Reacting to rising online harms – what should be done?

Reacting to rising online harms – what should be done?

Hate crimes happening online and being broadcast on social media is an increasing phenomenon, showing a dark side to the internet that should not be left to grow unchecked. 

The internet and social media have been great resources in our society, allowing for connection and innovation on a new scale. However, our increasingly online world comes with risks. Good points have to be weighed against the rising problem of online harms, which includes hate crime, terrorist propaganda and cyber bullying.

The potential for the internet to allow people to broadcast and carry out hate crimes is unfortunately all too clear. Looking at the deadly terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, the world was shocked when a video of the violence circulated online from a Facebook live stream. The internet played a significant role in making this horrific event even worse, when the attack was streamed for 29 minutes with 1.5 million copies made before social media platforms removed it. Facebook said they were considering a one strike policy on Facebook Live, amidst calls to shut Facebook Live down completely due to such harmful content being released. As much as this policy would be a step in a good direction to address hate online, the fact that hate crimes and terrorist attacks could still be streamed before a user is banned may not be enough for those who watched the victims pass away via social media.

Looking closer to home, online harms are on the rise. Hate crime in the UK increased by 17% in 2018 with  the Home Office collecting specific statistics on online hate crime for the first time highlighting that there is a significant problem being noticed by the authorities. These statistics revealed that  6% of hate crimes in the category “violence against another person” were carried out online and the most common motivation for online hate was racial prejudice in 2017/18. This is part of wider trends in the UK such as a 53% increase of hate attacks against someone’s faith, religion and belief from 2016-17 to 2017-18. This is unacceptable and this trend needs to be dealt with effectively so that people are not left in danger, especially already vulnerable BAMER communities. These patterns have made MPs aware of the link between hate crime and the internet, publishing the Action Against Hate plan but this was not specific to online harms. Moreover, organisations focusing on hate crime prevention like Stop Hate UK, have fears that recent political issues such as Brexit negotiations will exacerbate hate and harassment. Hate crime of any sort should not be tolerated in the UK and a particular focus on online hate may now be needed as it is a growing problem that will not be solved by a catch-all plan. With hate crime rising and potential triggers looming, can governments still stand back from online regulation?

Due to the increasing awareness of this issue, online harms regulation is now being considered to deal with online hate crime and other serious problems. This has been undoubtedly controversial with fears regarding over-regulation and restricting freedom of speech, however, there have been powerful statements in support. For example, New Zealand’s Prime Minister has argued that freedom of expression and speech are important but these rights do “not include the freedom to broadcast mass murder”, so it is worth considering the good that regulation could do. The JAN Trust welcomes the UK government’s recent Online Harms White Paper, outlining a strategy that will deal with the rising hatred that we have seen online. Threats of any kind, whether it is Islamophobia, cyberbullying or extremism, should not be left unchecked and the opportunity to create balanced, nuanced regulations to protect vulnerable people and communities is positive.

The JAN Trust has already been committed to building a safe online community in the UK and will continue to do so. We believe empowered women are a critical part of dealing with hatred and extremism online. Our pioneering Web Guardians™ project has allowed women to understand the dangers of online harms and to take action in their local communities. Click here to find out how you can support our work in the fight against hate crime and discrimination using online education.