Online hate speech or “cyber hate” is more than the
mirror of hate speech in society; it magnifies the issue, like a
hall of mirrors. Hate-speech mongers use every online means
available to denigrate their targets; music and video, social media,
blogs, email and even games; in the overtly racist game “Ethnic
Cleansing”, players win by killing “Blacks” and “Latinos” (also
known as “subhumans”) and their Jewish “evil masters”. Extreme and
malicious attacks can be posted unchallenged on the Internet. Rapid
links can then be made between these various messages, networks and
sites, providing 24-hour access to aggressive content, which can
remain accessible for ever.
Hate speech, as defined by the Council of Europe in
Strasbourg, covers all forms of expression which spread, incite,
promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism,
misogyny, homophobia, or other forms of hatred based on intolerance.
Hate speech online affects young people in particular. The
inter-active world of Web 2.0, with its social networks, chatrooms
and video-sharing sites, is part of their everyday lives and the way
it develops will determine their futures. It is no surprise then
that young people have themselves decided to tackle the problem.
Youth leaders at the Council of Europe are planning an online
campaign to combat cyber hate which will be run by and for young
people. Central to this campaign will be a network of 60 young
activists trained to defend human rights online. This is a signature
Council of Europe project, with young people as active participants,
rather than receivers of ready-made solutions developed from on high.
This approach also helps ensure that the Organisation’s values are
passed on from one generation to the next.
The idea has come from the youth leaders who share decision-making
on youth questions with government representatives at the Council of
Europe and has been taken up through this unique power-sharing
structure. Preparations are well under way for the campaign launch
on 21 March 2013, International Day for the Elimination of Racial
Discrimination. Under the umbrella of the Europe-wide campaign, it
is hoped that national and local projects will take place in the
Organisation’s 47 European Member States.
The project has already attracted funding from the EEA Norway Grants
(programmes funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway to help
reduce disparities in 15 EU member states), Finland and the French-speaking
community of Belgium, but further funds and the involvement of
national governments are vital if it is to be a success. The
campaign organisers are fully aware of the complexity of the task
before them, particularly the difficulty of monitoring and measuring
the reach and impact of cyber hate. The year-long campaign is
therefore part of a two-year project which will include the
collection of data on the forms, perceptions and impact of hate
speech online and possible solutions. Guidelines will then be
developed with young people and youth organisations.
The Council of Europe, whose European Convention on Human Rights
defends freedom of expression, might face the charge that the
campaigners are censors, afraid of free and open debate. But the
right to freedom of expression is not absolute; it comes with
“duties and responsibilities”, to quote the Convention. There is in
reality no such thing as complete freedom of speech. Properly
drafted laws which limit freedom of expression in the fields of
libel, copyright and state security, for example, are not violations
of the Convention if they meet certain criteria.
In fact, the campaign advocates freedom of expression in its truest
sense, as the right of every citizen to be free to participate in
public life without fear of abuse or violence.
Because it is all too easy to be a passive consumer of the Internet,
the campaign activists will defend human rights by fighting its
opposites; indifference, secrecy and ignorance. The campaign logo is
provocative – a heart with “HATE ME?” written inside – to prompt
young people to take a stand; to stop racists, sexists and
homophobes from appropriating free speech as a cloak for verbal
aggression, which is frequently the precursor to physical violence;
and, to ensure that routine abuse of individuals on the basis of
their innate characteristics does not seep into our culture
Hate speech can only thrive and recruit followers if the majority
remain silent. If we accept hate speech as normal or unavoidable or
the price to pay for freedom of speech or if we do not know that
what has been posted online even constitutes hate speech, Europe’s
fundamental values are fatally undermined.
It is significant that the Council of Europe’s youth campaign to
combat cyber hate is under preparation in 2012, the year of the 40th
anniversary of two of its greatest innovations, its unique European
Youth Centres and European Youth Foundation. These institutions have
ensured that more than 400,000 young people have taken part in
training or activities based on the Organisation’s core values of
human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
The challenges have changed in the last four decades. Early efforts
focused on helping young people build democracy in their countries
following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, the issue is rather
the absence of borders; that our information society is one big,
anarchic free-for-all. But in one sense nothing has changed; Europe
still needs values, Europe still needs a conscience, Europe still
needs the Council of Europe.
Director General for Democracy, Council of Europe