Freedom of speech, hate speech and the Internet - the role for community response?
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While attending the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) recently, I went to an interesting session about the issue of hate speech in the context of the Internet. While some of the panelists argued that there need to be boundaries and actions taken when acts of hate speech are committed, others argued that we need to be careful when advocating for control over what people say on the Internet, lest 'hate speech' be used as an argument to suppress freedom of expression more generally. Freedom of expression is a human right, however so is the right to dignity and this is where a balance needs to be established.
This is not a new issue - it has existed in the context of traditional media too - but the Internet, and especially social media, has made it a little more complicated. The Internet extends way beyond national boundaries and country-specific legislation, and the potential audience for any one message is much greater.
When it came to talking about solutions during the session some people were really behind the idea of community response and moderation. What this means is that other members of the so-called community - other Facebook or Twitter users for example - take action against someone spreading hateful racists, sexists or xenophobic messages online. The user can either be reported, blocked or have their comments demoted. Sometimes other users will send him or her messages to show their disapproval.
On one hand this sounds easy and cost effective. However it is not always so simple: sometimes the wider community is too broad or uninterested and no action takes place; sometimes members of the community overreact and engage in hate speech themselves; some users may be protected by anonymity; and sometimes there are serious offline consequences to hate speech online and greater action is needed. Where I come from - South Africa - there have been a few cases where people who posted racist tweets were not only reprimanded by the Twitter community in the country but were also reported to the Human Rights Commission.I would like to hear your thoughts on this - have you ever reported a user you felt was abusing someone else's right to dignity? How do you feel about community moderation and do you have any other suggestions?