IF sharing information and bringing people closer sum up the main benefits of social media, then defamation and hate speech must be among its dangerous facets — the Dark Side.
Many countries, Malaysia included, have laws that penalise those who defame others on the Web. These laws normally target individuals who create the offending posts and those who share it.
Germany, however, has introduced a new law that targets the social media companies themselves. The Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG) law, which came into effect on Jan 1, obligates social media companies to delete offensive posts within 24 hours of them being reported. The companies would face fines of up to €50 million (RM239.2 million) if they do not comply.
Germany adopted the measure after a surge in racist speech online, particularly since the arrival of more than one million asylum-seekers since 2015. Naturally, some politicians and commentators tried to prevent the hate-speech law from coming into force.
In June 2017, Centre for Data Innovation senior political analyst Nick Wallace wrote that the law would scare Facebook and other social media giants into suppressing content that is legal. Citing how hate speech and defamation fall under “legal grey areas”, he argued that the courts — and not social media firms — should be responsible for determining when the law has been broken.
“Using fines to transfer this task to private companies creates very troubling perverse incentives, and will restrict free speech even beyond the requirements of the law, at the same time as stifling technological innovations that provide new tools in the fight against online hate and extremism,” Wallace said. He urged the Bundestag to reject the bill, and called on lawmakers throughout Europe to resist jumping on the bandwagon.
The bill had since became law, and in an ironic twist, Germany’s own justice minister and two elected representatives from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) had tweets deleted and/or Twitter accounts blocked following complaints. According to one report, Twitter put up a notification for the deleted tweets that the content is unavailable “due to local law”.
In a related development elsewhere, Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov was banned from Facebook and Instagram in late December. The reason? Because Kadyrov was added to the US government’s sanctions list, according to the social media giant.
US President Donald Trump himself has come under criticism many times over his social media posts, including some that allegedly violated Twitter’s terms of service. Yet, the social media firm has defended Trump’s offending postings as being newsworthy, and that they did not violate Twitter’s policies.
“We review tweets by leaders within the political context that defines them, and enforce our rules accordingly,” Twitter said in a blog post. “No one person’s account drives Twitter’s growth or influences these decisions. We work hard to remain unbiased with the public interest in mind.”
So, the most powerful man in the world can tweet provocative and hurtful statements — about other politicians, the media, special interest groups, heads of state — which can have grave consequences in terms of society’s and government’s response to such “attacks”.
Yet, when the account holder is someone in Washington’s bad books, or when failure to comply threatens the social media firm’s own purse, tough action is taken swiftly. One cannot help but see double standards at work here.
Legislation against hate speech that targets the social media platforms may have its limitations, but at least it gets these large corporations to remove the offensive posts. Even then, some may argue that there is no full-proof way to stop anyone from saying anything on the Internet and social media, given the sheer choice of options available.
The way forward, perhaps, is to emphasise and assign responsibility on all parties involved — the social media platforms, account owners, the media, and those who post, share and comment. Adequate legislation should also be in place to ensure there are avenues of recourse for the victims, and repercussions for the perpetrators.
Technology needs to improve in tandem, especially in curbing the lax attitude on the worldwide web towards anonymity. The Internet may have flourished on the promise of free-flow of information in its early days, but the Web today is not utopia. Absolute freedom in such an imperfect world is unjustified.
NST Associate Editor Lokman Mansor’s New Year resolution is to disconnect from the Internet more often this year, and appreciate the real world.