Sometimes the most obvious solutions might be the best. While the US wrings its hands over what to do with online haters and abusers on social media, other countries have a more direct approach: throw the book at them. That’s effectively the UK’s new approach, which will now treat online ‘hate crime’ as seriously as offences carried out in real life.
The UK’s director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders said the Crown Prosecution Service, which prosecutes criminals for the state, will ask courts to consider tougher penalties for those who use social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and others to hurl abuse at people. The new plans do not require Parliament to pass new legislation. And, for once, this doesn’t involve the government hurling abuse at the social platforms themselves.
The innovation, if you want to think of it in that way, is mainly to do with the UK’s interpretation of free speech. In the US, the first amendment allows you to say basically anything, as long as it’s not immediately dangerous or directly threatening to someone. That means you can burn a cross or two, or walk around shouting racist slogans, so long as no-one gets hurt at the time. Paradoxically no connection is made between that and any real-world consequences, and the law has never been updated for the rapid spread of these ideas through radio, TV or the Internet.
In the UK that just doesn’t wash. So, for instance, there’s a law against “incitement to racial hatred” which is a criminal offence. The new CPS rules mean that the law now applies to anything said online, as well as offline. There is also a law against “incitement to religious hatred,” in case you were wondering.
Writing in the Guardian, Saunders said: “Left unchallenged, even low-level offending can subsequently fuel the kind of dangerous hostility that has been plastered across our media in recent days. That is why countering it is a priority for the CPS.”
“Whether shouted in their face on the street, daubed on their wall or tweeted into their living room, the impact of hateful abuse on a victim can be equally devastating.”
She referred specifically to the extremist hate seen in Charlottesville in the United States recently, saying the new rules were needed because there is a direct correlation between online abuse and violence.
Saunders said the new plans were based on the “growing need to protect those online from crimes such as abuse, as people spend an increasing proportion of their lives on the internet.” In addition, there is “a realisation that abuse in the virtual world has real-world consequences, with the spreading of fear online resulting in acts of physical violence.”
“In a world of grotesque physical attacks that may appear a heavy-handed approach to some. But perhaps we should ask the question, what is it that the perpetrators seek to achieve? One common thread that links online purveyors of hate with those who commit physical hate crimes or real-world terrorists is the desire to undermine and instil fear in those they target, both individually and collectively in their communities, because of their characteristics, be that faith, religion, disability or sexuality,” she wrote.
The CPS intends for the new guidance to generate more prosecutions, with longer sentences for those convicted, thus leading to some level of prevention.
The new guidance covers hate crime pertaining to race, religion, disability; and crimes which are homophobic, biphobic and transphobic.
Government figures have shown a 20% rise in hate crimes reported to the UK police in the first quarter this year, and these figures are considered to be highly under-reported.
The UK is perhaps heading in the direction of Germany.
Public displays of Nazi and Communist symbols are banned in Germany, and Holocaust denial is punishable by up to five years in prison. Inciting hatred or violence against anyone for their ethnic or religious identity is also a crime.
In July, German government officials ordered the police to carry-out a nationwide crackdown on racist or xenophobic social postings. They raided the homes of 36 people suspected of being behind the posts but no arrests were made.
Germany has also approved a new bill that punishes social networking sites if they fail to swiftly remove illegal content such as hate speech or defamatory fake news. If infracted, the laws impose fines of up to 50 million euros ($53.4 million) on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
Germany’s latest solution is much more heavy-handed on tech platforms, when it seems smarter to simply remind people to be respectful of each-other’s views and ask them to debate in a civilised manner. And if they can’t do that, then they can go to jail. Or perhaps that’s too much to ask these days?