Regulating Hate, Hate Speech, and Hate Crimes

Warning: Some of the descriptions in this post may be triggering to some readers.

one answer to hateful online posts, that has so far, in most cases, worked colossally badly

The spreading of hate is responsible for creating a huge amount of distrust and social conflict, a lot of suffering, and not a few wars. Until recently, regulating this entailed monitoring and policing public spaces and mass media. But now, with social media giving anyone and everyone a megaphone for spreading hate, and providing spaces and organizing tools for hate groups to echo and coordinate with each other, it has quickly become an unmanageable problem. If the US does indeed descend into fascism and/or civil war this decade, hate-mongering online will have been one of its key enablers.

A quick recap on the current state of regulation:

  • In many jurisdictions, criminal codes do regulate hate speech and hate crimes in “public places”, and provide specific definitions of hate speech and hate crimes. Inciting violence is likewise illegal in most places.
  • Most of these laws limit their reach to hate speech and hate crimes that demonstrably initiate, instill or encourage hatred or violence against a particular person or group, to prevent overreach into areas of protected ‘free speech’ or ‘freedom of expression’. Of course, the line can be tricky to delineate.
  • Online hate-mongering (inciting hate or hate crimes) is still largely unregulated, and arguably, the attempts to regulate it have been incompetent, arbitrary, and in some cases dangerous, aggravating the situation.
  • Most jurisdictions acknowledge that it is impossible to regulate against hate per se — you can only regulate behaviors (including hate speech).

I think most of us can agree that hate doesn’t necessarily lead to anger, and anger doesn’t necessarily lead to violence or other social harm and that we want to focus on where it does.

A huge challenge in ‘drawing the line’ on what is and is not hate speech, hate-mongering, or hate crime, is the issue of whether/when there is “genuine belief in the truth” of something that others deem to be hate speech or a hate crime. War propaganda, for example, is specifically designed to use disinformation to engender such “genuine belief” in order to recruit allies and detract from criticism. Censorship can have the same effect: Blocking access to information and alternative perspectives can lead to “genuine belief” that something that is actually hate speech or a hate crime is just a “righteous” response to an absolutely-clear situation.

Hate speech, hate-mongering, and hate crimes do not necessarily rely on misinformation (unintentionally misleading information), disinformation (intentionally deceptive information), propaganda (information intended to provoke or incite a specific angry or hate-driven response or action), or censorship (deliberate selective blocking of information). You can incite hatred and violence, for example, by simply using derogatory and otherwise hate-charged words, without including any ‘information’ at all.

So dealing effectively with these four information abuses may help mitigate hate speech, hate-mongering, and hate crimes, but in some situations, it will not, or will not be enough.

And of course, it is even harder to regulate censorship, especially when it is unconscious, self-imposed, or subtle (like simply not inviting Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges to provide their views in any mainstream media publications, versus actually blocking and taking down their writing, as Google has done with Chris).

What sits behind hatred is, I think, a volatile mix of emotions. It could be argued that anger is intuitive, situational, and autonomic, while hatred is conditioned over time. Mis- and disinformation, propaganda, censorship, and direct (‘information-free') hate speech can provoke both anger and hatred. And fear can underlie both.

So what can, and should, be done about it? Let’s consider seven examples that cut across the spectrum of hate speech, hate-mongering, and hate crimes:

  1. Live-streaming of the Christchurch massacre or other atrocities;
  2. Bullying or otherwise humiliating, say, a child or spouse;
  3. Fake ‘news’ designed to incite hate or violence, such as the anonymous video of a public bible-burning by supposed BLM protestors;
  4. Unsubstantiated or debunked claims about wars and other atrocities, such as the recent allegation by the Ukrainian government that Russians were raping Ukrainian babies;
  5. Stirring up hatred with inflammatory rhetoric and claims, such as by one popular group that insists women have a social duty to have sex with incels because males will (they assert) naturally become violent if not given an outlet for their sexual energy;
  6. Publicly (including online, and including in ‘closed’ groups) espousing racist or otherwise hate- and violence-mongering statements, proposals, and theories;
  7. Threatening to deprive a selected group of basic human rights, such as actions depriving women of the right to decide what to do with their own bodies.

One of the problems is that everyone now has an online megaphone loud enough to make their rage or anger contagious, even viral. (And their audience may have an arsenal of machine guns to boot.)

These behaviors are ultimately about power and its abuse. And as has often been said, people, especially fearful people, almost never give up their power voluntarily.

Should any of the above hate speech, hate-mongering, or hate crimes be tolerated in a healthy society? Of course not.

What then should be done to prohibit them? I haven’t the faintest idea. And none of the ideas fervently proposed and tried thus far has worked well.

This is what complex, intractable, ‘wicked’ problems are about. They defy solution. In some cases attempting to solve them actually makes them worse.

Every new technology runs the risk of empowering people to use it abusively. Explosives. Dams. The printing press. Mass production and automation. Combustion/electric engines. Radio and television. Large-scale industrial monoculture agriculture and factory farming. Cameras. Data mining and harvesting tools. Nuclear energy. Biological and genetic engineering. Robots and drones. And now, the internet and social media.

The horrific war and genocide in Rwanda in 1994 were driven and enabled largely by an intense program of radio hate propaganda.

As John Gray wrote in his work on collapse, Straw Dogs:

If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. If it becomes possible to clone human beings, soldiers will be bred in whom normal human emotions are stunted or absent. Genetic engineering may enable centuries-old diseases to be eradicated. At the same time, it is likely to be the technology of choice in future genocides. Those who ignore the destructive potential of new technologies can only do so because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph, and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies, but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

Almost all of the existential risks I identified in my recent article stem largely from (often inadvertent) misuse of technologies. Such technologies will continue to be, invented, and we cannot ‘un-invent’ them. And once invented, it is nearly impossible to prevent them being used, when they can be, to promote things like hate speech, hate-mongering, and hate crimes. Trump’s xenophobic ‘wall’, uncompleted but un-demolished, stands as a reminder and symbol of what this can lead to, and xenophobic hate now reaches so deep in the US that fewer than half of Americans oppose its completion.

So, the hate, and the hate speech, hate-mongering, and hate crime mounts, and deepens, and all attempts to regulate it have, at best, curtailed some of the most egregious excesses, and most have failed miserably.

I question whether, as with so many of the complex, intractable problems we face today (like poverty and gross inequality, economic and climate collapse, chronic illness and pandemic mitigation, and the threat of war), there is any real solution to the problem of hate speech, hate-mongering and hate crimes, short of dealing effectively with the underlying problems that give rise to hate in the first place. And those underlying problems are likewise mostly complex and intractable.

If we can’t get at the underlying causes of hate, then we need to grapple with a host of challenges to try to mitigate and control it. This raises a bunch of other questions:

  1. Can censoring work, and who decides what should or should not be censored?
  2. Can rigorous attempts to regulate and prosecute online and other new forms of hate speech, succeed, or at least ‘work’ well enough to discourage others, and if so, who decides what’s prosecutable, how, and what isn’t?
  3. If the most serious new problem here is the powerful and far-reaching “bullhorn” that social media has provided to hate propagators, can we fix this by regulating the “bullhorn” owners, and if so, how? Specifically, can “duty-of-care” regulations and prosecutions work?
  4. How do we personally and collectively support and protect the victims of hate, hate speech, and hate crimes? (The UN has tried to address this, but its prescription seems naive and clueless.)
  5. Is it enough, and really all we can do, to work to prevent these things from happening in the first place? How can we best do so?

I have no answers to these questions if there even are answers. In our modern world of exploding precarity, distrust, and confusion, our global culture seems increasingly entrenched in fear. And fear will almost always seek expression in anger and in hatred.

I continue to believe we’ve all done the best we could. Hate may not be a natural emotion, but once it’s provoked it takes a long time to heal. And sadly, we don’t have a lot of time.

For a deeper dive into some of these issues, here’s a great article from a criminology perspective, reviewing Canada’s latest proposed hate-speech law.

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