Hate Speech, Fake News, and Whatsapp

Introduction: “Hate speech” or “extreme speech” are terms that can be heard daily around the world, but particularly, on many news channels in America. Hate speech is defined by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI, 2020) as “ …covering many forms of expressions which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred, violence, and discrimination against a person or group of persons for a variety of reasons”( ECRI, 2020). While few people justify the use of hate or extremist speech online, the method of dealing with the issue is a polarizing issue. Hate speech has always been a complicated issue in the world, however, is it particularly divisive in the United States of America due to its past and current racially motivated transgressions. As freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment in the United States Constitution, some argue that any limitations upon speech would be a violation of one’s civil rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Over the years, the issue of hate speech has become more or less relevant, but with the growth of online far right activity in the United States of America, some Americans feel that it is particularly important to regulate hate speech. Online far right activity tends to continue extremist views on gender, race, and religion. There is a grey area, however,  in the line to define what is considered hate speech, and how it should be regulated and who should regulate it. The regulation of “hate speech” creates the question of “is it better to let everyone express their opinions no matter the consequences or to allow censorship to stop the spread of hate speech and extremist ideology?

Speech Regulation: Currently, one reason online speech is not able to be regulated in the United States is due to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. While the Communications Decency Act was originally thought to limit speech online, Section 230 has become one of the most challenging legislations to create limitations around. Section 230 provides immunity of all liability for providers and users of an interactive computer service of content that is published by other people. Thus, websites and internet providers are not held responsible for what is posted online, users are not held responsible for the reactions their posts create, and those who repost something are not held responsible for the original post. Regulating speech with such large gaps in liability is difficult. Limiting someone’s ability to post, a website’s ability to host content or an internet provider’s ability to provide access to a website would all violate Section 230.  So, how does one create regulations or decide if regulations are needed? Many consider speech that incites violence to be the cut-off boundary of when speech should be regulated. However, online systems have failed at fully being able to access the threat of online speech. Recent studies from the Center for the study of Hate and Extremism have shown links between mass shootings in the US and political discourse and hate crimes (Colagrossi, 2019). While it is impossible to fully create a link between the two without further research, several mass shootings have had social media signs prior to the tragedies unfolding. With shooters taking photos with guns and posting threatening messages online prior to their rampages, it is difficult for one to understand how these posts would not be flagged as inciting violence or dangerous enough to cause concern or censorship. In addition, social media is not only the source of political discourse for some Americans but also a large source of news. In a recent article Peter Suciu stated, “According to a newly published Pew Research Center report 55% of U.S. adults now get their news from social media either “often” or “sometimes” – an 8% increase from last year. About three-in-ten (28%) said they get their news “often,” up from 20% in 2018” (Suciu, 2019). With so many Americans interacting in social media spaces for news, political discourse, and social interactions, it is concerning that so little is done to prevent the spread of false information or extremist ideology. However, with recent scandals and tragic events, more people are calling for a crackdown of online content. 

Fake News: The spread of information online that is false and branded as news has become the first target in cracking down on online speech. As social media was a large source of misinformation during the 2016 presidential election, some social networks have seen backlash. Most notably, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal caused Mark Zuckerberg to testify in front of Congress. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revolves around Facebook’s harvesting of user data for political advertisements. The scandal is possibly the largest social media scandal to emerge from the election. Facebook was also criticized for allowing false ads to be purchased and promoted during the scandal. This scandal has been attributed to voter’s lack of informed decision making, due to tailored political ads priming them for certain candidates. As a result, users have become more skeptical about what information they can trust. This feeling of mistrust has provoked more citizens to support online speech restrictions to prevent the spread of fake news and skeptical of news in online spaces.

Innovation of Usage: Facebook and social media since their inception have provided platforms for public expression of political views.. While social media is becoming less trusted in the U.S. for political ideals and news, other countries have begun to use it for political campaigning. Whatsapp, which is owned by Facebook, is emerging as a powerful tool in political campaigning (Tactical Tech, 2019). In fact, in a recent study by Tactical Tech, Whatsapp was found to be the most delivery for political messages for counties in the Global South (Tactical Tech, 2019). Due to the less public nature of the messaging system, it has created a more personal relationship with users (Tactical Tech, 2019). Whatsapp also encrypts its messages from end to end meaning no other parties receive the messages except those intended to receive it. However, Facebook still has access to who sends messages, from where, and to whom (Tactical Tech, 2019). So, while the app allows users to feel like political messages are more personal, the messages are still targeted and phone number data is being accessed in order to send the messages (Tactical Tech, 2019). Thus, while Whatsapp may be an emerging political platform in some countries, the usage of the app for political messaging still has questionable aspects. 

Ending thoughts: Hate speech, fake news, and data collection are major concerns on social media and the internet as a whole. However, the solution to how to regulate the issues is still largely unknown. While alternative media and independent news are options, everything always comes with a bias so it is not a perfect solution. Also, the regulation of speech comes with complications. Is more government interference a good thing when it stops extremist views or is more interference allowing the government to decide what may be defined as extremist views online? This divisive issue is one that will likely not have a clear cut solution in the near future. However, alternative media and education of the public on issues can better help to prevent the spread of false information and extremist views. Recently, the creation of online platforms and tools dedicated to reporting extremist content and fact-checking are becoming more popular. These features allow the user to feel more confident in the news the receive. Data acceptance policies are another method that gives users more power over their online presence. In conclusion, the complex issues surrounding online freedom will likely not be solved soon. However, as users become more aware of fake news, data collection, and dangerous speech online they will likely continue to demand more innovation to protect themselves online.

Works cited:

Suciu, P. (n.d). More Americans Are Getting Their News From Social Media. Retrieved April 21, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2019/10/11/more-americans-are-getting-their-news-from-social-media/

WhatsApp: The Widespread Use of WhatsApp in Political Campaigning in the Global South. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2020, from https://ourdataourselves.tacticaltech.org/posts/whatsapp/

Colagrossi, M. (08/22/). Bigotry and hate are more linked to mass shootings than mental illness, experts say – Big Think. Retrieved April 21, 2020, from https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/bigotry-hate-mass-shootings

Hate speech and violence. (n.d.). Retrieved May 3, 2020, from https://www.coe.int/en/web/european-commission-against-racism-and-intolerance/hate-speech-and-violence

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