The Malta Independent 15 October 2021, Friday

TMID Editorial: Social media – When lines are crossed

Thursday, 16 September 2021, 08:56 Last update: about 29 days ago

A few days ago, 20 people pleaded guilty to hate speech charges, and were each given suspended sentences and fines, depending on the extent of their written outburst.

The case concerned comments they posted beneath a video showing a Maltese man who had been assaulted by a gang of foreigners.

The comments were deemed to be hateful, with Magistrate Ian Farrugia warning the offenders that the next time it happens they could be going “straight to prison”. In his ruling, Farrugia said that while for the people in question a few words on the social media might mean nothing, others could be incited into committing more serious crimes.

The suspended sentences meted out range from 18 months to two years, with the fines imposed spanning between €150 and €500.

They are not lenient sentences. A suspended sentence is sometimes seen as a soft landing for the perpetrator, but apart from spoiling a clean police conduct certificate, it hangs on one’s head in case another offence is committed.

It was not the first time that individuals pleaded guilty to hate speech on the social media. Very often people post their comments without really thinking ahead, doing so in the heat of the moment and believing that they are within their rights to express their opinion.

But, as the magistrate said, one can be critical without being offensive.

What was different is that the case involved 20 people, all of whom admitted to their guilt. It is probable that they realised that they had made a mistake soon after they posted their comment, but by then it was too late and somebody had had enough time to take screenshots and inform the police.

One hopes that such judgments will serve as a deterrent to others. Unfortunately, we have seen a growing trend of hate speech on social media in the past months, not only on matters that could be considered as racist. There have been many times when people ended up arguing heavily and using strong language about a million other things, although it must be said that it is usually about politics.

It is clear that some have not yet understood that what they are writing on social media is not the same as saying it to a friend or two in a bar or office.

It is also hoped that, when such incidents happen again, similar charges are brought against the offenders.

Having said this, one cannot expect the police to have the resources to monitor all that is taking place on the social media. Still, once they do get to know about what could potentially be hateful writings, the police are duty bound to act as they did in this particular case.

It is a pity that social media is used to spew hate when there is disagreement or to vomit racist comments.

Such court judgments should hopefully lead to a better understanding of what kind of behaviour is expected on the social media.

Social media was invented as a good thing but, as often happens, it quickly changed into a platform for hateful exchanges. Such a pity.


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