Anti-Roma violence highlights need for better online hate speech laws

Thu, November 6, 2014

Hate SpeechLast week an almost 200 strong mob in Waterford set out to target Roma families living in the area. Chanting “Roma out out out”, it was clear that the intentions of the mob were to intimidate, frighten and run the community out of town.  After smashing some windows and kicking in doors, they succeeded in doing just that as a number of Roma families had to be evacuated from their homes, including toddlers and elderly family members.

Many people are often reluctant to use the ‘R’ word, but there really is no other way to describe this behaviour other than racist. The Roma community is often associated with criminality; however the behaviour of a few should never be indicative of a community as a whole. Punitively targeting an entire community for the actions or alleged criminality of a number of individuals is a clear act of racism. There are many Irish families involved in criminality but we do not call all Irish criminals.

We have written in the Cork Independent in the past about the discrimination Roma experience in Ireland and throughout Europe.  It is a community very much at the margins of society.  And with difficulties accessing education and employment, which can further limit access to social welfare, it is a community that is extremely economically and socially deprived.

One of the most worrying aspects of the Waterford Roma case is how quickly the online commentary on social media escalated into organised, racially-motivated violence. In the weeks leading up to the night of the violence, Nasc had been aware of a number of Facebook pages which openly demanded the removal of Roma from the town. Pages such as ‘Get Them Out Of Town’ perpetuated misinformation and used dehumanising and violent language against the community – one such page threatened to “burn the cockroaches out”.

Far from being harmless comments or, as some commentators would suggest a legitimate exercise of freedom of expression, online hate speech can be extremely dangerous and the Waterford case makes this startlingly clear.

The actions of the mob in Waterford show an undeniable correlation between hate speech and incitement to violence on social media and actual physical damage. Without the hate speech that was allowed to fester online, which became progressively more violent in its intentions, individual grievances would not have morphed into a hate crime.

Given the destructive potential of such online hate speech then, it begs the question, why are we not doing more to combat it?

Voices that call for the legislation to protect against hate speech are often accused of being overly politically correct and a kind of oppressive force that are out to dictate morality by curtailing the right to freedom of speech.

However, you cannot play one right off against another. As the famous idiom goes, “your freedom ends where my nose begins”. When an expression goes so far as to incite hatred and violence against a certain vulnerable community, we need to take action to stop that. One person’s freedom of speech ends when another person’s right to live free of discrimination and violence begins.

The real problem with trying to combat hate speech, and particularly online hate speech, is that it is an extremely difficult area to monitor or to prosecute a perpetrator. Social media sites such as Facebook do have ‘Community Standards’ which includes a policy against hate speech.

From our experience at Nasc however, the threshold for what qualifies as hate speech is so high that in many cases, Facebook will find that the Comment or Page is not in breach of its policy and therefore do not remove it. Only when a large number of people report the same page or comment does there seem to be a more successful outcome and removal.

Furthermore, in terms of attempting to prosecute a perpetrator rather than simply remove the offending material, there are significant barriers. If a comment or page has been deleted and it is under 60 days from the date of deletion, Gardaí would require an FBI warrant to retrieve the information as it is an American-hosted website.  Once it is over 60 days very little can be done, as Facebook then delete the content themselves, leaving no evidence.

Nasc discovered this after reporting a complaint to the Gardaí about racist comments on a Facebook page. The Gardaí investigated the incident and identified the perpetrator; however, the DPP were unable to prosecute due to this reason.

While the rise of social media networks has been a positive technological development in so many ways, they can also be used as tools to propagate racism and, as can be seen in the Waterford case, incite hatred and violence.

It is clear from the events in Waterford that our out-dated and frankly useless legislation to protect against Incitement to Hatred must also be brought into modern times. The government must make it a priority to reform the 1989 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred legislation to account for the rise of online hate speech.

For more information about our anti-racism campaign and our calls to tackle online racism, click here.