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Does the internet change the issue of limiting hate speech?

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Guy Berger's picture

Lwanga Mwilu completed her MA thesis under my supervision in 2010. It was a complex piece of work, fusing the following issues:

* Theories of free speech and the limits
* Interrogation of hate speech and xenophobic speech (not exactly the same things)
* Online participation and moderation
* Xenophobic violence in South Africa in 2008

Her case study was how the Thoughtleader blog platform at the Mail & Guardian had dealt with xenophobic comments during the violence. What complicated things for the moderators of that platform were (a) they had various fragments of policy guidelines and reference to the constitution, but no single statement about how to deal with xenophobia, (b) they were a small team facing an avalanche of comments.

Mwilu showed them how some xenophobic content had slipped through, constituting prima facie violations of what the policy would have meant (if elaborarated). The responses pointed out, inter alia, that in several cases the offensive comments had been rebutted by other commentators. That is something that can't easily happen in print media; it could occur on community radio. But online highlights just how the game has changed.

Limits on hate speech date back to an analogue media era, where offensive views could be excluded from a platform. Now it's different. Keep them out of Thoughtleader, and they'll pop up elsewhere - probably in an echo-chamber where like-minded xenophobes congregate, and where no one takes them on. But does a media platform like Thoughtleader let anything go, just in the interests of being a widely-pluralistic public sphere?

In sum, all this raises the question: is it worth re-thinking the way xenophobic speech should be dealt with? That's the topic of a talk I'm giving on 26 January at UNESCO in Paris.

Powerpoint version of the talk here.

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Unesco Freedom of Expression 2011 Berger sans pix.ppt255.5 KB