Following the announcement by Facebook that is “plans to silence racism and extremism”, commentators claim that this commitment could mark the end of free speech. Is this true? Can free speech really be seen as the ‘victim’ in the fight against hatred? At the heart of this debate lie very important questions: What are the limitations of freedom of expression? When do someone’s views cross the red line from free speech to hate speech?
These are complex questions, which can have a number of subjective answers. Objectively, however, it is clear that there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech. The right to freedom of speech, as set out in Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 10 of the ECHR is a qualifying right, and it ‘’carries with it duties and responsibilities” .
Undoubtedly, there is a very thin line between free speech and hate speech. Hate speech sits on a spectrum with freedom of speech, individual autonomy, human dignity, liberty and equality. In many circumstances we can only choose to protect the rights of others by prohibiting certain kinds of speech. For this reason, in the UK, speech that incites racial or religious hatred or violence is illegal.
In the current climate of the recent refugee crisis, there has been a surge in openly hateful racist and xenophobic comments posted on social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter. Such comments are an attack on the rights of different ethnic, religious and/or national groups, in clear violation of the principles of equal human dignity and respect for the racial and cultural differences among human groups. I think what is crucial is to understand what the danger of not taking actions against such comments is. In my view, not taking actions emboldens users to spread hate speech.
The long term dangerous consequences of this lack of action lie in the power of the words; some of which communicate harmful and inflamed views and which can influence others to act. An immediate result being that it fosters division and intolerance leading to marginalization of the ‘others’. It is in our hands to turn a blind eye to such views or to challenge them. It is in our hands to decide whether we want to unfriend someone who has posted hateful comments or whether to take an active stance by challenging them. Given the immediacy of the internet, I would say, let’s think twice before deciding to ignore or merely delete posts.
By not taking action against any of such posts, they slowly become the public expression of discrimination against the vulnerable. We claim we are not racist, yet, we condone repulsive and harmful speech. Surely, in a democratic society, ‘silencing hate speech’ should not come as an attack on free speech. Rather, hatred, offensive comments, inflamed emotions and rhetoric -targeting specific ethnic, religious and national groups – should be challenged and not necessarily banned. It is my view that tolerance and free speech are often the remedy to xenophobic and racist hate speech.We can play our part in silencing it; the starting point could be through Online Civil Courage. Let’s counter hate by challenging rather than banning offensive views! Positive speech is in your hands: spread Love, challenge Hate.
By Roxana-Elena Preotescu, Research Officer for ROTA in the PRISM project