The Malta Independent 18 May 2021, Tuesday

How can we counter online hate speech? It still remains on the rise despite resistance

Shona Berger Tuesday, 23 March 2021, 11:25 Last update: about 3 months ago

Despite the many efforts to raise awareness by social media platforms and other entities to prevent and counter the spread of hate speech online, it doesn’t seem to ever come to an end, and according to Gender Studies Professor Brenda Murphy, online hate speech is on the rise. 

Sociologist Michael Briguglio, Professor JosAnn Cutajar and Professor Brenda Murphy (both members of the Department of Gender and Sexualities) spoke with The Malta Independent to share their views about online hate speech and whether it still remains prevalent in our society. 

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We often see hundreds of hateful comments as we’re scrolling through social media platforms, posted by trolls, fake profiles and keyboard warriors who seem to have no problem using abusive language on social media platforms like Facebook. 

Just recently, a Facebook comment by activist Godfrey Leone Ganado stoked anger after he wrote misogynistic insults directed at TVM Head of News Normal Saliba. Another example of such speech was directed at PL MP Rosianne Cutajar back in 2018, on which Cutajar had won €800 in libel damages in a case against Leone Ganado and activist Rachel Williams, over a Facebook post that called the then Parliamentary Secretary a prostitute. 

These two instances are amongst many others, such as when PN MEP Roberta Metsola was threatened on Facebook, with one post having read: “Be careful as you will end up like Galizia.” 

According to Briguglio, discrimination on the basis of gender, race, and other identities are frequently highlighted in the public sphere. Perhaps even more distinctive are the impacts of partisan (or even factional) affiliation in a small society of friends of friends, to the benefit of in-groups and the expense of out-groups. The most highly discriminated minority groups in Malta are asylum seekers, refugees and third-country nationals in general, he said. 

Briguglio expressed his assumption that among the reasons why such language is so present is because as a small island state, many are engaged in hyper personal politics, which is based on loyalty towards one’s tribute, thus considering the ‘other’ as being wrong merely because of their affiliation or non-affiliation. 

Professor Cutajar remarked that “hate speech has always been around. It is only lately, after a lot of effort on the part of civil society groups, local individuals and on an international level, that we have become aware that this type of speech is illegal.” 

Meanwhile, Professor Murphy highlighted that on a global level, women are the most discriminated against group.   

Although online hate speech can affect everyone regardless of their sex, gender, ethnicity or race, women seem to be the most affected, and this online expression of misogyny is increasing. 

Online hate speech has become a recognised expression of violence against women, and this takes many different forms including bullying, attacking the appearance of a woman, demanding that the woman should ‘shut up’, threats of violence and sexual violence as well as death threats and incitement to violence, Murphy said. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced profound change in all aspects of society, and technology is playing a starring role in enabling companies, schools and other organisations to respond to disruption. Briguglio highlighted that political partisanship has certainly played an important role in the way we communicate during Covid-19. 

He explained that during such a period it seems that “some of us prefer to destroy our adversary rather than try to understand the complexity of the situation. We have also seen commentators riding on sensationalism and communication at the speed of light.” 

“Whilst this is not necessarily classified as hate speech, its impacts could be just as negative,” he said. 

With regards to the pandemic, Murphy added that recent research has found that since lockdown began, there has been a further increase in hate speech and online violence against women. In addition, the World Health Organisation (WHO), Interpol, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) and other agencies have warned that increased screen time during Covid-19 means young people are more susceptible to online abuse. 

“25% of girls have experienced at least one form of abuse, bullying or sexual harassment online as it has become the new front line for violence against women and girls,” Murphy said. 

According to the European Parliament, Covid-19 exacerbated hatred, which spread globally. It gave rise to conspiracy theories about the responsibility of Jewish, Chinese, or American elites, and created new scapegoats such as the elderly or the sick. Ethnic hatred also rose high in the face of Covid-19 as well as the LGBTI+ community which was also disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

Asked what else can be done to prevent and counter the spread of hate speech online, Briguglio expressed his belief that a stronger framework for responsible communication is needed. “Sometimes we hear that some people ‘seem to have no problem to resort to hate speech’ behind a screen, but the fact is that such interaction has a digital trail, which can be detrimental to the victim of hate speech but even to the perpetrator in case of legal liability. Therefore, it is important to invest in ethical use of one’s free speech on the internet,” he said. 

Professor Cutajar emphasised on educating people on what hate speech is and what they need to do to stop its spread, especially with the emergence of social media. 

“Journalists also have a role in this by educating the public on what hate speech is and finding ways to counteract hate speech messages,” she said. 

In addition, Cutajar said that it would be beneficial to encourage conflict sensitive reporting and multicultural awareness campaigns. These would help eradicate the ‘us’ against ‘them’ fallacy – Maltese vs foreigners; women vs men; heterosexual vs gays - and help different groups get to know more about each other, about diverse cultures and traditions, respectively, she said.  Other ways of putting an end to hate speech might include regulating social media without revoking the right to press freedom, encouraging victims and witnesses to report hate speech related crimes, and ending impunity against hate crimes by establishing monitoring and evaluation units within newsrooms, social media, amongst others. 

Cutajar added that “we need an entity, perhaps within the Broadcasting Authority, to monitor hate speech trends, compile reports and bring these to the attention of key institutions and civil society. We also need to hold platforms accountable for hate speech.”  

Meanwhile, Murphy remarked that “we need to call for and expect Zero Tolerance at every level – as citizens and as media users we need to call it out when we encounter it, but the real power lies in the hands of the law, law enforcers and the social media platforms.” 

It would also be beneficial to look at the dynamic nature of misogyny, learn how it moves about, how it appears and how technology and legislation supports or obstructs it, she said. 

“It is time to recognise online hate speech, name it; take it seriously and ACT. Action needs to be ‘top down’ in the form of loud and committed voices and action in leadership, robust legislative voices and action, and firm, meaningful enforcement,” Professor Murphy concluded.

 

 

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