Social media has made its way into almost every area of our lives, but much of it still operates outside limits that are set in the real world. Sadly our laws are insufficient to deal with online crime – and that includes hate speech.
In Germany, Angela Merkel has responded to this danger by putting pressure on social media platforms to remove malicious posts from their web pages within 24 hours or face fines. She is the first leader to recognise that the only people who benefit from the promotion of incitement to violence and the culture of conspiracy theories are extremists, whether it’s the far-right, far-left or Isis recruiters.
Merkel’s party said they will be pushing for a new law that will require Facebook and other networks to pay “a catalogue of fines” if they fail to respond to complaints and delete malicious posts in time. If the proposal is successful, it will be the strongest regulation the networks face in any country where they operate.
Social media networks have been too slow to take action themselves. A recent EU funded survey showed that only 40 per cent of all notifications of alleged illegal online hate speech are currently reviewed under 24 hours. The same report also highlights the fact that the Jewish community is the biggest target on online hatred. It is unacceptable that today law-abiding Jews should live in fear of attack and feel compelled to flee the country they love, as they have in France in their tens of thousands.
Our governments must move fast to adapt to the changing patterns of crime. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said it has 200 people in Germany working to remove racist posts and accepts its responsibility “unconditionally”, so there is no excuse for other countries not to follow the lead set by the German Chancellor. Here in the UK, the Home Affairs Select Committee is set to explore the changing patterns of hate crime online.
Some may have us believe that tackling online hate speech restricts the right to freedom of expression. But there is a point where freedom of speech ends and incitement to violence begins, where international human rights are being trampled upon to defend organisations and individuals who spew hatred online. As Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said this week, “We have to object when a line is crossed from legitimate debate to smears and abuse. Ultimately, we have to be prepared to do that most un-British of things – we have to make a scene.”
The rapid escalation hate speech online and religiously-motivated violence we are witnessing across Europe means we must now look to European political leaders to take stronger action, using legislation if necessary, to prove they’re serious about combating this problem once and for all.
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