Skip to content

U.N. expert: world 'failing' on hate speech

Governments and businesses including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are doing far too little to prevent violence from online hate speech, a U.N. expert said.

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — Governments and businesses around the world including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are doing far too little to prevent violence from online hate speech, the U.N.'s top independent expert in the field reported on Monday.

David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, urged nations and companies to ensure their policies on hate speech comply with international human rights law.

“The prevalence of online hate poses challenges to everyone, first and foremost the marginalized individuals who are its principal targets,” Kaye said in a report to the U.N. General Assembly.

“Unfortunately, states and companies are failing to prevent 'hate speech' from becoming the next 'fake news,' an ambiguous and politicized term subject to governmental abuse and company discretion," he said.

Facebook said last month that politicians' posts — even those it does not fact-check — would be labeled as "newsworthy" content that is allowed to remain online, even if it violated the company's community standards.

A key aspect of the Internet's transforming power in modern culture and democracies has always been its capacity to spread a free flow of information.

In the United States, home to many of the world's largest social media companies, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that hate speech, no matter how offensive, is covered under the Constitution's First Amendment protections for free speech.

But while companies such as Facebook and Twitter try to limit online harassment, the use of such platforms to incite violence and disinformation has brought complex debates over where to draw the line in the spectrum between these companies' editorial powers and their responsibilities to a safe and just society.

Free speech advocates say government regulations in free societies run the risk of legitimizing repressive tactics used in nations such as China and Russia. Kaye's report noted that hate speech, shorthand for a phenomenon undefined under international law, has "a double-edge ambiguity" that can be easily misused.

"Many governments use ‘hate speech’ like ‘fake news’ to attack political enemies, non-believers, dissenters and critics," the report said.

"Yet the phrase’s weakness (‘it’s just speech’) also seems to inhibit governments and companies from addressing genuine harms such as the kind that incites violence or discrimination against the vulnerable or the silencing of the marginalized," it said. "The situation frustrates a public that often perceives rampant online abuse."

Kaye argued that hate speech should be regulated to prevent it from inciting violence or depriving other people of their right to express themselves freely. He said international treaties and human rights laws offer standards for online expression that nations and businesses can apply to ensure respectful discourse online.

Hate speech 'has become mainstream'

In an open letter published last month, dozens of U.N. experts and working groups responsible for monitoring specific areas of human rights warned that online and real-world hate speech has inflamed tensions among societies, in some cases inciting deadly attacks around the world.

"We are alarmed by the recent increase in hateful messages and incitement to discrimination and hatred against migrants, minority groups and various ethnic groups, as well as the defenders of their rights, in numerous countries," the letter released by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, began.

"Hate speech, both online and offline, has exacerbated societal and racial tensions, inciting attacks with deadly consequences around the world," the experts said. "It has become mainstream in political systems worldwide and threatens democratic values, social stability and peace. Hate-fueled ideas and advocacy coarsen public discourse and weaken the social fabric of countries."

The experts also said they were "gravely concerned that leaders, senior government officials, politicians and other prominent figures spread fear among the public against migrants or those seen as 'the others,' for their own political gain."

But rather than call for more restrictions on freedom of expression which is under attack worldwide, the experts said, promotion of free expression is needed to counter hate speech. "We are concerned about the abuse of 'hate speech' as a term to undermine legitimate dissent," they said.