Facebook’s announcement on Monday that it is launching the Online Civil Courage Initiative has been met with praise across Europe. This is after all a significant move for the social media industry as it wrestles with censorship ethics in the face of extreme hate speech, specifically on European Facebook pages targeted at refugees from Syria and other war-torn regions.
Facebook is devoting €1 million to the project, and will be working with non-profits, government bodies, academic groups, and other online networks to try to stem the onslaught of hate speech within its European network. Part of that money will go to groups already trying to do just that.
Reuters reports that Facebook said it had hired a unit of the publisher Bertelsmann to monitor and delete racist posts on its platform in Germany, and that in November, prosecutors in Hamburg launched an investigation into the social network on suspicion of not doing enough to prevent the dissemination of hate speech.
Facebook’s initiative is launching in Germany at a key juncture in the debate over how digital violent speech translates into real life. The attacks in Cologne over New Year’s Eve and at the beginning of January have sparked an increase in hateful rhetoric towards migrants, and not just within Germany’s walls.
Professor Peter Neumann, International Centre for the Study of radicalization and Political Violence said in a statement:
Virtually all experts are agreed that to remove content at best, represents a part of the solution to the problem of online extremism and hate speech. Equally important are the support of Counter Speech, the promotion of grassroots movements that fight extremist views, as well as an empirically-sound understanding of how and when online incurred remarks lead to real violence. This initiative is one of the first who chooses such a holistic approach.
Critics of Facebook and other online content publishing platforms have said that those companies need to take responsibility for being the arbiters of their users’ content, and that with that responsibility comes the one of protecting its usership. And even with the launch of the Online Civil Courage Initiative, some argue that Facebook is offloading its responsibility in that regard onto other NGOs or third parties.
This is one of the biggest moves Facebook or any social media company has made to censor hate speech online (collaboration with local governments is key here). The topic has been unsurprisingly fraught in countries in which refugees are seeking asylum; but the debate is also heated in countries not coping with such an influx, including the U.S. Since the Gamergate scandal of 2013/2014 — i.e., the widespread practice of harassing or violently threatening women with rape and death online — Facebook and other social media companies have been called upon to eradicate all manner of hate speech. Gamergate highlighted the problem in the U.S., but it remains a perpetual, global issue for many women, often affecting their daily activity or actual safety. And social media entities have yet to adequately resolve broad questions like: where should they draw the line between letting users freely publish content, and protecting them? Is there such a thing as healthy censorship?
Facebook’s initiative notwithstanding, these questions will likely exist as long as social media does.