Every day offensive comments on the Internet hurt people of various ethnicities, religions or sexual orientation. It is high time to deal with this problem properly.
“We should get rid of this plague immediately”, “Deport these goatfuckers from this country” or “This black bitch should shut up” – these are not excerpts from some obscure, Neo-Nazi websites, these are quotes from comment sections on popular websites and Facebook pages. While in real life people expressing such bigoted and aggressive beliefs would be ridiculed and ostracised, in virtual life they are endorsed, not only by other Internet users, but also by the owners of given websites or fanpages, who let such comments stay on their websites.
The fact that such comments affect people is undeniable. Journalists and writers representing ethnic minorities often have to face comments that pertain to their skin colour or religion instead of focusing on the content of their articles. Even worse, the abuse in comment sections in many cases is followed by a flood of death threats in their mailboxes. As a consequence, they self-censor their works and feel excluded from society, as racists undermine their confidence and silence their voices.
The examples of harassment on websites are no different from committing civil rights crimes in the real life, says the author of the book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Danielle Citron. For this reason we need not only to make use of the existing law to fight the abuse on the Internet, but also to reform it in order to catch up with new ways of harassment in the new media.
In Poland, there are problems with the former. It was only after 11 years that Poland ratified the Council of Europe Convention on cybercrime with its additional protocol on hate crimes on the Internet. Polish prosecutors still find racist and anti-Semitic comments not worthy of investigating. If a person commenting that “Jews should be killed in furnaces and gas chambers” is not guilty of a hate crime, then who is?
It is also the role of website owners to stand up against abuse. Harlem Désir, France’s State Secretary for European Affairs, says that the administrators of social networks “fail to take responsibility for racist and anti-Semitic content” published on websites. Of course, we cannot imagine Mark Zuckerberg condemning and deleting a post of a 16-year-old teenager from Poland, but there is a need to provide specific tools for moderators and administrators to cope with hate comments. The lack of reaction when such messages are published is a dangerous precedent that makes authors think that such abhorrent views are acceptable in public discussion.
Of course, confronted with the accusations that they are racist, bigoted commenters will claim that it is their right of free speech that is being infringed upon. While protecting inalienable human rights indeed should be sought-after, these commenters’ argument is spurious. The freedom of expression should be exercised as long as it does not harm people. By offending and pushing certain individuals and groups of people to the fringes of society, most definitely much harm is done. There is also the argument of such commenters that fighting abuse on the Internet is “political correctness gone mad”. These people fail to see, however, that if they based their comments on logical and non-offensive argumentation instead of offensive language, nobody would mind their beliefs.
Overt racism only seems to be a thing of the past. The Internet is a perfect example illustrating that this outdated concept still finds appeal among some people. However, we should hope that the problem with racists lies not in their number, but only in their loudness. By the coordinated efforts of both lawmakers and media owners, and also by providing proper media education that focuses on standing up against the abuse, we may find a way round the problem of hate crimes on the Internet. Otherwise, we will end up in polarised societies which fail to acknowledge that expressing an opinion carries not only rights, but also responsibilities.