The effects of online hate speech are as serious as any type of harassment. For this and many other reasons, tackling hate speech has become a recognized priority in the European Union. But is hate speech the name of the disease we need a cure for, or is hate speech just a symptom of a much greater problem?
Facebook is now used as a public platform for political debate. It is easy therefore to guess what a political profile looks like based on a user's likes, shares and comments on political issues. Our Facebook activity is not the only element that makes Facebook's guess an easy one. Instead, the tech giant collects data from a variety of many other sources, all beautifully visualized by ShareLab's researchers here. But how does this relate to hate speech?
Making of Hate Speech
Users are more likely to engage with content they already agree with, points a study. Because Facebook's revenue depends on the amount of data produced, it is in the company's interest to create as much engagement (data) on its platform. A way of increasing engagement is by adjusting the users' Newsfeed according to their political preference. The result is often referred to as an opinion bubble, or echo chamber. Members of an user's echo chamber can mobilize very fast around a topic they agree with and in turn, mobilize other users and so on. This is part of the explanation of rising online political action, seen by skeptics as clicktivism / slacktivism. These terms refer to the deterioration of protest, it becoming a superficial and seasonal online performance. But this matters less, as long as users are keeping their fingers warm.
Being in an online opinion bubble also means having your opinions reinforced by likeminded Facebook friends, and never challenged by different perspectives. Political identities formed in this way can not take criticism and are not used to debating with opposing views in a rational way. Such individuals will instead use emotion - rich arguments to impose their point and prove their loyalty to the ideological bubble Facebook has created for them. Having such people dispute online often ends up in a polarized debate, with competing ideological extremes. Soon, there are no gradients in the discussions, everything becoming black or white. Finally, it can easily degenerate in hate speech.
Hate speech and laws
While hate speech is illegal within the EU, a recent project financed by the European Commission warned about the “huge disparities” on what constitutes illegal hate speech among Member States. Despite issues in defining the term, EU invokes hate speech when proposes regulations over online content such as the proposal for a revised AudioVisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) or Germany's NetzDG. Within these legal frameworks, social media platforms would have to self-regulate. This means they will decide what is legal and what is not in terms of hate speech and remove the content accordingly. It is curious why the EU would assume the 'huge disparities' quoted above would be solved by profit-driven entities as Facebook. The fact that such tech giants can not be neutral should already be obvious. A recent ProPublica investigation shows the platform's bias and concludes algorithms protect white men more from hate speech than they protect black children. Critics pointed at the privatization of EU law implementation, reduced freedom of expression and identified these legal measures as new tools of censorship.
Hate is power, hate is money
It sounds like trying to eliminate hate speech content only attracts more issues, such as... internet censorship. Is hate speech really the issue then? What about the way we talk politics on social media platforms?
A couple of years ago there was a funny saying that went like: "If it's on TV, it must be true". It mocked those who believed everything they're seeing on news and really pointed at media being a propelling shaper of information, rather than a neutral exposer.
Unfortunately, the shift to debating politics on social media completely deteriorated debate's focus on rational arguments. Instead of rational arguments, political statements now have to be (emotionally) engaging. What matters now when we think of quality in social media political discussions is how how viral it goes. A way of orchestrating virality, on top of paying for ads, is being controversial. Below are some of the, at the time, soon-to-be President of the United States.
Unless you're part of KKK or the like, hate speech is controversial. As soon as it is shared online, it usually engages a lot of audience. According to a study around the virality of online content, hate arises from anger, which is an activating emotion. Users engage through clicks, the hate speech becomes viral, reinforces existing opinions and even activates unconvinced users who are inclined to agree with that political message. Because hate is aimed (at something/someone), hate speech promotes a political agenda. By pursuing and disseminating this agenda, hate speech is the source of political power.
Moreover, due to its activating properties, hate speech is a strong source of data. Virality is embedded in controversial hateful discourse and such content is prone to go viral. Virality means increased engagement. Engagement means data. Data means gold for Facebook. Hate speech is also a great tool for online political campaigning. Many governments have been caught disseminating it by paying ads to Facebook. By creating data and having to pay for its dissemination, hate speech also creates economic value.
And this is where the issue lays:
Hate speech is useful for political and economic purposes.
The offline version of hate speech that brings both political and economic value is, well... you guessed it - War. Online, the war goes happens via keyboards.
Hate speech is not the disease. Hate speech is the outcome of a problem everyone avoids to address – paid online political campaigning. This is the mechanism that makes political opinion bubbles be a juicy fruit for populist politicians. This is the mechanism that turns irrational online arguments viral. This is the mechanism that turns virality into political power for politicians and economical power for Facebook. This is the mechanisms that turns us all, online citizens, into online populist politicians. This mechanism is the root of issues such as hate speech.
Will this system be addressed by legislation? Will politicians bite the hand that feeds them? Or is hate speech just a good excuse for both EU and Facebook to accelerate the development of content filtering algorithms?
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