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19 February 2021

Unboxing hate speech: European impulses for respect and solidarity on the web

Hatred, exclusion and verbal violence pose a growing threat to our democracies. Hate speech violates human rights, corrodes solidarity and the culture of debate and drives people out of the public arena. "Unboxing hate speech" focused on the actions that European institutions and the Council of Europe can take in order to defend the freedom of speech, guard human rights and democracy. 

There is no specific definition regarding hate speech as universally accepted by everyone, although some consensus can be reached inside branches which deal with it, as liberal thinkers, minority group theoreticians, psychologists, jurists or feminist activists. In general the main feature mobilized to describe groups as the core of hate speech body is race/ethnicity. Some attempt followed this line, describing hate speech as:

"antisocial oratory that is intended to incite persecution against people because of their race, colour, religion, ethnic group, or nationality, and has a substantial likelihood of causing…harm." [1]
In the present European political configuration, maybe the most important document concerning the present issue is represented by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, proclaimed by the main European Institutions – Parliament, Commission, Council – in 2000, but fully effective only after Lisbon (2009). Illustratively, the first part of this act is addressing dignity and recognize right to life, while totally rejecting torture, enslavement or death penalty. Still, the third title is the one most related to hate speech by proclaiming equality throughout law and disallowing discrimination based on disability, age and sexual orientation, or diversity based on sexual orientation, cultural, religious, linguistic criteria. Moreover, the charter is used by the judges of European Court of Human Rights in order to give a more modern reading over the European Convention on Human Rights, a document adopted back in the 1950's. (Excerpt from the article developed in the frame of the Balkan without hate project by Alexandru-George Cerchezeanu - European Fellow on Human Rights - 2016)

The event "Unboxing hate speech: European impulses for respect and solidarity on the web" was jointly organized by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the German Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection and it has taken place within the framework of Germany’s Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

There, the Minister of State called on everyone in society to do more to counter hate speech:
We can't leave minorities in society out in the cold. What's needed is a stop sign, to say no to hate speech, lies and deception - and a clear show of solidarity with the victims. We need everyone to get involved!

Schools should also teach media literacy, said Stefanie Fächner of the State Media Authority of Rhineland-Palatinate - but often, teachers don't see the issue as part of their responsibilities. "But it's an issue that needs to be addressed throughout the whole school."

In 2018 and 2019 we have implemented in Romania the project Young Digital Leaders, a Europe-wide initiative that aimed to empower young people through digital citizenship and critical thinking and media literacy skills, beyond the classroom, so that they can grow up safe, responsible digital leaders. To achieve these aims, the curriculum offers session plans and guidance for five sessions: Critical Consumers, Resilient Citizens, Effective Communicators (during which we discussed the topic of hate speech), Rights Experts and Digital Leaders. According to our research, after the workshops there was a 68% increase in students’ knowledge of how to flag hate speech, and a comparable gain in their knowledge of how to give and receive consent online. [2]

For Michael Roth, hate speech is a particularly important issue for Germany's presidency of the Council of Europe, because the EU and Council of Europe are "the key regulatory frameworks for creating laws against hate speech."

What makes hate speech different today is the means by which so much of it is spread. In many respects social media and the internet have widened our horizons. For many, they have increased access to information, generated opportunity and prosperity, and provided a new means by which people can exercise their freedom of expression: sharing their views and joining groups and networks that previous generations never dreamed possible. But this has also handed a virtual megaphone to those who wish to cause hurt and pain, and allowed them to do so with anonymity. The degree of sexist hate speech online is a stark example of this, one that often intersects with other discrimination. All of this must be addressed - by individuals, governments and international organisations alike. [3]

Hate speech is therefore a topic that requires the attention of the European institutions, but a topic that can also be tackled at local level by NGOs; GEYC has been involved for the past 11 years in several strategic initiatives connected with tackling hate speech online and this has become one of our core directions. 


[1] LILLIAN, Donna, "A thorn by any other name: sexist discourse as hate speech", Discourse & Society, 2007, SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore),Vol. 18(6): 719–740.
[2] Josh Phillips, Jennie King, Iris Boyer and Alexia Augeri, Young Digital Leaders 2019: from safety to citizenship online.