in the number of notifications made do not reflect the global issue of illegal hate speech online in a specific country. Rather the differences correspond to the resources invested by the NGOs involved and whether social platforms were actively scanned for illegal hate speech online or only acting upon citizens’ complaints.

The EU code of conduct with IT companies was also on the agenda at the  10th EU-Israel Seminar on Combating Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia that took place last week in Jerusalem (13 December).

The seminar drew representatives from the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, the European Commission, the European External Action Service, the Fundamental Rights Agency, members of the Israeli parliament (Knesset) and representatives from the Education Ministry, research institutions, NGOs and technology companies.

It also included a study visit to The Itzhak Katzenelson Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Heritage Museum in the north of Israel, the first Holocaust museum in the world founded in 1949 by Holocaust survivors.  Alongside the museum is the Center for Humanistic Education, whose goal is to develop human sensitive and moral judgement regarding the persecution of any minority or violation of human and civil rights. The center deploys teams of Arab and Jewish educators.

A museum with similar goals was opened in 2012 in Belgium at the so-called Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen. The permanent exhibition tells us the story about the train transports of Jews and Roma to their death in Auschwitz-Birkenau during 1942 – 1944 until the liberation of Belgium. The museum also organizes seminars and temporary exhibitions on atrocities and violations of human rights in modern history.

The EU coordinator on combatting anti-Semitism, Katharina von Schnurbein, told The Brussels Times that the two parties, after having met for 10 years, alternately in Brussels and Jerusalem, have adopted a pragmatic working approach without entering any political minefields in the relations between EU and Israel.

A coordinator on combatting anti-Muslim hatred was also appointed in December 2015.

“This time, we focused on two issues: illegal on-line hate speech on the internet following the agreement or code of conduct with social media in May 2016 and education about the Holocaust as a starting point to tackle racism today,” says Katharina.

According to Katharina, the member states are supposed to apply national legislation based on the so-called EU framework decision on combatting racism and xenophobia. Incitement to violence and Holocaust denial are forbidden in all countries, based on European legislation, with some countries applying stricter rules, banning all forms of denial.

 “There is a need to continue monitoring of the code of conduct and include all countries. The social media need also to employ more staff to apply the agreement,” says Katharina. “We learnt that Israel has advanced monitoring tools that could be applied by EU.”

Israel has also a problem with hate speech in social media and by politicians from right-wing parties but the issue was apparently not raised at the meeting and the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs did not respond to a request for clarification. The European external action service (EEAS) also declined to reply to related questions.

A frequent source of hate speech not covered by the code of conduct is the comment fields in newspapers. They have proven almost impossible to moderate and many newspapers have stopped allowing comments on articles.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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