Thursday, October 31, 2013

Defining the Line: Hate Speech

Image by Carlos Latuff
Among the biggest plagues of the internet is hate speech. Anyone and everyone can be affected by hate speech, and the perpetrators defend it with the prospect of freedom of speech. While hate speech is technically a form of free speech, it should be regulated because of the harm it can or has caused.

According to the Huffington Post, “Stricter regulation of Internet speech will not be popular with the libertarian-minded citizens of the United States, but it's necessary.” The key word here is libertarian. By definition, libertarians hold liberty above all other political aspects. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights is the right of free speech. The general interpretation of this amendment is absolute free speech with little restriction. However, the same article proves that this is not the case because “The court has imposed numerous restrictions on speech. Fighting words, libel and child pornography are all banned.” They are banned for good reason, too. Masking something as dreadful as child pornography as “free speech” is simply absurd. The treatment that hate speech receives should be no different because it has the potential to be just as harmful.

As one of the largest social networking sites, Facebook is ripe with opinions, debates, and tons of hate speech, of course. Matthias C. Kettemann has taken his time digging through Facebook’s new Abuse Standard 6.2 manual, and writing about the relationship that humor and hate speech has. He has found extremely arbitrary policies such as “Users are also not allowed to describe sexual activity in writing, except when an attempt at humor or insult.” Basically this allows users to make sex jokes or sexually charged insults towards whomever they wish, but activity is a BIG NO-NO. That raises some eyebrows. Back on the topic of hate speech, the guidelines in the manual says “humor overrules hate speech UNLESS slur words are present or the humor is not evident.” Notice how humor is present again. One of the big parts of hate speech is humor. Hate speech isn't just attacking one group of people directly, it is also comprised of jokes that include, but are not limited to racism, homophobia, and misogyny. There is a large gray area that separates humor and hate speech, and frankly, Facebook isn't doing a good job of defining that line. Laura Bates wrote about that line in The Guardian. Laura quotes Facebook's community standards which says "Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech." However, Laura has made it clear that "how it makes that distinction" is well, not clear. Hate speech, arbitrary policies, poor moderation, and a large community such as Facebook is simply a recipe for disaster.

Bringing about the complete annihilation of hate speech without damaging anyone’s right of free speech seems like one of the best things ever. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible and would only make things worse. Take something like Twitter, an extremely popular microblogging site with millions of users and points of view. Just like Facebook, there’s still a ton of hate speech on there. Suppressing hate speech so vigorously is like trying to plug up a volcano. One way or another, the theoretical volcano that is hate speech would just explode, and even more violently than before because everything that was blocked would just be released at once. Greg Lukianoff also has an analogy about banning hate speech. He states that "forcing hate speech underground by banning it is like taking Xanax for syphilis. You may briefly feel better about your horrible disease, but your sickness will only get worse." Even if you could get rid of it, it will only provide temporary relief. What I wish is regulation of hate speech and good moderation policies, which ensures that the worst of hate speech will never see the light of day while others can communicate freely.

Hate speech is actually banned in several countries like Canada, Australia, and India, but we will be focusing on the United Kingdom’s stance on hate speech and how banning it worked out for them. The penalty for hate speech in the UK is usually fines and/or imprisonment. However that usually doesn’t stop some anonymous individuals from expressing their hateful opinions. Like Facebook’s moderation policy, the UK’s hate speech can be arbitrary. In Douglas Murray’s article about double standards in the UK’s hate speech laws, he basically writes that if you were a non-Muslim and wrote something like “Islam is a religion and a belief system that mandates warfare against unbelievers for the purpose for establishing a societal model that is absolutely incompatible with Western society. Because of media and general government unwillingness to face the sources of Islamic terrorism these things remain largely unknown,” then you aren't allowed to enter the UK. However, these words were uttered by Robert Spencer, author of the Islamophobic-considered blog Jihad Watch. This fact seems to contradict my point, BUT the words were stated to be the reason for his refusal by the Home Secretary. If you are a Muslim, however, and write something like “Devotion to Jihad for the sake of Allah, and the desire to shed blood, to smash skulls and to sever limbs for the sake of Allah and in defense of His religion, is, undoubtedly, an honor for the believer”, then you’re just fine! I don’t know if you’re a fan of smashing skulls, but I think that the second statement is far more radical than the first and would be more likely to cause trouble. The first statement just doesn't seem like hate speech, either. It doesn't TRY to attack Islam or it’s believers, despite being from someone that is considered an Islamophobe. It seems like a pretty constructive statement to me. As you can see, England’s abolishing of hate speech is as about as effective as taking aspirin to stop bleeding.

Obviously, hate speech is a huge problem in today’s technological age, where the world is so much easier to access. What I’m trying to get across here is A: Hate speech is bad and something needs to be done about it. B: There’s a huge gray area between hate speech and other things like humor and constructive discussion. C: Banning it is tough and it will make the problem worse. D: Countries have actually outlawed hate speech and it didn't work well. Finally, point E, which is compromise between the libertarians and those who want to eradicate hate speech. We can’t just leave hate speech around and we can’t outlaw it without consequences. The best option here is regulation. Now, you might ask who’s doing the regulating. It’s really up to the private companies and administrators of the sites on which hate speech takes place. They can ban comments at their own discretion. Users of services can help using the Report Abuse button, but that has the potential for abuse and moderators would have to wade through many false reports. Governments can’t legally interfere with the sites, but they could chime in with their opinion. Regulation is the safest option and it still gets the job done.

Comments? Questions? Hate Speech? Put them all down below!

Conclusion Update: November 14, 2013

Hello, readers and fellow bloggers. I would like to impart my gratitude to those who spoke up with me or against me to discuss the dreadful topic of hate speech. As you might know, this post is about my argument for regulation of hate speech in response to the harm that hate speech inflicts, despite it technically being a form of free speech. I frequently called for the formation of a line that separates humor from hate speech, a line that is extremely blurred today. The comments came from several people with different stances to the situation. Despite differing opinions that some people have, I remain adamant in regards to my opinion on the control of hate speech. The comments clarified and even amplified my stance on the matter. The differing opinions that some commenters left forced me to go through all my evidence, which gave me fuel for my counter-argument fire, as well as meat for the main post. (I admit I was a little harsh with the replies. Oh well.) I was both relieved and disappointed that I did not have to search for new evidence for my replies. Relieved because less work for the procrastinator that is me. Disappointed that I did not get to look at even more opinions on the topic of hate speech. On the topic of blogging, I very much enjoyed the experience. To splatter my entire viewpoint of a situation on a page and have it evaluated is a very satisfying experience. I especially love that you have a little more freedom to express yourself and use your own "voice." I would certainly not type up a school essay with the same vigor and venom. Blogging is a great way to improve your writing and voice your opinions. I will definitely blog again somewhere down the road, and I look forward to reliving the experience.


  1. I agree with you Jeff about the fact that hate speech is a plague sweeping across the internet and that banning it is impossible, but there are countermeasures to decrease the amount of vile and uneducated comments. Your idea about a third party regulator is great. This company is able to work outside the government and able to define hate speech, but this while idea is tough. The fact that a single company or a conglomerate would be responsible for the censorship of the entire internet would be extremely hard because they would need the permission of most of the world. Others would fight this because its a violation of free speech. They argue that if you define free speech then its not free anymore. Defining something that is declared free doesn't make sense, free should be free. Great job, Jeff

    Pretty Pants The Man.

    1. Hello Pretty Pants The Man,
      Such a fair AND effective internet police does seem like quite the daydream. While this is still a theory, man has had the reputation of doing difficult and seemingly impossible things, so the idea of a moderation body is possible but hard, nevertheless. Though there are problems with where they would be sourcing the labor from, plus regulation, money, and possible issues with abuse of power, among other complications.
      On the topic of free speech, the concept of free speech is extremely arbitrary. What is too far? Free speech is easily abused and thats why there has to be a line. The problem is finding a line that everyone agrees with. If used for bad things, free speech is nothing. One of my favorite things to say about freedom and free speech is "Absolute freedom is no better than anarchy".
      Thank you for your reply.

  2. This is a very thoughtful essay about an extremely complex issue, Jeff. Thank you for posting it. I think you make an interesting point about the unpredictability and possible unfairness of the British Government as it tries to regulate hate speech. However, I am concerned that the quality of the source may have biased the conclusions. Mr. Murray's article gives little background about the two people in question who seek to enter the UK. Moreover, Mr. Murray is a member of the Henry Jackson Society which is a neoconservative organization that has a reputation for extreme views. (See the Mideast Monitor 8 Mar 2013 article by Laura Stuart). I bring this up because I would like to know if you found any other examples of the government's inability to effectively regulate hate speech. It seems like relying on private companies to do the job of maintaining civil speech would not be consistent either. --Mrs. Riches

    1. Hello Mrs. Riches
      Murray and Spencer both have extreme backgrounds, thats for sure. Though I feel that (in most cases) people make more compelling arguments when they are far on a side, hence the extreme views. It's understandable that governments try to use info like this to prevent people from spreading hate, or so they believe. I have not found any significant examples of government attempts to regulate hate speech other than barring someone from entering their country. Spencer and Geller being banned from the UK really resonated with me.

  3. I do think you are right about something needing to be done about hate speech. However I do not agree with you when you say that banning hate speech will make the problem worse. If people were to come up with punishments as well as banning hate speech then I think that would be pretty effective. It is a sad reality that hate speech is as big of a problem as it is and from early on, like comments on my blog have made clear, people need to be taught how to use the internet appropriately from an early age so they would know how to talk to people online.

    1. Hello, Thing 1
      What sort of punishments should be given to people that defy the ban? Account and IP Banning are easily circumvented and you can't prosecute a random anon because A: He or she would be tough to track down B: They would just say that they are exercising their right of free speech. The internet is an extremely chaotic place and rules are far easier to break. I myself believe that the happy medium is the best solution to any problem. Thank you for your contribution to my post.

  4. Jeff, your post is rapidly becoming one where the comments are every bit as interesting as the original piece. Clearly this is a thought-provoking topic. Sites like the New York Times have been successful in moderating comments online and avoiding inflammatory speech. As YouTube changes its commenting policies (already provoking disdain among users) in an effort to weed out the super-trolls, it will be interesting to see if users can turn the tide and regulate themselves. Ironically, I can't find a profanity-free source to link here that would explain this except this very generic one. Ultimately, I think you and Pretty Pants the Man are right to say the gargantuan task of policing speech online is impossible for any one group of people. Can voting comments up or down in a democratic fashion actually win out? We shall see. In the meantime, in this country at least, the Supreme Court must determine the limits of free speech online. History proves this to be a massively complex constitutional issue.


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