EUROPE AND HATE SPEECH: EUROPEAN ACTIONS AND REGULATIONS

For some years, Europe has been experiencing a tense climate, which has resulted in the proliferation of the hate speech. The election campaigns of the last European elections, in most European countries, touched upon the theme of migration and hatred, triggering a public debate on these issues.

Unfortunately, in Europe there is not a precise and shared definition of “hate speech” and perhaps one of the main problems is this. Not having an exhaustive definition, it is difficult to regulate the phenomenon. It is even more difficult to find a balance between an effective legislative regulation regarding the hate speech, in all its forms, and the fundamental guarantee of freedom of expression. The problem, in fact, is that this phenomenon does not express itself through actions or omissions, but through deplorable expression of thought, linked to prejudices, stereotypes and hostilities, which are recorded every day in any environment, online and offline.

THE EUROPEAN LEGISLATION

First of all, the hate speech is certainly a form of discrimination prohibited by Article 14 of the ECHR, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, entitled – Prohibition of discrimination -.

 “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.” In common experience, it can be said that hatred often stems from the conditions of diversity, such as those listed in article 14 of the ECHR.

The same principle is protected, in the European context, by Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

A recommendation of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, dated October 30th, 1997, provides a definition of the phenomenon in these terms: «the term “hate speech” shall be understood as covering all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin».

With the advent of technology and social networks, the control of this widespread phenomenon has become more complex. In this regard, the Additional Protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime, concerning the criminalisation of acts of a racist and xenophobic nature committed through computer systems signed in Strasbourg on 28 January 2003 states that: «racist and xenophobic material means any written material, any image or any other representation of ideas or theories, which advocates, promotes or incites hatred, discrimination or violence, against any individual or group of individuals, based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, as well as religion if used as a pretext for any of these factors».

With the Council Framework Decision 2008/913 / GAI of November 28, 2008, on the fight against certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia, it becomes a crime “publicly inciting to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin”. And this definition also includes hate speech online.

On May 31, 2016, the European Commission, in collaboration with Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, presented the innovative ” Code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online” (CoCEN).

The attention of European institutions and platform managers has grown due to the frequent terrorist attacks and the simultaneous growth of extremist, racist and xenophobic episodes. Thus, even IT companies has begun to write down rules for the users of their services, with the aim of preventing these phenomena. Therefore, they revised their operating policies to remove or block access to such content as soon as possible, while preserving the freedom of expression, as this is a fundamental right. The main goal? Implement an accountability process.

THE ONLINE HATE

Online communication is often amplified, thanks to the virtual protection of a screen that allows users to feel less exposed, and therefore more legitimate not to filter their communication. For this reason, people who use a too explicit and excessively critical language are called “keyboard lions”.

A document published by UNESCO in 2015, entitled Countering online hate speech, lists the distinctive features of hatred expressed through the internet compared to the offline one:

  • The duration of time of the manifestation of hatred: as the saying goes, "verba volant scripta manent", that is, the words fly but the writings remain;
  • The greater social impact compared to offline content, given the transnational dissemination of content;
  • Its "unpredictable effect", as it is not possible to manage the shares of other users or screenshots that immortalize a specific post to spread it privately or publicly;
  • The perception of the hate speech authors of being protected by anonymity.

WEB GIANTS AGAINST HATRED

YouTube, like many other big names in the digital sector, established several rules, which are constantly updated, to avoid the spread of videos that advocate hatred, supremacy and violent extremism. In a public post, YouTube explained that the new rules “specifically prohibit videos that support the superiority of a social group to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on age, sex, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation“.

Facebook, a few years ago, has activated a feature that allows each user to ban, i.e. hide, specific words or phrases, but also emojis, from the comments of their own bulletin board, where considered offensive.

These regulatory attempts have been continuously monitored by the European Commission, which verifies the effective application of the Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online. The results of the first monitoring were presented on December 7th, 2016. In that occasion the task of providing the first monitoring was entrusted to 12 organizations in 9 European countries (including Italy). About 600 warnings were monitored, concerning contents published mainly on Facebook (45% of the cases, i.e. 270 warnings), on Twitter (27%, which is equivalent to 163 warnings), on YouTube (21%, 123 contents) and on other platforms ( 7%).

The main areas affected by the phenomenon of hate speech online concerned:

  • Discrimination against the Jewish community, at 23.7%;
  • Discrimination based on nationality, at 21%;
  • Discrimination against Muslims, at 20.2%.

Regarding the percentage of removal of the reported content, the major warnings were recorded on YouTube (48.5%), followed by Facebook (28.3%) and Twitter (19.1%). However, the removal concerned only 169 of the reported contents, in a percentage of 28.2% of the warnings.

With the second monitoring there was an increase in removals, whose percentage rose to 59%. In the third monitoring, the received warnings were 2982 and the removal rate rose to 70%. In 2018, four other companies joined the Code: Google+, Instagram, Snapchat and Dailymotion. The last monitoring was presented on February 4th,2019 and shows that approximately 89% of notifications are evaluated within 24 hours. On average, IT companies have removed almost 72% of incitement of hatred episodes notified by NGOs and public bodies participating in the evaluation.

ITALIAN INITIATIVES

In Italy, the Communications Guarantor (AgCom) has prepared a strict regulation that will limit the messages of discrimination, especially towards women and migrants. Italian TV broadcast risk a heavy fine – “from 10,000 to 250,000 euros” – whenever a news program, a showcase program, a show should put in practice hate behaviours. The measure was dictated by the fact that, according to the Italian Guarantor, “some private broadcasters” in 2018 dedicated to the macro-theme of “immigrants, security, fascism, anti-fascism” up to 33% of the space of their news and programs deepening, fostering prejudices and feelings of hatred.

In March 2018 the #iorispetto (“I respect” in English) project started, co-financed by AICS, the Italian Association of Culture and Sport, which involved 410 classes of first-level secondary schools, in 130 municipalities, with the aim of strengthening the professional skills of professors for the contrast to hate speech, active citizenship and social inclusion. Emanuele Russo, contact person for Global Citizenship Education (CGE) projects  of CIFA, states that “Bullying is the tip of the iceberg, but the daily life of our kids is full of hate speech: on social media they constantly experience this. But almost nobody perceives it, they don’t perceive the difference between it and speeches and relationships based on respect … consequently they don’t experience it as a problem. As adults, we are also targeted by the hatespeackers, but we grew in a different context, we recognize it and we understand how to neutralize it. The young people who are in school today, cannot do it “. The #iorispetto project, of which CIFA is the leader, has a partnership composed also of Amnesty International Italy, Ammi, Corep and Icei.

FUTURE PROSPECTIVE

Europe, in general, has made significant progress in the field of hate speech, both in terms of defining and framing the phenomenon, and with regard to its legislative regulation. However, the task of removing the discriminatory content present online is entrusted entirely to some large private companies, which do not represent the totality of the actors operating on the web. The delicate tasks of evaluating the validity and the reliability of the reports of its users, as well as, the final decision regarding the content to be removed only burden some players due to this system.  Moreover, these are actions that aim simply to prevent the spread of these contents on the internet, but that are not sufficient to implement an awareness-raising activity. It would therefore be necessary to focus on the promotion of policies aimed at reducing widespread social distress, as well as, at educating and empowering all citizens.

A practical example of this promotion is constituted by the #iorispetto project: it is important to start from school education to ensure that the men and women of tomorrow are more attentive and sensitive to these issues.

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