Sun | Sep 22, 2019

Rohan Wright | Social media red herring in hate speech debate

Published:Wednesday | May 22, 2019 | 12:26 AM
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (left) is greeted by French President Emmanuel Macron (centre) as she arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris recently. World leaders and tech bosses are meeting in Paris to discuss ways to prevent social media from spreading deadly ideas.

The “right to freedom of opinion and expression” is a phrase uttered with endless count, especially since being established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of late, this freedom has been maligned as part reason for the increasing frequency of terror incidents across the world.

A prominent voice in the conversation, Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has launched a campaign calling for a global response to hate messages and pro-violence content online. Her move was prompted by the senseless massacre of some 50 Muslims in New Zealand in March, where the perpetrator broadcast live-footage of his attacks over social media. A fiery public debate ensued, not about the incident itself, but about her government’s decision to ban the video and documents produced by the terrorist, Brenton Tarrant. Now, possession of his 80-page manifesto in New Zealand is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

In addition to slowing the spread of militant ideology, removing harmful content from general public access does put a dent in the gradual desensitisation that may lead some among us to become inclined to similar acts or at the least, to regard atrocious incidents like the massacre as less serious. But there is a particular benefit, I believe, to sharing this content within restricted circles. While some impressionable minds would consume Tarrant’s manifesto – and other violence-promoting material – with exorable weakness, academics can use his text to make new inquiries into branches of psychology and sociology. Through scientific interrogation, this manifesto and related material give a peek into the mind of a terrorist, which could potentially lead to new theories on criminal behaviour, fit for today’s context.

All this, the implications of content dissemination, is just one of the issues in Ardern’s quest.


In his recent Washington Post op-ed (March 30), Mark Zuckerberg stresses the need for governments and regulators in the internet space. He argues, “By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it – the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things – while also protecting society from broader harms.”

My fear, and what may also become the biggest challenge in Ardern’s campaign, is that pursuing global consensus will be as easy and as quick as achieving, say, the Paris climate accord. It will be a worthy but Herculean task stretched out over many years.

Beyond the obvious complexity in negotiating an international response to online extremism, there is the actual policing of this virtual environment to consider. Every social network is governed by its own policies, consistent with the unique offerings of each product. These ‘community rules’ help keep the platforms safe, relying in part on user feedback where any harmful or offensive content can be reported with a simple click. They also rely on automated policing, where advanced computer algorithms scan each post to determine the nature of its content, flagging it if certain trigger words or features are present, even suspending accounts with suspicious activity. Sadly, neither method is foolproof. In fact, the average person can set off a trigger even with normal use.

The real question, though, is who will define hate speech, extremism and propaganda – the tech companies, governments or the people? In a world where these themes are so frequently portrayed in the music, film and gaming industries, how will we achieve globally accepted parameters for defining ‘inappropriate content’? I would even further provoke the debate by questioning if these new global definitions shouldn’t then apply to the publishing and entertainment industries too. As prevalence-induced concept change renders the scope of “violent” and “extreme” different from country to country, a shared global measure seems highly unattainable. I am not saying don’t try.


However these questions are approached, it seems the world has already taken to the task. Recently, Prime Minister Ardern, joined by French President Emmanuel Macron, engaged G7 leaders in Paris, putting pressure on the group to sign a pledge to ban online extremism. Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for the establishment of a special UN team to develop a “global plan of action” for extinguishing online hate speech.

I concur with his view that “social media is being exploited as a platform for bigotry”, but I feel that he, along with Ardern and her new followers, have all fallen victim to the logically fallacious reasoning of confusing correlation with causation when the true problem is unquestionably far greater.

Social media is a platform related to hate speech, but it absolutely is not the cause.

If world leaders continue down the road of cum hoc ergo propter hoc thinking, their constituents will rally around attacking social media – the disease carrier – and not the disease itself, for extinguishing hate speech and bigotry is not a question of better internet policing, rather it is a question of our societal values and growing lack thereof.

Our sensibilities are gradually being corrupted because of a breakdown in positive teachings. So whether or not there is a global response or even if the tech industry develops an effective tool for scouring the Internet to remove hate speech, it will unfortunately still remain in the hearts of the bigots – and that is where our attention should be.

I completely support the move to clamp down on online hate speech, but the real solution will only come when we fix our homes, our schools and our moral codes. Treating social media as the villain will only distract us as the real issue slowly perpetuates.

Rohan K. Wright is a policy analyst. Email feedback to and