The danger of hate speech on social media

The Arab world should discuss its own regulatory codes of conduct to protect legitimate free speech and privacy.
April 15, 2018
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill, on April 11. (AP)
On notice. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill, on April 11. (AP)

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Congress offers important lessons for social media users around the world, not least in the Middle East and North Africa.

Zuckerberg made the significant admission that, for all its efforts, Facebook — the world’s largest social network — cannot ensure the prompt and effective removal of hate speech from its pages.

The way things stand, Facebook is in charge of content on the platform but detecting hate speech, as Zuckerberg admitted, remains a reactive process and users need to flag it before it can be deleted. Maybe five to ten years from now, he said, artificial intelligence (AI) would allow Facebook to properly vet linguistic nuances but the technology isn’t ready to deploy.

This is a worrisome summing up of Facebook’s limitations in dealing with hate speech. It has already had dangerous implications for Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim minority. Messages encouraging violence spread for days last year on Facebook in Myanmar.

As for hate speech, so for terrorist content. Facebook says it can remove virtually all such material from particular terror groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), but admits it cannot identify all content with terrorist implications. AI might help but may not offer definitive solutions, either.

Hate speech and incitement to terrorism are not protected forms of free expression. This is why sections of the international community are trying to suggest regulatory legislation. Vera Jourova, EU commissioner for consumers and justice, said: “I still stand on the position that for terrorism, extremism and images of child abuse we should have a more reliable framework that could introduce sanctions for lack of compliance.”

Germany is leading the way. Since January 1, it has fined social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as much as 50 million euros — approximately $60 million — if they do not remove hate speech and other socially dangerous content within 24 hours.

The MENA region, shaken to the core by violence and strife, should be deeply concerned about hate speech and its proliferation on social media. The region boasts an internet penetration rate of more than 58%. People across the Arab world use Facebook and other social media networks daily to debate issues and express their views. That is all well and good except that unregulated dangerous content remains a threat to the region and the peace and security of its societies.

As in the European Union, the Arab world should discuss its own regulatory codes of conduct to protect legitimate free speech and privacy, even as its citizens are protected from abusive and hateful content. Waiting for another five or ten years for appropriate AI to emerge might be too long.

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