The best way to curb social media hate speech – don’t fuel the fire

Chow Kum Hor says a focus on punitive measures to stop hate speech has not been successful, and instead, we should learn from the war against illegal wildlife trade by cutting off demand – in this case, starving offenders of attention

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 7:05pm

Crusaders against hate speech on social media should look to the war against illegal wildlife trade for inspiration. Early efforts to stamp out poaching focused on stiff penalties for those behind the supply chain, such as the killers and corrupt border patrol officials. This had limited success. Bribery and legal loopholes allowed the trade to slip past regulators.

The tide turned when activists focused on demand. Around the world, campaigns educated people about animal rights and long-held myths, such as the “medicinal” value of animal organs. A tagline, “When the buying stops, the killing can too”, caught on. Demand, then supply, fell.

If this experience is anything to go by, supply-side restrictions alone don’t work. So far, little attention has been given to tackling hate speech from the receiving end. This explains why we keep fighting a losing battle.

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We are still stuck thinking that anything offensive or illegal ought to be speedily swept away. Governments have ramped up efforts to keep the lid on hate speech. In October, Germany introduced strict laws to fine internet companies which fail to remove content like Holocaust denial or racism. Internet firms face fines of up to US$50 million. At best, Germany’s cyberlaw is like trying to clap with one hand.

For every site blocked, every comment deleted and every social media user flagged, countless other loopholes allow such content to crawl back onto our screens. It’s like whack-a-mole with the speed cranked up to ridiculous levels.

Besides, labelling something forbidden only heightens curiosity, making the subject more seductive to online users. This is especially so when it involves ideas crafted to appeal to primal urges, such as running down another race.

After decades of tiptoeing around political correctness, we have become hypersensitive to labels. We accord disproportionate attention to haters and trolls, precisely what they hope for. The more aggressively we retaliate, the more we risk being like them.

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Schools, interests groups and governments need to put this on their agendas. Not buying into provocations does not mean allowing yourself to be a doormat. It means being assertive without being aggressive. Bullies, in the schoolyard or hiding behind the anonymity on the internet, tend to stop when their antics do not draw the responses they intended.

The fight against hate speech focusing on punitive and preventive measures on the supply spectrum has not borne fruit. It’s time to work on the receiving end. When demand falls, supply will too.

Chow Kum Hor, a former journalist, is executive director of Centre For A Better Tomorrow, a civil society group that promotes moderation and good governance in Malaysia