Thursday December 07, 2023

Online hate speech lands thousands in jails globally

May 30, 2023


ISLAMABAD: Hate speech on social media is notoriously difficult to prosecute yet thousands have ended up in jail across the world for posting or commenting on such content with just one click.

There are multiple cases where social media users were arrested and jailed for years just because of one single click spreading misinformation or hate speech. In the UK, 114,958 hate crimes were recorded by police between March 2020 and March 2021, a 9 percent increase on the reported figures from 2019/20. When figures from Greater Manchester Police were included, there were 124,091 offences in total. The increase is put down to better recording methods as well as greater awareness regarding how to report hate crimes.

In 2020, the FBI received reports of 8,263 hate crime incidents, up by nearly 13 percent on the 7,314 of 2019. The vast majority of hate crimes reported to the FBI are dubbed “single-bias” incidents which are believed to involve one bias. Of those, in 2020, 61.8 percent were motivated by race/ethnicity/ancestry bias. 20.0 percent were motivated by sexual orientation, 13.3 percent by religion, 2.7 percent by gender identity, 1.4 percent by disability, and 0.7 percent by gender. Although the official figure for the number of hate crimes in the US has hovered around 7,000 for a few years, a 2019 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey estimated that the real number could be over 200,000 per year. The low official numbers make sense given that 86 percent of reporting police agencies had no hate crimes on record in 2019.

In Russia, last year 400 people were arrested for things that they posted on social media. There were over 3,000 people arrested in Britain for social media posts in 2019. In mid-2020, as part of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, more than 1,000 companies, including Coca-Cola, Unilever, and North Face, stopped promoting on Facebook, putting a dent in the social media giant’s $70 billion advertising business. The boycott ended once Facebook, along with Twitter and YouTube agreed with advertisers on an acceptable definition of harmful content.

According to the Washington Post, over 1000 people were arrested in Cuba, 1,353 in Belarus and 50 people in Vietnam who participated in political protests and had gone violent or aggressive. USA in 2020, announced that more than 300 individuals in 29 states and Washington, D.C., have been charged for crimes committed adjacent to or under the guise of peaceful demonstrations since the end of May. Twitter regularly updates its hateful conduct policy, including expansions at least once per year over the past several years. It took action (in the form of removing tweets and banning accounts) on 1,108,722 accounts in the first half of 2021 for infringing on this policy on hateful conduct. According to a Twitter Transparency report, this was a 36 percent increase during this reporting period. In Texas, Prosper school district claimed one of its students faced criminal charges and another student could, too, after they allegedly made separate threatening posts on social media. The district sent a letter to families with an update on the two threats. It said one threat was against Prosper High School while the other referenced the Town of Prosper and Frisco.

According to an Opinion by Washington Post, ‘They clicked once. Then followed the dark prisons’. On February 27th 2022, Danuta Perednya a 21-year-old Belarus university student, reposted a message on the social media app Telegram criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexender Lukashhenko for the war in Ukraine. She was sentenced by the Kirovsk district court in the Mahiliou region of Belarus to 6.5 years in prison. Another Russian student, Oleysa Krivtsova posted an Instagram story against the Russian war in Ukraine. Her fellow students took a screenshot of the story and reported it to the authorities after which Olesya was arrested. She was also added to a list of terrorists and extremists, charged with discrediting the military and put under house arrest and she is facing seven years in prison. All are punished by authorities for nothing more than posting or reposting something on social media. That’s all just a click.

A teenager who posted explicit comments and jokes about April Jones-the three year old who went missing during a family holiday in Portugal-on his Facebook page was jailed for 12 weeks. Matthew Woods, 19, from Chorley, Lancashire, also made comments about April and was also jailed for several weeks. The chairman of the bench, Bill Hudson, said Woods’s comments were so “abhorrent” he deserved the longest sentence the court could hand down. A football fan was jailed for 56 days for posting offensive comments on Twitter about the on-pitch collapse of Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba.

Liam Stacey was arrested after his tweets were reported to police by Twitter users from across Britain, including the former England striker Stan Collymore. The 21-year-old pleaded guilty to the Racially Aggravated 4A Public Order Act 1986. He posted his offensive comments shortly after Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest during his team’s FA Cup quarter-final tie against Tottenham Hotspur. Stacey sobbed throughout the hearing and held his head in his hands when he was sentenced. He was led away in handcuffs. A 51-year-old German father was accused of violating laws against online hate speech, insults and misinformation. He had shared an image on Facebook with an inflammatory statement about immigration falsely attributed to a German politician. “Just because someone rapes, robs or is a serious criminal is not a reason for deportation,” the fake remark said. The police then scoured the home for about 30 minutes, seizing a laptop and tablet as evidence, prosecutors said. At that exact moment in March, a similar scene was playing out at about 100 other homes across Germany, part of a coordinated nationwide crackdown that continues to this day. After sharing images circulating on Facebook that carried a fake statement, the perpetrators had devices confiscated and were heavily fined.

The market for social media surveillance has grown, giving intelligence and law enforcement agencies new tools for combing through massive amounts of information. At least 40 of the 65 countries covered by this report have instituted advanced social media monitoring programmes. Moreover, their use by governments is accelerating: in 15 of these countries, it was only in the past year that such programmes were either expanded or newly established. Justifying their efforts in the name of enhancing security, limiting disinformation, and ensuring public order, governments have effectively co-opted social media platforms. While these platforms typically present themselves as social connectors and community builders, state agencies in repressive countries see them as vast storehouses of speech and personal information that can be observed, collected, and analyzed to detect and suppress dissent.

In many ways, the Internet has had a positive influence on society. For example, it helps us to communicate easily and to share knowledge on all kinds of important topics efficiently: from the treatment of disease to disaster relief. But the Internet has also broadened the potential for harm. Being able to communicate with a mass audience has meant that the way we engage with politics, public affairs and each other has also changed. Hateful messages and incitements to violence are distributed and amplified on social media in ways that were not previously possible. In countries committed to freedom of speech, it is necessary to develop a shared understanding of why freedom of speech is important. O’Regan and Theil suggest that there are three main reasons why we value freedom of speech: because we think being able to speak our minds is part of what makes us free and autonomous human beings, for democratic reasons, because we need to be able to talk about politics and policy freely to enable us to decide as equals how to vote and to hold those in power to account and for truth-related reasons, to enable us to refute false claims.

Through social media platforms (such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat), 3.19 billion users converse and interact with each other by generating and sharing content. The business model of most social media companies is built on drawing attention, and given that offensive speech often attracts attention, it can become more audible on social media than it might on traditional mass media. Given the growing problem of offensive and harmful speech online, many countries are asking themselves the challenging question of whether they should regulate speech online and if so, how they should legislate to curb these excesses. The regulation of harmful speech in online spaces requires drawing a line between legitimate freedom of speech and hate speech. Freedom of speech is protected in the constitutions of most countries around the world, and in the major international human rights treaties. Of course, we know that despite this widespread protection, many countries do not provide effective protection for freedom of speech. One of the dangers of regulating hate speech online is that it will become a pretext for repressive regimes to further limit the rights of their citizens.