For the better part of a year, the European Commission has been in an ongoing war of words with several of the world’s main social media platforms due to several companies – including Facebook, Google, and Twitter – who have been relatively slow to react to the online publication of hate speech and material that promotes violence.
The lingering tension that has existed between European watchdogs and most of the world’s online platforms received a much-needed injection of goodwill on February 4 when the European Commission offered their full endorsement of a move by Facebook, Google, and Twitter to take hate speech down from their platforms at a much faster rate.
The European Commissioner for Justice, Vĕra Jourová, said that online material that promotes hate and intolerance goes beyond simply being a crime, but also represents “a threat to free speech and democratic engagement.”
Jourová initiated the move to draw up a Code of Conduct to address online hate speech in May 2016. This was done as a rapid reaction measure that the Commission said was needed to respond to the explosion of violence-condoning material and disinformation that was appearing online on a daily basis.
“After two and a half years, we can say that we (the Commission) have found the right approach and established a standard throughout Europe on how to tackle this serious issue, while (at the same time) fully protecting freedom of speech,” Jourová said while commenting on the progress that the Commission had made since the Code of Conduct was first proposed.
Under the Commission’s anti-hate speech mandate, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft were the first to sign up to the protocol with the promise to implement “clear and effective procedures to review” reports in less than 24 hours. They were joined last year by Google+, Instagram, Snapchat, and Dailymotion, who then followed most recently by French video game platform Jeuxvideo.com. The latter’s site had courted controversy in recent months after of its three users were sentenced in 2018 for threatening to kill a French journalist.
Jeuxvideo.com’s inclusion in the list of signatories to the Code of Conduct was hailed by Jourová, who welcomed the site’s parent company, Webedia group, whose owner also controls dozens of other digital entertainment sites. Jourová categorised the move as further proof that the Commission’s ongoing initiative is headed in the right direction.
“Constant progress has been made” since the launch of the Code of Conduct in 2016, Jourová said, adding that when users report hate speech content, the platforms evaluate the material within 24 hours. Roughly 89% of cases are now reported, according to Jourová, up from only 40% in 2016. Of that total, 72 % of the offensive content is taken down, a huge uptick compared to the paltry 28% that was removed in 2016.
“The results show that the platforms have taken their obligations seriously,” said Jourova, who also urged them to “improve their feedback to users who send notifications.”
Though Facebook is apparently being especially cooperative by assessing 92.6% of hate-speech notifications within 24 hours, the Commission’s offered a stinging assessment of the lack of transparency and feedback provided to users when online content is flagged up and removed. In 2018 only 65.4% receive a report about the material taken down, a more than 3% from 2016.
Facebook’s record for reporting to its uses was, however, better than that of YouTube, who that failed to offer feedback to more than to a quarter of users.