Standing up for hate

Tweet suggesting mainstream media is censoring the news. Image copyright Twitter/@SpecialKMB1969
Image caption Many who used the hashtag believe mainstream media is censoring the news.

"You cannot confront hate speech until you've experienced it. You need to hear every side of the issue instead of just one" the novelist Jane Elliott wrote. But the debate over the limits of self expression has been brought into sharp focus in the last couple of days as tens of thousands of people have publically declared that they 'stand with hate speech' in opposition to what they regard as unwarranted and pernicious censorship.

On Tuesday four big tech giants, Microsoft, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook announced that they had agreed on a code of conduct with the European Commission to take down "hate speech" within 24 hours of it being posted on social media. And social media has reacted. Strongly.

The aim of the guidelines, said the press statement, was to remove content that is "genuine and serious incitement to violence and hatred". Vĕra Jourová, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, who spearheaded the creation of the code, also specifically name-checked the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.

"The recent terror attacks have reminded us of the urgent need to address illegal online hate speech," she said, "social media is unfortunately one of the tools that terrorist groups use to radicalise young people and racist use to spread violence and hatred."

Image copyright Twitter

However where some see sensible new safeguards others see the stifling of free speech and debate. And #IStandWithHateSpeech - which is not an entirely new hashtag - has been trending in the United States - which will not be covered by the new EU initiative - and other countries which will be. It's been tweeted more than 80,000 times in the last couple of days. Some have used it to have a wider discussion on political correctness, saying that social media provides information where the media often won't, and that it also sometimes creates the conditions that foster the sort of attacks that the code was aiming to prevent.

Image copyright Twitter

Some referenced the Cologne sex attacks last year, where authorities and media outlets were accused of covering up key information about the assaults to avoid fanning anti-immigrant sentiments.

Image copyright Twitter

In fact, the start of the #IStandWithHateSpeech tag was reported by the Inquistr to have started around the same time as the Cologne attacks.

But that was a specific corner of the argument. Many were also concerend with the wider question of the parameters of "hate speech", and who gets to decide what they are.

Image copyright Twitter

The 'c' word cropped up in several tweets.

Image copyright Twitter

Others saw the whittling away of hard won rights to free speech.

Image copyright Twitter/@SwiftOnOikonomy

Digital rights activists expressed suspicion. Lobby groups like the EDRi and Access Now said that what constitutes "hate speech" has been too vaguely defined. EDRi executive director Joe McNamee told Arstechnica that the pledge "creates serious risks for freedom of expression, as legal, but controversial content may well be deleted."

However, many used the tag to express their upset that "hate speech" was being defended at all. This was the much re-tweeted comment of one famous American actor and musician.

Image copyright Twitter

And this author felt the fear of censorship was unfounded.

Image copyright Twitter

Although this is the first attempt to codify a list of internet rules across the European Union, many of the policies outlined by the EC are already in place. Twitter has taken down around 125,000 terror-related accounts in less than a year. And Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has previously said that the social network is committed cracking down on hate speech, particularly against against migrants in Europe.

However, this was not going to lead to a policed digital state, was the promise.

Karen White, Twitter's head of public policy for Europe, said: "We remain committed to letting the Tweets flow. However, there is a clear distinction between freedom of expression and conduct that incites violence and hate."

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