Should Twitter block hate speech?

This Paris court has ordered the website to identify antisemitic tweeters. Was that the right response?

By Robin Shepherd and Mike Whine, January 31, 2013


True defenders of free speech will have mixed feelings about recent discussions over social media’s responsibility to police “hate speech”, made ever more relevant by last week’s ruling against Twitter by the Grand Instance Court in Paris.

The issue of incitement is relatively straightforward: if publishers of whatever description carry messages directly encouraging people to commit crime, violent or otherwise, the law is clear in holding them responsible for what they publish.

But “hate speech” can be very much in the eye of the beholder. Is the sustained campaign of vilification against Israel and the Jews in — ever more — significant sections of the UK media “hate speech”? It certainly comes from a hateful mind-set. Should it be banned? Not if you believe a free society stands a better chance of defeating such prejudices by exposing its perpetrators to public shame, rather than forcing them underground where they may fester and grow.

But here’s the rub. The French court ruled that Twitter had an obligation to reveal the identities of the people perpetrating hate speech. That looks like an advance. After all, if one of the classic liberal defences against restrictions on free speech is that society is capable of policing itself by using the weapon of publicity against transgressors, that only really applies if the people in question are known, and thus have a reputation they feel they need to defend.

Many on Twitter and other social media sites operate anonymously. If their identities are withheld, they are immune from the fear of being exposed.

And yet, one twists and turns again. Why, in a free society, should anonymity not be respected? Many people, with perfectly respectable motives, have jobs that prevent them from publishing their names along with their opinions. Why should those people be excluded from the public domain?

That conundrum becomes all the more vexing with the acknowledgement that so many people and organisations already abuse the notion that a remark is “offensive”.

If it became an offence to offend someone, free speech would quickly be smothered.

The hard truth is that there is no easy way out of the conundrum. One either trusts in free speech or one does not.

Incitement must be punished. But punishing “hate speech” is a recipe for curtailing controversy of all shapes and descriptions. The answer is to unite and to fight; not to dial 999 over a group of unpleasant bigots with an account on Twitter.

Robin Shepherd is director, international affairs, at the Henry Jackson Society


the Paris court’s decision to force Twitter to reveal the identities of antisemitic tweeters highlights that company’s comparative reluctance to internalise European concerns over cyberhate.

These have grown over the past 10 years, and reflect the realisation that, with all its blessings, the internet also brings a host of new problems. Foremost among them is the fact that social networks are now the primary vehicle for promoting hatred against others, and that there is a correlation between incitement and violence.

In Britain, the courts now recognise this, and recent statements by officials warn that cyberspace is no law-free zone. Behaviour that is criminal offline is also illegal online. We have therefore seen a series of criminal convictions of those who incite racial and religious hatred against Jews, Muslims, and gays on Facebook, YouTube and other sites.

Twitter representatives have participated in discussions on internet hate but have been slower than others to realise that, in Europe, they bear some responsibility for what passes through their systems. Other websites do so, and now express their determination to ensure that they neither breach European laws nor that they develop reputations for hosting hate sites.

It is well to remember that none of the social networks is more than 10 years old, that they grew out of youthful enterprises aiming to push technology and ideas as well as make money, and that it is only with maturity that they will realise that they also have social responsibilities.

Mike Whine is director, government and international Affairs, CST

Last updated: 7:45pm, January 31 2013