Hate crime awareness week: European states must work together to stop cyberbullying

We can tackle this without restricting freedom of speech

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We’ve seen it in more suicides laid at the door of online bullying on website Ask.fm. And we’ve seen it with the threats of  violence against British journalists and politicians via twitter. It’s also been clear elsewhere in Europe as well:  the young gay boy in Italy who killed himself after bullying online and at school, the Facebook page in France that was accused of inciting hatred against Roma, or the case in Austria where a 61-year-old was found guilty of inciting hatred of Muslims and Jews on her private Facebook page.

This is national hate crime awareness week. But since cyberhate is not just a British problem, it makes sense for Europe to work together to address it.

There are a number of measures, relatively simple to implement throughout the EU, that would bring lasting changes to the current climate of impunity that reigns on the internet and social media platforms. Most needed is political will, and the willingness to learn from the experiences of our European partners in combating cyberhate. What is tried and tested in one country probably doesn't need testing another 27 times.

Of course, any response has to take account of the right to freedom of speech. However, there is no reason for these solutions to stifle free expression. What we need are down-to-earth measures that focus on more than international criminal gangs.

One of these is education. Some offensive comments made online are not intended to be so – they are just ill-considered. So policymakers need to develop a list of benchmarks for children and young adults, informing them at school and on the web what tone is acceptable, and how you can make a negative comment without becoming abusive.

Some EU countries have specialised police units that monitor and investigate cyberhate – but not all of them. And even where they exist, such divisions are often woefully underequipped for dealing with what is still a relatively new problem. Governments have to ensure they have well-staffed, well-financed police officers trained to combat this phenomenon.

We also see time and time again that victims of hate crime do not report to the police or any other authority – because they don't think it will change anything, or sometimes because they don't trust the people they would be reporting to. There is an EU-wide helpline for victims of crime that has only been activated in five member states. Isn't it time to extend this to the other countries?

Last but not least, public figures of any kind, whether they're politicians or political commentators, need to be more explicit in their condemnation of cyberhate.

At the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights we collect hard data on cyberhate and online harassment from the perspective of those targeted, and can see clearly how deep the problem goes.

"I have the feeling that since going on Facebook, I have experienced more anti-Semitic comments in a few years than I had done my whole life," said one respondent to our recent survey of Jewish communities in the EU.

But the sentiments it expresses aren't limited to any one group.

In one of our other recent studies, a large-scale survey of 93,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people throughout the EU, up to a fifth suffered their last incidence of harassment... online. As many as 15 percent said the most serious incidence of harassment they had met with was on the internet. And our forthcoming report on violence against women will show that in the EU, up to 21 percent of young women have received unwanted sexually explicit e-mails or text messages.

It is also important to remember that incidents of online harassment or bullying do not just affect those directly targeted. They inflict terrible damage on levels of social solidarity and trust – the fundamental sense of living in a safe society with the same equal rights and protection as anyone else. This is the essence of being a citizen. And this, too, is why we need to take action on cyberhate.

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