Today
Sun 5 December 2021

Brian Cathcart explains how concerns about internet hate speech will do nothing to tackle the appalling abuse found in online tabloid comment streams

“Why don’t you kill yourself?” “Better go into hiding”. “I’d pop her on a bonfire”. “We need to get rid of these people”. “Shut her up”. “People like this needs a proper slap – enough to clatter the teeth”. “Years ago she would have been burned at the stake”. “This needs to stop – and forcefully if necessary”. “Bring back hanging”. “How about a trip to the gulag?” “Looks J’ish to me”. “Noose”.

We know what this is – it is internet hate speech, advocating violence towards a targeted person, and even murder. As so often, it is loaded with misogyny and racism. The identity of the target here is irrelevant – it should not happen to anyone in a civilised democracy. 

The Government, among others, is worried about internet hate speech. Media Minister John Whittingdale wrote in the Daily Mail: “Few things have advanced people’s freedom of speech more than the internet. It has made sharing information easier than ever and given people the power to speak out like never before. But this openness has sometimes been abused and the internet has been used to spread the most vile content imaginable – from live streams of terrorist atrocities, to hate speech and child abuse.”

The Government intends to act. A white paper has been published and, before long, we shall see a Bill before Parliament aiming to tackle online harms including hate speech. Few would dispute that it is necessary. 

There are challenges, however, as Whittingdale acknowledged in his Mail article. “Free speech,” he wrote, “includes the right to offend”, so there will be no crackdown on speech that merely gives offence. 

The minister also wrote that news publishers – “the bedrock of democracy” – must be exempt from the effects of this legislation, and that “the robust debate found in the reader comments below news stories will also not be affected by our plans”. So comment streams will be unaffected. 

Which might seem fine until you realise that the threats and abuse quoted above – “I’d pop her on a bonfire”, “Why don’t you kill yourself?”, “Looks J’ish to me” – all actually appeared in the online reader comments below a news story from the very newspaper which published Whittingdale’s article, the Daily Mail

They were among thousands of readers’ responses to an article about the historian Corinne Fowler, a professor at Leicester University. A few more announced: “It’s time to hit back at these deranged fools”, “Throw away the key”, “Dangerous and must be stopped”, “These academics are always the ones who get slaughtered first at revolution time”, “She needs to be sectioned”.

Fowler has broken no law and breached no professional code. In fact, she is successful and respected in her field. The torrent of hate speech was a response to opinions attributed to her by the Mail (in terms which, with justification, she strongly disputes). In other words, those opinions gave offence to readers – and Whittingdale himself insists that we all have the right to offend. 

But we surely don’t have the right to threaten violence and murder. No one, not the editor of the Daily Mail, Geordie Greig, nor its editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, nor Whittingdale himself, could possibly defend such threats. Yet, for weeks, they have been on the Mail website for all to read. And Fowler’s case is just one example – many people receive this kind of treatment in the comment streams of national newspapers frequently.   


More Profits for News Publishers

The Government is planning to impose on Facebook, YouTube and others a legal “duty of care” towards the public, backed by potential fines of billions of pounds, on the basis that this will protect us from internet hate speech – while at the same time it will exempt the online comment streams of newspapers on the basis that what is found there, however hateful, threatening and vile, is merely ‘robust debate’. 

This distinction is unsustainable. It is like saying that hate speech is not hate speech if it appears on Website A rather than Website B. The hate, after all, is not determined by its location but by the words that are used. 

Some may think of them as different, but the comment streams are social media platforms just like Twitter. Indeed, they fully meet the Government’s own definition of a social media platform – with the result that ministers are having to go out of their way to exempt them. If a difference exists, it is that content on news websites often reaches far more people: the average number of friends a Facebook user has is in the hundreds, while the daily readership of the MailOnline is in the millions.

Exempting the Mail, the Sun and others from online harm legislation not only makes no sense, it is the equivalent of licensing them to publish hate speech and even encouraging them to do so, since they stand to profit. 

As the example of Corinne Fowler illustrates, they are already at it. Imagine now that the haters on Twitter and Facebook were forced off those platforms by online harms legislation. Where would they go? One likely destination is the comment streams – extra activity and clicks that would bring extra revenue to the news publishers.  

And it is useless and dishonest of ministers to argue, as they have done, that comment streams are different because they are regulated. True, the big newspaper brands are members of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, but it is a sham outfit that never, ever imposes a fine on a member, no matter how dreadful the offence. In six years’ operation it has never gone so far as to mount an investigation, which would be the essential first step towards a fine. 

So when John Whittingdale boldly says of the Big Tech companies “we will hit them where it hurts – in their pocket”, he knows with certainty that the Mail and the Sun face no danger of any comparable pain from any regulator, no matter how much hate speech they publish. The worst that can befall them is a slap on the wrist, and they have both accumulated countless slaps without altering their behaviour a jot. 

The Government’s plans for online harms legislation have a huge hole in them, a hole that is likely to benefit their cronies in the corporate press while actually encouraging hate speech towards people whom editors – and their ministerial friends – dislike. 

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)

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