How to tackle the hate speech on the Internet
Photo: / Flickr (CC)
Agns Roca and Guida Fullana
Internet and social media register the highest ever number of incidents of xenophobia

Hate speech has found in the Internet a way to spread itself rapidly. In recent years, there has been a growing trend, which is now starting to recede, of extremist movements and parties that promote xenophobic and Islamophobic attitudes as a consequence of the refugee crisis in Europe. Publications which promote rumours, prejudices and intolerance on social media, websites with discriminatory content, negative comments about immigrants, racist mottos and symbols, exaggeration of incidents in the press, etc. UOC experts analyse the problem and explain the ways to tackle it.

According to data from the RAXEN Report 2016, in Spain alone over 4,000 incidents of hate are registered every year and there are more than 1,000 websites, blogs, channels or profiles on social media that promote xenophobic and intolerant content on the grounds of race, gender, sexuality or religion. In spite of this, the Spanish Ministry of Home Affairs reports that recorded hate crimes in 2016 fell by 4.2% compared to 2015.

How have we gone from “Welcome refugees” to “Refugees not welcome”? Luca Gervasoni, professor of the UOC-UNITAR Master’s Degree in Conflictology, points to four interrelated causes that contribute to perpetuating hate speech on the Internet: “The economic crisis, violent extremism, the refugee crisis, and the lack of preventive measures aimed at making society more resilient”.

The Islam=terrorism association

The recent wave of attacks in Europe has also stimulated prejudice towards certain groups, such as Arabs, Muslims, asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. Gervasoni points out that the media have a responsibility in the creation of a public opinion that encourages stereotypes and prejudices against refugees.

During 2016, police and security forces in Spain recorded a total of 1,272 hate crimes. Figures from the Spanish Ministry of Home Affairs indicate that this type of offence has fallen by 4.2% compared to 2015 in Spain as a whole, of which racism and xenophobia represent almost 33%. The spheres in which the highest number of incidents were reported are “racism/xenophobia”, “disability” and “sexual orientation or identity”, which represent 32.7%, 20.6% and 18.1% of all known offences.

Actions against racism on the Internet

Two years ago, the ICT giants, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube and Microsoft, declared their commitment to and a responsibility in preventing the distribution of hate speech on their sites, reaching an agreement with the European Commission to promote a Code of Conduct to combat with greater speed and efficiency the proliferation of xenophobic messages and discriminatory and criminal behaviour on their platforms.

Cristina Aced and Slvia Martnez, professors at the UOC Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences, explain that all social media networks have the means to report improper practices quickly, by applying rules of use and conduct and by activating protocols to report accounts and publications with offensive content.

False names, anonymous accounts

Hate speech and hate crimes tend to occur more online than in public, given that the Internet allows anonymity. The aggressors hide behind false names and accounts to disseminate insults, threats and attacks against ethnic, religious, sexual and other individuals and groups.

Josep Maria Tamarit, director of the UOC Bachelor's Degree in Criminology, underlines that there is no unique profile of the discriminatory attacker on the Internet: “There are members of extreme right-wing organizations, but there are also people who participate in social media in a spontaneous way”. For the full professor, “the dynamic of social networks allows people to lose their inhibitions when expressing opinions and prejudices in an impulsive way”.

Prison sentences of up to 6 years

Disseminating and inciting racist comments on the Internet is a hate crime with criminal consequences. The Criminal Code and the legal status of the victim of the crime protect the victims of cyberhate. An aggressor could face a prison sentence of 1 to 4 years, as well as a fine, for disseminating xenophobic sentiments on the Internet. In very serious cases, Mr Tamarit points out that the prison sentence could be as much as 6 years and could result in disqualification for those who work in education or professions related to sport and leisure. With regard to offensive material, the Criminal Code empowers judges and courts to destroy, delete and withdraw content from the Internet.

Protecting the victims

The Spanish police have strengthened their actions to tackle hate speech on the Internet, with the creation of an undercover IT agent and the activation of technological investigative measures for offensive messages and websites that include content that could constitute hate crimes. Even so, Gervasoni warns that the measures taken by the security forces “do not adequately guarantee the protection of victims, and that internal protocols and practices need to be strengthened”, such as psychological care, legal counselling or special protection requirements.

In Catalonia, Tamarit points out that the Mossos d’Esquadra police force are receptive to reporting, and that the prosecution service of the Provisional Court of Barcelona specializing in hate crimes is also very active, and meets with associations for the defence of the most affected groups and gathers information on the content of social media.

Four ways to deal with cyberhate

Experts Lucas Gervasoni and Silvia Martnez explain four ways of dealing with this problem:

1. Improving the level of training in equality and non-discrimination among police forces and legal bodies, improving research, encouraging reporting and attending to the victims properly. The expert believes it is necessary to encourage reporting given that, even today, hate speech tends not to be reported. According to figures from the Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) of the European Union, almost 80% of events are not reported because the victims do not want or are afraid to report them, or do not know how to report them. Lack of trust in the police, fear of reprisal, ignorance of the law or embarrassment are some of the influencing factors.

2. Strengthening the institutional response to public acts announced on the Internet to propagate hate speech. According to Gervasoni, institutions need to identify social problems by ethnic or racial profile and condemn the excessive impunity that exists towards many Internet forums, particularly those related to sport.

3. Generating contra-narratives on social networks and public debate for social transformation. Civil society needs to get involved in the creation of inclusive and democratic societies that offer equal opportunities. The challenge is to design strategies that unify technological innovation and social innovation to create alternative discourses to hate speech. “We could use big data to identify forums that propagate hate speech and design strategies that are not addressed at those who are already convinced, but instead start a real discussion where it is needed more”, says the professor.

4. Raising public awareness through campaigns to tackle extremism. Silvia Martnez highlights the European initiative funded by Facebook which went into operation in January 2016 in collaboration with other institutions, under the name the Online Civil Courage Initiative, which aims to develop actions and campaigns to encourage a positive debate to tackle extremism and hate speech. At governmental level, the European Commission has launched the No Hate Speech Movement campaign to tackle hate speech and promote tolerance and human rights.



Photograph of Josep Maria Tamarit Sumalla

Josep Maria Tamarit Sumalla

Professor of Criminal Law
Director of the Criminology programme

Expert in: Victimology; restorative justice; criminal sanctions; transitional justice.

Knowledge area: Criminal law and criminology.

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Photograph of Silvia Martnez Martnez

Silvia Martnez Martnez

Lecturer in the the Information and Communication Sciences Department
Coordinator of the Information and Communication Sciences Department's postgraduate programme

Expert in: Journalism and digital communication; specialized information; social networks; user consumption, usage and participation.

Knowledge area: Communication and journalism.

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