An EU social media police is not the way to go

We have all seen it; hateful statements flourish on the Internet, on reputable news sites as well as in murky discussion forums. Hate speech is an old phenomenon, but it seems the Internet has greased the joints of those who seek to use speech to incite hatred. Online hate speech again made the headlines when Liberal Commissioner Věra Jourová on 1 October called for Member States to criminalize hate speech, upholding the EU framework decision on fighting racism and xenophobia. Only days later a young and dynamic panel met for a Transatlantic Dialogue Luncheon to discuss online hate speech organized by FNF and the AJC Transatlantic Institute. Is the criminalization of hate speech the way to also combat it online, or are there other tools at our disposal? Do we need an EU social media police?


Why is online so much worse than in person?

The Internet gives users a veil of anonymity and an instant ability to publish hateful remarks. Where editors decide which letters to the editor would make it to a newspaper, today a user can instantaneously comment most online articles, sometimes even without identifying him or herself. Newspapers have learnt to carefully watch these commentary fields, but even with intensive editing, hateful comments are instantly published. Where in the past official media channels acted as gate-keepers for what was published in mainstream media, the Internet has given every Tom, Dick and Harry the chance to set up a blog where they can promote their own unfiltered opinions. Liberals have welcomed the proliferation of information in cyberspace, but also recognize that just as we have rules in the offline world to govern hate speech, the Internet should also not be a Wild West where everything goes.

It’s all in the wording

What constitutes hate speech has always been a sticky issue because the definition also determines what should and should not be criminalized. As Milosz Hodun, a member of the Polish foundation Projekt Polska illustrated, hate speech can be directed against national minorities, religious communities, gender groups, sexual minorities and last but not least also against select individuals. Anti-Semitism researcher, Matthias Becker, also warned against implicitly laden hate speech, especially in the case of anti-Semitism, where his research shows that anti-Semites are using increasingly subtly forms to get their message of hate across. Particularly in the case of anti-Semites, apparent critique of Israel is used to mask outright forms of hate speech. The subtle and diverse nature of hate speech led Hodun to argue in favour of a broader definition that does not exclude any group as recipients of hate speech. His proposed definition would read:

Hate speech covers all forms of expression which is spread to, incite, promote or justify hatred based on race, nationality or ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, political views, age and social background, or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin. Hate speech can target both groups and individuals.

More civil society, more education

Europe has a thriving civil society and especially Hodun emphasized the crucial role civil society organisations such as his own can help stop online hate. In Poland, the platform Hejtstop is a civil society initiative founded by young activists keen to stop hate speech in all its forms, from graffiti to statements on Facebook. Hejtstop, which Hodun co-founded, allows individuals to anonymously report hate speech in a direct and efficient way. Another important civil society initiative comes from the Antonio-Amadeu-Stiftung in Germany, which has developed an automated bot which counters clear hate speech posted online. Becker, however, warned against overreliance on such automated tools as a bot which he does not believe capable of catching all linguistic subtleties of online hate speech. All speakers instead argued in favour of a vibrant civil society which plays a key role in countering online hate speech.

Civil society can and should however not carry the burden of responding to online hate speech. As one audience member reiterated, without educating future generations on what is appropriate and inappropriate speech online, we will not be able to change the trend online. In the course of the discussion several audience members spoke out in favour of prioirtising education as the tool for countering online hate speech in the long term, preferring to prioritise the use of funds for this rather than for criminal litigation. As Mannfolk reiterated in paraphrasing Swedish author Jan Guillou, online media has increased the speed of interaction and removed obstacles which might in the past have served to stop haters from hating. With the click of a button you can now espouse hatred which in the past would have to be served by letters or phone calls. Educating the young to pause when they feel the need to voice their hatred in an unfiltered way online is essential, according to Mannfolk.

Talking back to haters, using technology to our advantage

Panellists discussing ways to stop hate online
Panellists discussing ways to stop hate online

Talking back to those who spew hate online, or counter-speech, is seen as a central tool for civil society activists and members of the public more generally. Head of Communications from the liberal SFP party in Finland pointed out that it was up to every citizen to counter hate speech in his or her local community, be it online or offline.

Reinforcing the liberal belief in individual responsibility, Mannfolk argued that we must all do more to engage with those who hate online, even if it might prove uncomfortable. He was cautious about the approach of several Finnish periodicals to close their online commentary as a result of an increase in hate speech. Instead Mannfolk suggested we look into the way anti-bullying efforts have changed the tide of online bullying in Sweden and Finland as a model which might also help in combatting hate speech online.

In cooperation with the major internet operators, technology allows us to remove outright hateful posts or even ensure that they never reach centre stage of a commentary field. With business on board future versions of trusted social media platforms can be built in a way which allows and encourages exchange but which gives an outright and clear no to anyone attempting to spew hate. For this reason, Hodun stressed the need for further dialogue, not only between EU institutions and industry, but also in a triangle including EU member states. He praised the EU Commission’s first Colloquium on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, while encouraging the Commission to reach even further with such initiatives to ensure that hate speech is not only something faced by religious minorities.

Criminalization – a tough nail

In her speech on 1 October Commissioner Jourová stressed the need for criminalizing hate speech by EU member states. Through our discussion however it became evident that criminalization is only one tool, to be used with circumspection in a limited number of cases. Just as the issue is not monolithic, so the answer also cannot be monolithic. A myriad of factors are needed for Europe to curb online hate speech. Education, civil society engagement and business dialogue are all central pieces of the puzzle. Technology has given hate mongers an additional forum, but technology, if applied in the right way, can also help find creative solutions which move beyond criminalizing hate speech.


What concrete recommendations did our panelists and audience have for curtailing online hate speech without necessarily establishing an EU social media police?

  • Make internet etiquette an integral part of primary and secondary education to ensure that future generations know the implications of online hate speech.
  • Allow civil society to thrive by supporting them from the side of business and government in countering online hate speech. Platforms such as Hejtstop in Poland have shown that civil society matters.
  • All Europeans have an individual responsibility to counter hate speech where they meet it, especially online where hateful statements have a longer shelf-life. Counter-speech remains integral to stopping online hate speech.
  • Technology gives us solutions to online hate speech, but only by getting business on board can we succeed in using technology to our advantage.
  • Internet companies should work actively to ensure that hateful comments are given less prominence on their platforms and equally important that answers are given a prominent platform.
  • Hate speech should be considered holistically as a phenomenon which affects various groups and individuals, not only specified groups.
  • Criminalization remains an important tool to combat hate speech, but especially online it is equally important to work with governments, business and civil society to prevent hate speech from being published in the first place.
  • Fight online hate speech at all levels, but do not centralize the response at EU level.

Håvard Sandvik,  European Affairs Manager FNF

Håvard Sandvik
European Affairs Manager