Technology, hate speech and atrocity prevention: 12 main takeaways

21 Jan 2021 10:47

What are the linkages between technology, hate speech and atrocity prevention? This was the leading question that experts in atrocity prevention explored in the Decoding Hate Speech” online series launched on 1 September 2020 by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies with the support of GAAMAC.

The series aimed to increase the understanding of and raise awareness about online hate speech within the atrocity prevention community and beyond in the lead up to GAAMAC’s global meeting – GAAMAC IV – in November 2021. 15 panellists and more than 200 live participants from states, civil society and international organizations gathered over four online events to identify challenges, share good practices and recommendations, and discuss the concrete steps that can be taken to counter the rise of online hate speech and prevent atrocities.

These were some of the main takeaways from the discussions.

1. Hate speech is a precursor to mass atrocities. It is a global issue and many examples (Holocaust, Srebrenica, Rwanda, Myanmar, Cameroon, South Sudan, Burundi, US, Europe, etc.) have shown that no society is immune. Hate speech is not only about individuals but can also be the result of an organized narrative spread by political parties and leaders for political gain.

“Hate speech is an indicator of more serious issues that underline our societies that can lead to violence and in extreme cases hate speech can be a precursor of the risk of atrocity crimes.” Castro Wesamba, Chief of Office, United Nations Office for Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect

2. COVID-19 has brought a new dimension of mistrust in communities. Heightened tension can become a breeding ground for hate speech. The pandemic has contributed to normalizing messages of intolerance and hostile content online.

“The more hate speech is employed by political and religious leaders the more it becomes part of the mainstream and creates a permissive and toxic environment where calls for violence against hated groups become normalized.” Savita PawndayDeputy Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

3. We need to understand definitions and concepts. There is no legal definition of hate speech under international law and differences exist in national legislations. Hate speech can escalate to incitement to violence which is clearly defined and prohibited by international law. There is a need for a common understanding of concepts of hate speech, misinformation, dangerous speech, etc. within international law. The UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech provides guidelines as the parameters of what constitutes hate speech.

“Hate speech loads the gun but misinformation pulls the trigger” Christopher TuckwoodExecutive Director of The Sentinel Project

4. Technology can be weaponized. The main difference between online and offline hate speech is the reach and scale that social media platforms offer. An individual can not only be a consumer but also a (anonymous) producer of dangerous content with a greater reach. It can become a transnational issue where there are no boundaries and where misinformation can be amplified through social media to polarize other countries.

“We are in an era that is revolutionary because we are seeing a whole new set of weapons. (…) we need a global movement urgently to stop this.” Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, Founder of the Child Soldiers Initiative and MIGS Distinguished Fellow

5. Online hate led to offline violence in Myanmar: The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar established by the UN Human Rights Council recognized Facebook played a “determining role” in spreading hate speech that led to the persecution of the Rohingya. This included the propagation of gendered narratives on Rohingya reproduction in Facebook posts which seeded specific forms of violence against women and girls.

“By defining Rohingya as an enemy that threatened to overpopulate Myanmar, the prevailing hate speech on Facebook provided a framework that made sexual and gender-based attacks against the Rohingya a consequence of the problem as that hate speech defined it.” Grant ShubinLegal Director of the Global Justice Center

6. Technology can be an amplifier of counter-narratives. Online tools can also be used for fact-checking to counter hate speech and the harmful effects of misinformation. Online campaigns to stand against hate, fact-checking tools, strong investigative reporting, storytelling of survivors of hate speech are some examples of how to develop counter-messages. Technology can also be used for monitoring hate speech as an early warning indicator.

“The best approach is to look at effective counter-messaging. Although it’s a slower process, we need to find ways of engaging the majority of people’s views on these sorts of things rather than driving further extremism.” - Meetali JainLegal Director at Avaaz and international human rights lawyer

7. Self-regulation by Big Tech is not enough. Despite being under increasing pressure and having recognized there is a problem, Big Tech companies are not properly equipped to detect and flag context-specific hate speech. Social media platforms need to adapt policies according to international standards and enforce them before there is a serious risk of mass atrocities. It is also important to engage with the tech sector in order to understand better how platforms operate, possible regulation policies and emerging technologies.

“The atrocity prevention community needs to start operationalizing and be more forward-looking: not being reactive but proactive.” - Kyle Matthews, Executive Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS)

8. Monitoring social media for hate speech and incitement has helped reduce violence in some countries during elections. However, human rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, should always be respected in combatting hate speech. In some cases, the shutdown of media and social media has raised concerns over the risk of limiting freedom of speech and the media. Censorship is not always the best response and can increase polarization.

“In Africa, the experience of Rwanda shapes whatever decisions and frameworks established so that never again we see genocide on our continent.” – Amb. Liberata MulamulaPatron of the GAAMAC Africa Working Group

9. There is a need for a holistic approach and a sense of shared responsibility. The state is mainly responsible but not the sole responsible. Addressing and combatting hate speech requires engaging with various stakeholders: international and regional organizations, the private sector, media, sports associations, civil society, individuals, etc.

“As a platform for information and experience sharing, [GAAMAC] can help through global meetings and activities such as today to set up the collaborative work that needs to be done and to match knowledge, experience and success stories with others who may come from a country situation that may require access to all this knowledge.” – Amb. Shara DuncanDeputy Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Costa Rica to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva

10. Inclusion is key. It is essential to include women, youth and victims of hate in the path to sharing positive messages of peace. As digital natives, youth peacebuilders and influencers know how to speak to their peers in their language and develop effective tools to combat hate.

“Building peaceful societies require inclusion. We cannot tackle hate speech and its root causes in a sustainable manner if we continue having societies where some feel excluded and frustrated”. – Amb. Shara Duncan

11. Education is central to countering hate speech. This includes both formal and non-formal education such as training, workshops, online campaigns, etc. Countering online hate speech requires strengthening digital and media literacy, education on identity-based politics and minorities and capacity building on peace and conflict prevention. This will ultimately help build the critical thinking, emotional intelligence and resilience of citizens. States should have a human-rights based education system. In some countries, this would require education reform for the whole education system to combat structural violence against minorities.

“It is very urgent to make the investment in educating people and building resilience and civic responsibility in society”. Katarzyna Gardapkhadze, Officer in Charge, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

12. Accountability is essential to fight impunity. States need to develop the proper architectures and mechanisms for a more effective impact at the national level. In the case of Myanmar, prevention of gender-based violence would require updating the broader legal framework to reflect gender equality and passing a law for the prevention of violence against women.


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