Anonymity on social media platforms has allowed most people to write hateful comments with impunity. While many social networking platforms have tools against hate speech, vitriol-laced posts are...
Anonymity on social media platforms has allowed most people to write hateful comments with impunity. While many social networking platforms have tools against hate speech, vitriol-laced posts are often crafted skilfully, relying on subtlety to influence people without appearing as red flags. Hate speech has now become an integral part of social media, and all voices raised against it are usually ignored. Now the Islamabad police have decided to launch a ‘crackdown’ on social media accounts guilty of spreading religious, linguistic, and sectarian hate and propaganda through its Violent Extremism Prevention Unit (VEPU). So far, the authorities have identified at least 203 accounts and asked the cybercrime wing of the FIA to block them; 106 accounts have been blocked.
This sounds good enough, given the fact that Pakistan has already seen the dire consequences of the unbridled spread of hate speech on social media. However, authorities need to be extra careful with this approach. Content regulation is tricky and can attack a person’s right to free speech inadvertently. In the past, some laws were used to target individuals including independent bloggers for content that can be described as controversial. It is worth remembering that the essential ground for action against social media activists was laid in 2016 by the PML-N government with the passage of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. The law permitted activities on social media to be cracked down upon. We saw how the law was used capriciously by the following government to silence voices it disagreed with and leave alone those it favoured or wanted to appease. A bill that should have tackled true crime – which is a real problem on the internet – ended up criminalizing unpopular speech. This is why VEPU personnel should be trained enough to distinguish between dissenting views and hate speech to avoid the misuse of the existing laws.
Those who intentionally provoke people to carry out activities that harm people must face justice. In our deeply polarized society, access to hateful content will keep the nation divided. Last year, a hate campaign – orchestrated on social media – led to the killings of transgender persons across the country. We have had instances where hate speech against women on social media – especially women journalists – prevented them from doing their jobs conveniently. Ironically, PECA was used against women who reported harassment cases online. So, while the first step is to recognize that the problem exists and requires the undivided attention of law-enforcement agencies, the second step is to ensure that cracking down on hate speech does not spill into arbitrarily clamping down on free speech that does not fall under hate speech. This may seem like a tall order but is not an impossible task: all it requires is for the state to accept that dissent is part of a democratic system, but hate speech and cyber crimes are not. The only way to ensure rule of law is by clamping down on hate speech and cyber crime but at the same time giving full-throated support to the rights of the people to openly express their views without fear of reprisal.