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UN Experts Urge Tech Leaders to End Hate Speech on Social Media

Photo: Twitter

Photo: Twitter Logo

UN Experts Urge Tech Leaders to End Hate Speech on Social Media

While some claim to not allow hate speech there is a gap between company commitments to their policies and enforcement on social media sites. 

A group of UN experts has called on top tech executives Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook, and CEOs of other social media platforms to follow human rights principles to curb hate speech on social media.

They said that a sharp increase in the use of the racist “N” word on Twitter after its recent acquisition highlights the urgent need for a deeper level of accountability from social media corporations over the expression of hatred towards people of African descent. 

The experts said that in the early days of the Twitter acquisition, the Network Contagion Research Institute of Rutgers University highlighted that the use of the hateful and racist “N” word on the platform increased by almost 500 percent within a 12-hour period compared to the previous average. 

Although Twitter advised this was based on a trolling campaign and that there is no place for hatred, the expression of hatred against people of African descent is deeply concerning and merits an urgent response centered on human rights.

Hate speech, advocacy of national, racial and religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination and violence, as well as racism on social media, are not just a concern for Twitter but also for other social media giants such as Meta. 

While some claim to not allow hate speech there is a gap between company commitments to their policies and enforcement on social media sites. This is particularly salient in the approval of inflammatory ads, electoral disinformation on Facebook, and content that talks of conspiracy theories. Research from Global Witness and SumOfUs recently revealed how Meta is unable to block certain advertisements.

In response to many complaints, Meta took a significant step with the establishment of an Oversight Board in 2020. This group of experts from diverse areas of expertise is in place to “promote free expression by making principled, independent decisions regarding content on Facebook and Instagram and by issuing recommendations on the relevant Facebook Company Content policy”. 

Resourced with funds and having received two million appeals regarding content, the Board has made a number of recommendations and decisions. However, the effectiveness of the Oversight Board can only be seen over a long-time horizon and will require continued commitment at the highest levels of the social media to review and modify their mechanisms to address incitement to racial hatred online. 

“There is a risk of arbitrariness and profit interests getting in the way of how social media platforms monitor and regulate themselves,” the UN experts said in their statement released on January 6, 2023.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, recently penned an open letter to Twitter CEO Elon Musk which emphasized that free speech is not a free pass to spread harmful disinformation that results in real world harm. 

The UN human rights experts believe that content moderation can only address a part of what happens in cyberspace but does not take into account the intended and unintended effects in society. 

There are deeper issues about advocacy of racial hatred, lack of accountability for abuses, and an absence of efforts to promote tolerance. If addressed, these can be strong determining factors in building a positive future both online and offline. 

At stake is the future of current and succeeding generations, as well as social cohesion amongst and across communities. Social media has a major role to prevent further rifts so that racial justice and human rights can be upheld to build less racist, less divisive, more tolerant, just, and equitable societies.

The experts suggest that social media companies must urgently address posts and activities that advocate hatred and constitute incitement to discrimination, in line with international standards for freedom of expression.

They added that corporate accountability for racial justice and human rights is a core social responsibility and respecting human rights is in the long-term interest of these companies and their shareholders. 

The International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide a clear path forward on how this can be done. 

“We urge all CEOs and leaders of social media to fully assume their responsibility to respect human rights and address racial hatred,” the experts said in their statement.

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