Monitoring Hate Speech online: are we focusing on the right issue?

Not long time ago I came across this article on Hate Speech Monitoring and this sentence really made me thinking “.. monitoring hate speech, rather than rushing to remove it, can help discover how best to combat it.” So, I started wondering, are we really discovering how to combat it? If Hate Speech Monitoring is done to help combat this phenomenon, are we really using the results of hate speech monitoring in the right way and coming up with good strategies against it?

In the past 5 years the development and Peace-building community has been heavily focusing on Hate Speech and specifically on the monitoring of hate speech online. It goes without saying that with the increased availability of Internet, even in hard to reach places or conflict settings, hate speech assumed a new and more complicated dimension. Aside from making hate speech more difficult to monitor, the availability of technology and connectivity also highlighted the sometimes dangerous connection in between the Diaspora and local communities.

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Increasingly, funding and attention has been given to support research organizations into monitoring Hate Speech and online tools like Facebook and Twitter, so understand the phenomenon and to see if there is a connection between online Hate Speech and actual hate crimes on the ground. While this connection is far from being proven so far, mainly due to the fact that online tools provide a protection and anonymity that real actions on the ground do not provide, there are no doubts that the presence of Hate Speech online is a good barometer of the mood of certain sectors of the population in a given country, and should not be disregarded.

The topic of Hate Speech has indeed attracted the attention of the big donors in the Democracy, Governance, Humanitarian, Development and Peace-building fields. An example is the European Union, that has lately funded projects aiming at combating online hate speech co-funded under the Programs “Rights, Equality and Citizenship” and “Fundamental Rights and Citizenship” for a total of 4 million euros. This number is probably one tenth of the amount spend by donors like USAID in the same field.

When looking at those projects thought, one common threat seems to emerge: the outcomes of those projects is rarely aiming at understanding the phenomenon to counter it from an anthropological and social prospective, and it rather focuses on the legal repercussions of Hate Speech. More than that, the majority of those projects are specifically looking at: how to enforce Hate Speech regulations and laws; how to create new one; how to create efficient reporting mechanisms to identify Hate Speech; etc.

Aside from the already discussed issues related to the use of Hate Speech regulations as a way to repress freedom of speech, which is on going debate and a very real risk, the main problem lies in the fact that legal measures cannot be the only way we solve the problem. If we stop looking at the phenomenon from a “legal” perspective, and instead we look at it from an “Information Ecosystem” perspective, the currently explored outcomes of Hate Speech Monitoring are far from addressing the real problem.

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Online Hate Speech in indeed a form of communication. More specifically, it is a form of communication that allows for people to use tools like Facebook and Twitter to reinforce their cognitive bias, and to find others that agree with them and that they can use (not necessarily consciously) to spread their message.  As such, Hate Speech are an expression of hate as a feeling, that from an ethnographic perspective is very similar to love: but while love seems to deactivate areas traditionally associated with judgment, hatred activates areas in the frontal cortex that may be involved in evaluating another person and predicting their behavior. Hence, like Jacobs and Potter (1998) remind us, hate crime is “not really about hate, but about bias or prejudice”.

If this is the case than, maybe we should starting to look at them in a way that addresses the underlying issue behind hate speeches, and mainly engagement and interactions. If hate is based on bias and prejudice, and than we should target the root causes of those factors, rather than try to punish their expressions. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that regulations against Hate Speech should not be in place. What I think we are forgetting here is that we are not going to stop Hate Speech with Hate Speech laws: the only way to stop them is to address the root cause if it, hence, to engage people that do act on their prejudice and bias and change those bias and prejudice.

The example that come to mind is what Egyptian bloggers were doing to counteract the pro-Mubarak Facebook pages in Egypt: they would target a specific page for days, posting videos, messages and all they could against the regime: it was not juts about posting messages, it was about providing to all the viewers of that page a totally different vision of Egypt, with articles, interviews and as many verified information as they could find to CHANGE their mind. It was not about telling them that they were wring, it was about giving the them the chance to change their mind and see another point of view: all in all, they were targeting their biased ideas.

66226827So, why can’t we use the same methodology to counter-act hate speech? Why can’t we start working on changing people’s perception of the “others” by using the same tool they are using to propagate Hate Speech? If we want to really address the issue, maybe nice reports about what people us to propagate Hate Speech are not that useful if they sit on a website for people to read – we need to start working on what we do with those reports and how we target people with the right information to change their views, not how we can pout them in jail if they express them. because, let’s be honest, their ideas do not get to stay in jail with them.

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