The principle of freedom of speech, and the abuse of the anonymity of the internet, have both been hot topics of debate over the last two weeks.
Fundamentally the two are very much entwined as it is the internet that has allowed for the extraordinary mushrooming of communication around the world, and with it the amplification of hate speech and misinformation aimed at all manner of communities and ethnicities. And when we say ‘the internet’, we mean social media platforms who, as if it wasn’t enough that they are massive tax dodgers, also still fail to crack down to the necessary extent on haters.
Here in New Zealand, our government has recently sought through two different processes to make a difference. First, the Christchurch Call, which was a commitment by some world governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. And now the government’s discussion paper on hate speech reform seeks to legally muzzle people who express hateful opinions against specified groups.
This law is meaningless if we don’t know who is behind hate speech.
The problem is I believe perhaps less the hate, and more the medium. It’s clear we are still a long way off being a mature enough society to stop hating each other somewhat, but how we let people do this so easily needs to be stamped out. Last week saw the most disgusting abuse levelled online at England’s penalty missing trio at the European Championships.They were black and seemingly fair game to cowardly racists who hid behind anonymity.
Commenting in The Guardian, Barney Ronay summed up growing frustration with social media: “the idea social media companies can’t police this abuse is laughable. This is their property, their coding. Never mind algorithms. A teenage intern could have policed these players’ accounts on Sunday night with a smartphone and a delete button. All that is required is the genuine will to do it.”.
Facebook, Twitter and Google (who own YouTube) signed up to the Christchurch Call. The former two in particular tell us that they are actively removing masses of hate speech daily, and shutting down misinformation on the Covid vaccine. Clearly, they need to remove more, and be more proactive. They have created platforms that allow anyone to make up a fake ID or simply be a pumped-up keyboard warrior, and publish their unbalanced views to the world with no regard to the hurt they cause.This in turn leads to a spiral of reactive hatred. It’s toxic and we need to stop it.
We’re all fair game.White, black, fat, thin, gay, transgender, vegan, meat-eaters, 4WD drivers, farmers, Remuera housewives, golfers, fishermen, Māori, Pākehā. Or three young Englishmen who played a European final and were brave enough to step up in a penalty shootout.
What needs to happen is clear: social media companies are publishers and need to be made responsible for what they publish, like a newspaper is. They need to verify users as a real person and be able to turn these details over to the police if necessary.They must be given a much clearer set of criteria for what is ‘hate’ as opposed to ‘criticism’, and this may need to be country specific as of course our national value sets are different as we have still barely crawled out of the cave.They need to manage this. This should be Christchurch Call Pt2, this time with the US and UK as key participants as much as NZ and France last time. Our PM, never one to avoid global publicity, should surely love to grasp this need and opportunity to make it happen.
This would also reduce the ease with which children participate in these adult environments.
Back to the white paper.Such dangerous territory. What is hate speech?What is criticism? Who sets the rules? I took exception, as did many, to James Shaw recently talking about a “group of Pākehā farmers from down south…”. Was that stirring hatred on farmers? On Pākehā? Or just criticism of a group, as Shaw claimed, who avoided environmental considerations? Meanwhile media reported last week that Gemma McCaw was offended by someone commenting she’ll have her body back soon.Was that hating on recent Mums, or ex Olympians? Or just someone trying to empathise but in an unwanted way.
We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Haters gonna hate. But social media is making it too easy and NZ, and the world, needs to get a grip on it before we just tear ourselves apart. And here, we need a better debate on what really is out of bounds than a rushed government discussion paper.
– Ben Goodale is CEO of advertising agency Quantum Jump, and a regular marketing commentator.
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