Silencing hate speech: censorship or civility?

Monday 5 November, 19:3021:00, Hellenic American Union, Massalias 22, 10680, AthensBattle of Ideas Europe


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Wherever you look today, it seems impossible to escape the ever-swelling debate surrounding hate speech, and the arguably Orwellian laws that aim to tackle it.

In 2017 Greece saw the conviction of the Golden Dawn party member Ilias Kasidiaris for inciting violence against immigrants, in a move that was widely praised for offering some security to Greek democracy. Greece is not alone in seeking to enforce laws against ‘hate speech’. In the UK, Theresa May’s 2017 General Election manifesto pledge to prevent online providers from directing users ‘to hate speech, pornography or other sources of harm. Earlier this year Germany took a radical step by passing a ‘Network enforcement act’ that requires social media sites like Facebook to remove within 24 hours content marked by users as abusive. And at the supranational level, the EU has been funding a platform to monitor and report hate speech.

But its not just governments who are seeking to limit hateful speech. Twitter has long been under fire for failing to combat hate speech on its platform, and has recently turned to academic psychologists to help improve the ‘health’ of conversations online. Facebook and Spotify recently removed the pages and podcasts of Alex Jones, the controversial front man of Infowars, saying that he breached their rules on hate speech.

But has the legal reaction to these concerns gone too far? It’s now deemed hate speech to criticise Islam, to disagree with a person’s right to identify as the opposite gender, or to join a Facebook group called ‘I Hate Christians’. Earlier this year, a Scottish comedian was convicted and fined for sharing a video in which he teaches his pet dog to do a Nazi salute.

But while there are clampdowns on comparatively trivial matters, there is more serious cause for concern, too. Videos of Islamist extremists encouraging impressionable young jihadis to carry out ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks are readily available after a few minutes of surfing YouTube. British MPs have become the target of increasing hateful messages over recent years, including death threats posted through their front doors. In 2011, Anders Breivik killed 69 teenagers at a Labour party youth camp in Norway; police later discovered he was an avid consumer and sharer of racist, hateful content on his Facebook page and other online sources.

In light of incidents such as these, can we really justify hate speech as free speech? Is there a direct correlation between people spurting hateful words and others carrying out violent actions? Or is it important we distinguish mean words from throwing sticks and stones? From Bishop Amvrosios to Katie Hopkins, Geert Wilders to ISIS recruiters, are egregious ideologies likely to influence the thoughts and actions of wider society for the worse? Or will the principle of allowing speech to be made freely – no matter how hateful – help society develop for the better?