Hate speech and social media

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Notwithstanding the dramatic life-altering role the internet plays in the world today, this limitless and irrepressible medium of communication and source of information is increasingly becoming vulnerable to manipulation and abuse. Online hate speech and personal attacks, which oftentimes spill over in the real world, are increasingly becoming a key player in the fast-spreading societal epidemic of hate crime. Hate crimes have mushroomed into both our online and offline lives as a tool of subjugating religious, cultural and sexual minorities. And digital hate has an immensely far-reaching impact, much more than what meets the eye.

Hate crimes lie at the sensitive junction where emotions meet the law.[1] Such emotions arise as a result of the perpetrator’s prejudice based on her perception of the victim’s race, religion, caste, colour, sex etc. The advent of the internet, social media in particular, has provided a convenient space for the proponents of this hate to disseminate their irrational and emotionally-charged ideas. It has helped fade the line between free expression and criminal acts. Bolstered by the universally recognised and constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech – also a fundamental democratic value – they continue their hate broadcast unchecked by the law.[2] It is thus that the internet is being used as a breeding ground for contempt against Muslims globally, a medium for spreading hate closer at home, and even as a means to influence and induct new recruits by the ISIS.

Instead of the much-debated liability of the broadcasters of such acrimonious content – with the right to freedom of speech at one end and the liability for the consequences of one’s speech occupying the other end of the spectrum – the role of social media websites and platforms is what is being examined in this article. The role played by the social media, here, is considered from the viewpoint of its providing a platform for such hate speech to be shared and transferred at a mass level, which has often been seen to have a correlational as well as causal links with hate crimes. A study done by a former Scotland Yard officer provides empirical data to show that perpetrators of hate crimes against Muslims had acquired a negative view about Muslims from reports and commentaries on the media.[3]

Since content on social media has a significant influence on the minds of individuals, it is being taken advantage of by hate groups for spreading extremist propaganda and anti-minority sentiments. Social media platforms, then, should be made to share some amount of liability for being a vital link in the chain of events starting from the discharge of a hate speech by ‘A’ and its culminating into a hate crime (for instance, murder) by ‘B’. But culpability, too, operates in layers; and the culpability of social media platforms can best be understood by making a distinction between moral culpability and legal culpability.

Civil legal liability arises when one does or omits to do something prohibited by law, while criminal legal liability has the additional requirement of a guilty mind, i.e. intent to do the prohibited act. Criminal liability is out of the question since the intention behind B committing the murder can in no way be attributed to the social media platform which he viewed A’s content on. On the other hand, a strong argument in favour of affixing civil liability is that social media websites are under a duty to examine the kind of content their users are being exposed to and the social impact they have on various aspects of their lives. Germany levies fines of up to 50 million Euros from Facebook, YouTube and the like for failing to remove hateful posts within a particular period of time.[4] However, this can potentially result in a 1984-like situation of excessive regulation of content, as well as violation of the right to privacy. Moreover, what kind of content qualifies as potential hate speech is a highly subjective question, making it almost impossible to wipe out every item of hate speech on the internet, if such a thing were to happen.[5] Therefore, affixing legal liability on a social media platform for B’s murder is impractical and difficult to implement.

This leads us to the point of moral culpability. Take the example of a child suddenly coming in front of a car, whose driver is driving adhering to all applicable rules and standard of care, which is witnessed by a bystander. Legal culpability put aside (assuming the driver did not intend it and met the due legal standard of reasonable care), both the driver and the bystander can be affixed with a moral responsibility to help the child. They both share an equal responsibility by fact of their being present at the spot of the incident. Similarly, a social media platform must – regardless of its being a passive bystander to the broadcasting of hate speech or its being the very link between the sender and receiver of a hate speech – take some moral responsibility for the hate crime arising from it. The very fact that Twitter, for instance, may be the starting point for several people adopting an anti-Muslim outlook is reason enough for Twitter to be given some moral culpability for the discrimination, oppression and hate crime being faced by Muslims all over the world.

The internet, by providing a global forum for the advocates of intolerance and oppression, has proved to be a convenient medium of ideological distribution for hate groups and perpetrators of hate crimes. However, social media platforms cannot be made legally liable for the hate crimes arising from them. Their liability only arises from an ethical standpoint for being a part of the chain of events leading up to such a crime, thereby highlighting the more significant role they play of shaping the opinion of the global community today.

[1] Zyad Wright, Hate Crimes: Clarification from Emotion Theory and Psychological Research, 55 UCLA Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law, (2016).

[2] Daniel S. Harawa, Social Media Thoughtcrimes, 35:1 Pace Law Review, (2014-2015).

[3] Vikram Dodd, Media and politicians fuel rise in hate crimes against Muslims, The Guardian (January 28, 2010), available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/jan/28/hate-crimes-muslims-media-politicians

[4] Sanjay Nirala, Why India needs laws to ensure social media do not spread hate, India Today (July 8, 2017), available at http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/india-social-media-spread-hate-germany-facebook-twitter/1/997607.html

[5] Alexander Tsesis, Hate in Cyberspace, 38: 817 San Diego Law Review, (2001).