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Hate Speech: Internet has to be detoxified without undermining legitimate dissent, says UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Make sure civil society and experts are involved in designing and evaluating regulations.

Published: 21st January 2022 04:41 PM  |   Last Updated: 21st January 2022 04:44 PM   |  A+A-

Activists of various left organizations shout slogans during a protest against hate speech in New Delhi on Dec 29, 2021. (File Photo | AP)

By Online Desk

GENEVA: Hate speech is growing worldwide, and this trend appears to be exacerbated by the economic and social impacts of COVID-19, said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This, Bachelet noted, "profoundly threatens the values that we share – values of justice, human dignity, equality, and human rights. It heightens grievances and spurs violence and conflict. By deepening discrimination, and deterring participation, it also contributes to preventing many individuals from fully contributing to the societies in which they live."

There can be no doubt that narratives of hatred on social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat have contributed to extreme violence against minority groups in many countries – including the mass murder of the Rohingya in Myanmar in 2017 and many incidents of mass killings, such as in Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Social media are also a nexus for the abuse of women and girls, and gender diverse people, Bachelet added.

Over the past 12 months alone, Facebook has reported removing more than 100 million items as “hate speech”.

"My Office has been collaborating with Facebook, Google/YouTube and Twitter with a view to better protecting human rights defenders and more effectively responding to content that incites hostility, discrimination or violence," she noted in her address to the Italian Senate's Extraordinary Commission against intolerance, racism, anti-Semitism and incitement to hatred and violence.

All social media platforms should be guided by international human rights standards in their content moderation, and in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, they must carry out regular human rights and gender impact assessments, alongside other forms of human rights due diligence, to address the abuse and incitement to hatred that they contain.

While social media companies have clear and crucial responsibilities to moderate online content, it is States that have the fundamental obligation to adopt policies and legislation that ensure the protection of human rights online.

While social media companies have clear and crucial responsibilities to moderate online content, it is States that have the fundamental obligation to adopt policies and legislation that ensure the protection of human rights online.

However, combating hate speech is not always conducted in good faith or with respect for human rights. It is profoundly unfortunate that in a number of countries, laws claiming to combat hate speech are, in reality, employed to suppress legitimate dissent and restrict the democratic and civic space. Such efforts require urgent reform, to ensure that laws and regulations are laid out with full respect for fundamental freedoms.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has outlined five actions that could make a big difference in regulating content in the online space that includes focussing on process not content, looking at how content is being amplified or restricted and ensuring actual people – not algorithms – review complex decisions. The users should have effective opportunities to appeal against decisions they consider to be unfair, and make good remedies available for when actions by companies or States undermine their rights. Independent courts should have the final say over lawfulness of content. Make sure civil society and experts are involved in designing and evaluating regulations.

"We can – and we must – detoxify the Internet, and make it a safer place for everyone," Bachelet affirmed.

However, she emphasized that addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting the rights to participate, to access information, to speak out or to mobilize. It means keeping hate speech from escalating into incitement to discrimination and violence, which is prohibited under international law.



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