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Global rules needed to tackle social media hate crime

Countries must work together to tackle hate crime, says leading counter-terrorism academic at Leeds Law School.

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Dr David Lowe, senior research fellow at Leeds Law School, Leeds Beckett University, and a former counter-terrorism detective, argues for action over global hate crime legislation:

The Christchurch terrorist attack resulting in 50 deaths of men, women and children worshipping at their mosque resulted in global shock and revulsion.

What makes this attack all the more shocking is the gunman attached a camera to himself and filmed the attack on a live Facebook feed.

As he did so followers around the world with the same extreme far-right views encouraged and cheered him on. As a result a number of state governments have criticised social media companies and are looking to bring these companies to account when they allow extremist and violent content to remain on their sites.

This has been an issue causing concern over a number of years. Companies such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have self-regulated standards regarding posts promoting hate and violence.

For example, while consistently closing Islamic State accounts, Twitter closed the UK group Britain First’s account, including its leaders Paul Golding and Jeyda Fransen’s accounts and more recently those related to Tommy Robinson.

While these companies have algorithms to identify hate posts, many are not identified. It also requires human eyes to identify these posts making it imperative to recruit more people to this task.

Social media companies reluctance to delete offensive posts or to close accounts centres of freedom of expression as these companies do not want to be seen as censoring free speech.

Getting the balance right is not as straight forward as first appears.

Regarding freedom of expression in the Redmond-Bate case the UK judiciary stated freedom of expression includes the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, provided it does not tend to provoke violence, adding freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.

Therefore speech that provokes violence is not freedom of expression.

This was a key to the UK being the first to proscribe extreme far-right groups (National Action, Scottish Dawn and NS131) as terrorist organisations as they glorified and promoted violence to advance their cause, including starting a race war, with the catalyst being these groups glorifying the murder of the MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair in 2016.

While Islamist and dissident Irish republican and loyalist groups have been banned as terrorist organisations in other states, they have not followed the UK in relation to the far-right.
There is also inconsistency between states in relation to defining hate crime.

The UK and Canada have statutory hate crime offences, while in Australia it is limited with the victim having to prosecute an offender not the state. In the US and New Zealand, there is not hate crime legislation, due to issues related to impinging on freedom of expression.

If states have inconsistency in relation to what legally amounts to hate and freedom of expression, this has a knock-on effect with the global social media companies’ decisions of what posts to delete or ban.

Following the Christchurch attack the New Zealand Police Commissioner, Mike Bush said the police and the Human Rights Commission were investigating whether a new category of offence should be created.

This is a step in the right direction, but as electronic communications is global, as we witnessed with the Islamist groups, we are increasingly seeing the internationalisation of far-right activity.

It is imperative states to work together in producing consistency in statutory definitions of hate crime that crosses the parameters of what is acceptable in freedom of expression.

This will not only assist the social media companies, but will set global parameters of what is and isn’t legally accepted within freedom of expression making it easier for states to regulate companies not complying with the law.

Dr David Lowe is a senior research fellow at Leeds Law School at Leeds Beckett University and a former counter-terrorism detective. He provides expert witness services to the police on terrorism law and terrorists’ use of tradecraft (counter-surveillance) and is currently involved in projects related to Prevent and Prepare strands of the UK government’s CONTEST programme.

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