Hate speech can only thrive if the majority remain silent

FRANCE – STRASBOURG – Online hate speech or “cyber hate” is more than the mirror of hate speech in society; it magnifies the issue, like a hall of mirrors. Hate-speech mongers use every online means available to denigrate their targets; music and video, social media, blogs, email and even games; in the overtly racist game “Ethnic Cleansing”, players win by killing “Blacks” and “Latinos” (also known as “subhumans”) and their Jewish “evil masters”. Extreme and malicious attacks can be posted unchallenged on the Internet. Rapid links can then be made between these various messages, networks and sites, providing 24-hour access to aggressive content, which can remain accessible for ever.

Hate speech, as defined by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, covers all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, or other forms of hatred based on intolerance.
Hate speech online affects young people in particular. The inter-active world of Web 2.0, with its social networks, chatrooms and video-sharing sites, is part of their everyday lives and the way it develops will determine their futures. It is no surprise then that young people have themselves decided to tackle the problem.
Youth leaders at the Council of Europe are planning an online campaign to combat cyber hate which will be run by and for young people. Central to this campaign will be a network of 60 young activists trained to defend human rights online. This is a signature Council of Europe project, with young people as active participants, rather than receivers of ready-made solutions developed from on high. This approach also helps ensure that the Organisation’s values are passed on from one generation to the next.
The idea has come from the youth leaders who share decision-making on youth questions with government representatives at the Council of Europe and has been taken up through this unique power-sharing structure. Preparations are well under way for the campaign launch on 21 March 2013, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Under the umbrella of the Europe-wide campaign, it is hoped that national and local projects will take place in the Organisation’s 47 European Member States.
The project has already attracted funding from the EEA Norway Grants (programmes funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway to help reduce disparities in 15 EU member states), Finland and the French-speaking community of Belgium, but further funds and the involvement of national governments are vital if it is to be a success. The campaign organisers are fully aware of the complexity of the task before them, particularly the difficulty of monitoring and measuring the reach and impact of cyber hate. The year-long campaign is therefore part of a two-year project which will include the collection of data on the forms, perceptions and impact of hate speech online and possible solutions. Guidelines will then be developed with young people and youth organisations.
The Council of Europe, whose European Convention on Human Rights defends freedom of expression, might face the charge that the campaigners are censors, afraid of free and open debate. But the right to freedom of expression is not absolute; it comes with “duties and responsibilities”, to quote the Convention. There is in reality no such thing as complete freedom of speech. Properly drafted laws which limit freedom of expression in the fields of libel, copyright and state security, for example, are not violations of the Convention if they meet certain criteria.
In fact, the campaign advocates freedom of expression in its truest sense, as the right of every citizen to be free to participate in public life without fear of abuse or violence.
Because it is all too easy to be a passive consumer of the Internet, the campaign activists will defend human rights by fighting its opposites; indifference, secrecy and ignorance. The campaign logo is provocative – a heart with “HATE ME?” written inside – to prompt young people to take a stand; to stop racists, sexists and homophobes from appropriating free speech as a cloak for verbal aggression, which is frequently the precursor to physical violence; and, to ensure that routine abuse of individuals on the basis of their innate characteristics does not seep into our culture unnoticed.
Hate speech can only thrive and recruit followers if the majority remain silent. If we accept hate speech as normal or unavoidable or the price to pay for freedom of speech or if we do not know that what has been posted online even constitutes hate speech, Europe’s fundamental values are fatally undermined.
It is significant that the Council of Europe’s youth campaign to combat cyber hate is under preparation in 2012, the year of the 40th anniversary of two of its greatest innovations, its unique European Youth Centres and European Youth Foundation. These institutions have ensured that more than 400,000 young people have taken part in training or activities based on the Organisation’s core values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
The challenges have changed in the last four decades. Early efforts focused on helping young people build democracy in their countries following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, the issue is rather the absence of borders; that our information society is one big, anarchic free-for-all.  But in one sense nothing has changed; Europe still needs values, Europe still needs a conscience, Europe still needs the Council of Europe.