Stop Outsourcing the Regulation of Hate Speech to Social Media

By Tusikov, Natasha; Professor, Assistant et al. | The Canadian Press, March 28, 2019 | Go to article overview

Stop Outsourcing the Regulation of Hate Speech to Social Media


Tusikov, Natasha, Professor, Assistant, Criminology, Department of Social Science, University, York, Canada and Blayne Haggart, Associate Professor of Political Science, University, Brock, The Canadian Press


Stop outsourcing the regulation of hate speech to social media

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Authors: Natasha Tusikov, Assistant Professor, Criminology, Department of Social Science, York University, Canada and Blayne Haggart, Associate Professor of Political Science, Brock University

When it comes to dealing with online hate speech, we've ended up in the worst of all possible worlds.

On the one hand, you have social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter that seem extremely reluctant to ban white supremacists and actual neo-Nazis, but enthusiastically enforce their own capricious terms of service to keep adults safe from such harmful things as the female nipple. That is, until something horrific happens, such as the Christchurch massacre, when they decide -- after the fact -- that some content needed to be banned.

This very much includes Facebook's decision this week to ban white nationalist content, a move that critics have demanded for years and that Facebook could have introduced at any time.

On the other hand, you have democratic governments (leaving authoritarian countries like China out of the mix) that have become far too comfortable exerting behind-the-scenes pressure on platforms to remove content or withdraw their services in the absence of legislation or formal legal orders.

Whether it's pressure on companies to withdraw web-hosting and payments services from Wikileaks following the leak of U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010, or the documented influence of the American government to pressure companies like Google into supposedly "industry-driven" trademark enforcement efforts, government regulation of speech is happening, but without any real accountability.

Debating the regulation of online speech

This reality is nowhere reflected in the debates over whether and/or how to regulate online speech. Instead of grappling with these basic facts, far too much of the debate over how to regulate social media is caught up in a U.S.-driven, libertarian-derived fever dream that sees all speech regulation as inherently problematic, cannot differentiate between liberal-democratic and totalitarian governments, and is obsessed with deploying technological tools to allow global platforms to deal with any problems.

In other words, governments are regulating speech, but not through democratic channels. Online platforms and internet service providers are regulating speech based on self-interested terms of service. That is, until the moment they decide to drop the banhammer.

The problem, to be crystal clear, is not that governments and these companies are regulating online content. All societies recognize that some kinds of speech are inherently destabilizing or harmful to individuals or specific communities. Child pornography is the most obvious example of this type of content.

Beyond such a straightforward example, different societies will draw different lines between acceptable and unacceptable content -- think Germany's ban on public Holocaust denialism -- but every society does have a line. …

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