March 29, 2020

Beyond Takedown: Expanding the toolkit for responding to online hate

Rebecca J. Hamilton (with Molly K. Land), Beyond Takedown: Expanding the Toolkit for Responding to Online Hate, in Propaganda and International Criminal Law (Predrag Dojčinović, ed.)(2019).

The current preoccupation with ‘fake news’ has spurred a renewed emphasis in popular discourse on the potential harms of speech. In the world of international law, however, ‘fake news’ is far from new. Propaganda of various sorts is a well-worn tactic of governments, and in its most insidious form, it has played an instrumental role in inciting and enabling some of the worst atrocities of our time. Yet as familiar as propaganda might be in theory, it is raising new issues as it has migrated to the digital realm. Technological developments have largely outpaced existing legal and political tools for responding to the use of mass communications devices to instigate or perpetrate human rights violations.

This chapter evaluates the current practices of social media companies for responding to online hate, arguing that they are inevitably both overbroad and under-inclusive. Using the example of the role played by Facebook in the recent genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar, the chapter illustrates the failure of platform hate speech policies to address pervasive and coordinated online speech, often state-sponsored or state-aligned, denigrating a particular group that is used to justify or foster impunity for violence against that group. Addressing this “conditioning speech” requires a more tailored response that includes remedies other than content removal and account suspensions. The chapter concludes by surveying a range of innovative responses to harmful online content that would give social media platforms the flexibly to intervene earlier, but with a much lighter touch.

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