Hate speech on the internet may yet bring democracy to its knees

A mourner outside the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, Monday, March 18, 2019. Picture: Vincent Yu/AP.

Why write about hate? St Patrick’s Day is a time of celebration for all of us. My grandchildren are proud to march, even in the coldest of weather, and it means a lot to them and their local community, writes Fergus Finlay.

All over the country, and increasingly all over the world, Irishness has become a positive symbol.

Of course, that’s not to suggest that we’re perfect. We have a mass of social problems, which we’re failing to fix. We don’t always make the right choices. It’s not always a perfect place to be a child, or to be old, or to be disabled. It’s certainly not a perfect place for thousands of families who have no home to call their own.

But Ireland remains a hopeful place. Perhaps it’s worth remembering among the criticism — and, I know, I do my fair share of criticising — that there was a time in Ireland when hate killed people, and did it routinely.

One of the extraordinary things that happened in Derry last week, when it was announced that only one of the Bloody Sunday soldiers was to be prosecuted, was the absence of hate, and its replacement by a dignified determination to see justice done in the end.

So, why write about hate at all?

Because it was hate that killed so many people in Christchurch in New Zealand last week and Utrecht yesterday. Unreasoning, mindless, merciless hate. It’s unreasoning and mindless, because, in the end, it’s based on nothing at all.

And hate fills, and poisons, the airwaves. Not on what is now sneeringly referred to as ‘the mainstream media,’ but on the alternative media that occupies so much space on the internet.

To give just one small, but loathsome example. There is a well-known public figure in Ireland — I’m not going to name her, because she seems to crave publicity — who posted on Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the New Zealand massacre that the killings were a ‘false flag’, meaning that they were carried out by someone other than the perpetrator.

In her post, it was said that massacres were essentially designed to “incite fresh ISIS attacks, create chaos and fear, allow the globalists take more control over people and remove freedoms, a la 9/11”.

The killings were described as “a professional job”. When there was a news report that Islamic State called for revenge after the New Zealand massacre, she posted, again, that the “Luciferian cabal” had got what it wanted.

This is a person who describes herself as a serious investigative journalist, but who pretends to seriously believe that the murder of innocent civilians at prayer, because they were Muslim, is part of a global conspiracy to crush free speech and a range of other rights.

The same person, who has thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, routinely describes her own country (us, that it) as a cesspit of corruption and cronyism, and claims to have started an anti-corruption movement to clean us up.

The trouble with this kind of rubbish is that people like this don’t seem to know where to stop. We can all make up our own minds when she says that Leo Varadkar’s references to his sexuality and skincolour were a diversion, part of the brainwashing being carried out to distract us from corruption.

But when an unregulated public platform is used by her, and by countless others, to distort the facts of a terrible massacre and to try to spread vicious propaganda, you really have to ask when are the likes of this person going to be challenged, and how?

I’m not calling for censorship. But I am calling for an independent authority to have the power tochallenge lies, to demand substantiation, and to have the power to insist that unsubstantiated lies be acknowledged or removed, especially when they run as close as this stuff does to inciting hatred.

On Facebook and Twitter, there are hundreds of examples like the one I’ve quoted above. And we all know there’s no point in complaining to them. We can’t effectively regulate these two global platforms.

But we can regulate the providers that carry them. Service providers are the companies that make these platforms possible by carrying the internet into our homes and onto our mobile phones.

Up to now, the internet service providers have relied on an entirely spurious ‘code of practice’ that was written before the iPhone was invented. Membership is voluntary (according to the relevant website, ispai.ie, one of the largest providers of internet services in the country, Sky, is not even a member).

And the code of practice is a joke. I’ve written here before about how membership is supposed to carry an obligation to feature the hotline logo, a button that takes you immediately to a website where you can report dangerous content, in the hope that someone, somewhere, might do something about it. As anyone can see who cares to check, this is not a responsibility that members take seriously at all. And even though it has been brought to the ISPAI’s attention several times, they do nothing about it.

And the only dangerous content that can be reported is material that is sexually dangerous. That’s why an announcement a week or so ago by Communications Minister Richard Bruton is especially welcome. He has opened a consultation process around a commitment to introduce a regulator with legal powers. That’s long overdue, especially in the area of child safety. It is vital as part of the measures necessary to combat cyber-bullying.

But if I read the minister’s statement correctly, it is already illegal to “disseminate material containing incitement to violence or hatred, content containing public provocation to commit a terrorist offence, offences concerning child sexual abuse material or concerning racism and xenophobia”.

It may be illegal, but there is no evidence that it is being policed.

For my entire life, I’ve believed in the freedom of expression. I believe that if it disappears, democracy will disappear. But freedom of expression carries the responsibility to try to be truthful; to avoid putting people in danger; to avoid exploitation of grief and sorrow; to avoid spreading hate.

The internet is full of people who ignore all these responsibilities, both here and abroad. It’s not okay, in the name of free speech, to advance crazy conspiracy theories that are designed to build cynicism and mistrust. We’ve watched it for years. The ‘birther’ conspiracy around whether former US president Barrack Obama was even an American citizen is one of the first global examples. That lie has been added to by a string of others and they have underpinned an entire movement.

Because it welcomes lies, it is the internet that is undermining democracy now. We can’t continue to let that happen, and we certainly shouldn’t let it spread here. The sooner the minister puts proper accountability in place, the better for all of us. We protect free speech best when we insist on it being honest and truthful.

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