As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the rise of hate speech in Europe and civil society strategies to counter it with Martin Pairet, Network Manager at European Alternatives, a transnational civil society organisation and citizen movement that promotes democracy, equality and culture beyond the nation-state.
European Alternatives focuses on promoting democracy across borders. How concerned are you about the rise of authoritarian nationalism in Europe?
European Alternatives works to support democracy across the continent, and our current analysis is that democracy is not really mature enough and that the fundamental rights necessary for democracy to work are not being respected in Europe. The process of degradation of democratic practices and institutions has taken place over a number of years, a decade at least, but has particularly accelerated with the crisis of hospitality that we are currently experiencing in the face of migration. This crisis of hospitality is above all a crisis of European values. We stand for the principle of solidarity and the creation of new forms of transnational community, and we are seeing exactly the opposite – the normalisation of anti-rights movements and parties whose discourse is being amplified by the media, and by social media in particular. This is happening in every country in Europe, and particularly in countries where politicians have a lot to gain through anti-migrant politics, such as France, Germany and Italy.
Do you see this situation as the result of a deficit of democracy, or as the result of a failure to respect human rights?
I think it’s a little bit of both. There is in fact a deep democratic deficit, and over the past few years there has been increasing questioning about how decisions are being made at every level – local, national, European and global. People have been demanding more representation and meaningful involvement in decision-making processes, through mechanisms such as citizen-initiated referendums. There are many other examples that we’ve seen over the past few years in Europe, of people organising to supplement the shortcomings of representative institutions and getting involved in decision-making, for instance through citizen assemblies. A lot of people feel their voices are not being heard and therefore feel powerless – they feel that no matter what they do, they won’t be able to change things and they won’t regain control over politics, which means they won’t have a say over the decisions that affect their lives, and they won’t control their futures.
In this sense, democracy is quite weak, and people are getting increasingly desperate for someone in decision-making positions to really understand their problems and their fears, which the system is not paying attention to and is not able to process. This is the point when nationalism, extremism and hate start to rise, and hate speech becomes appealing. And in this context it becomes very difficult to hear the human rights discourse, because it is not necessarily something that people always respond or relate to, as it is quite abstract. European human rights organisations have been working hard to tackle the humanitarian crisis, but have sometimes undervalued the power of emotions, and of fear in particular, and have therefore not focused on how to address those fears, which has been problematic.
In your analysis of the ongoing crisis of hospitality you focus on hate speech. How would you define this?
Hate speech is a complex phenomenon that can’t really fit into a simple definition. In fact, there isn’t an internationally accepted definition of hate speech, and every member state of the European Union (EU) has its own legal definition. The definition used by the Council of Europe includes all forms of expression that spread or amplify xenophobia and various forms of hatred and intolerance. Hate speech is against human rights, so it is a form of anti-rights speech. It is also a social phenomenon that has been amplified by social media within the context of increasingly social power relations also related to the economic and financial crisis and the fact that financial and economic power is concentrated in few hands. But stereotypes also play an important role. I would say that hate speech is driven by both unequal power relations and negative stereotypes.
In recent years, the normalisation of hate speech has contributed to the radicalisation of people and groups against those seen as ‘the other’: attacks against marginalised groups, including women, LGBTQI people, Roma people, migrants, refugees and minority faith communities, have spread on social media, and the hate narrative gradually translated into actual violence. That’s why we’ve seen a rise in hate crimes.
One problem, and the reason why it is important to have a clear definition of hate speech, is that while hate speech is a form of anti-rights speech, an attempt to regulate and suppress it may lead to the violation of other rights, and particularly the violation of a fundamental right, the right to the freedom of expression.
While the rights of women, LGBTQI people, people of colour and indigenous peoples ought to be respected, their right to be treated fairly and respectfully may sometimes collide with the freedom of expression. So it is important to know where to draw the line and how to identify what falls under the freedom of expression and what is hate speech, and what can be done about it. But this is a very dynamic process and definitions are continuously changing, partly because of the rise of new technologies. As new forms of communications arise, we need to ask ourselves whether this or that is still hate speech. Where is the limit? Do certain commentaries or visual communications that we find on media platforms constitute hate speech? The distinction between what’s ironic and what’s serious can be difficult to grasp online.
Where in Europe is the situation most worrying?
The problem is taking different forms in different places. One specific example of this worrying situation is in Italy, where there was a significant rise in hate crimes between 2017 and 2018. Because of the use of different data collection methods, it’s difficult to know how much these have increased, but it is evident that they have risen sharply while the far-right was in power.
In Italy, hate speech has specifically targeted refugees and people of colour. Cécile Kyenge, a black Italian member of the European Parliament, has faced racist attacks for years. When she was appointed as Italy’s first black government minister back in 2013, she received racist insults from the far-right League Party. In 2018, once the League Party’s leader Matteo Salvini had reached power, they brought a defamation case against her, for accusing the party and its leaders of being racists!
It is very telling that a hate crime happened on the same day that Matteo Salvini was sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister, on 3 June 2018. A 29-year old migrant from Mali was shot dead by a white man who drove by and fired on him with a shotgun. He was killed while collecting scrap metal to build shacks, alongside two other migrants who also suffered injuries. They all lived in a tent city that houses hundreds of poorly paid farm workers. This was clearly an example of hate speech turned into act, as it happened just hours after Matteo Salvini warned that, with him in power, "the good times for illegals are over” and that “Italy cannot be Europe's refugee camp.”
It does make a difference whether the far right has reached power, which becomes apparent when you compare Italy and Germany. Hate speech has also been on the rise in Germany, but in this case, a new law was passed in late 2017 to regulate hate speech online. This law requires social media platforms to quickly remove hate speech, ‘fake news’ and any illegal material, and it appears to have been quite efficient in reducing online hate speech. In contrast, Italy does not have a similarly strong legal framework and the context is not conducive to a revision of the legal framework either. In sum, the rise of hate speech in Italy is the result of a mix of a regressive political environment and the absence of strong legislation.
In the cases of Hungary and Poland there have also been strong governmental responses against migrants. These examples are particularly interesting because sometimes there are no migrants in parts of the country, especially in the countryside, but there can still be anti-migrant policies even in places with very few migrants. This has a lot to do with who is in power and what discourse is being delivered from the top and disseminated on social media. And while hate speech can target various particular groups, I think that in the current situation in Europe, it always starts with migrants and refugees, then extends to other marginalised groups. We saw this with Brexit in the UK: the referendum campaign was permeated with an anti-migrant discourse, but various groups of people who were not migrants or refugees became increasingly threatened by exclusionary narratives, which eventually targeted anyone who was different, looked different, or spoke differently.
Is there any legislation in place at the European level to counter hate speech?
There is nothing in place specifically against hate speech, but because hate speech is a violation of a whole set of rights, there is a broad set of rules that apply, such as the Framework Decision on combating certain forms of expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law. There is also the Fundamental Rights Agency, an EU-funded agency that collects and analyses data and carries out research on fundamental rights. It provides assistance and expertise at both the European and national levels, including in the areas of non-discrimination, racism, intolerance and hate crime. Finally, there is a Code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online that the European Commission recently agreed with Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, which aims at enabling social media users to express their opinions online freely and without the fear of being attacked out of bias based on race, colour, religion, descent, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, or other characteristics. It also seeks to ensure that EU and national laws on combating hate speech are better enforced in the online environment across the EU. But the process of domesticating European legislation is slow and long, and the EU doesn’t always have sufficient mechanisms in place to hold members states accountable when they are not complying.
What can civil society do to counter hate speech, besides pushing for legislative change?
There are many strategies that can be used to counter hate speech effectively. Of course it is important to change legislation to ensure it covers all forms of discrimination and hate speech, but it is also important – and very difficult – to raise awareness. Awareness of their right to equal treatment must be raised, first of all, among the people who are being targeted by hate speech. Even among European citizens, many people don’t know exactly what their rights are. So it is important to share information among civil society and encourage civil society groups to share it further.
The role of local authorities and state agencies such as the police is also key in ensuring the right to equal treatment and it does make a difference whether or not they act in the face of hate speech. So it is important for civil society to work with these actors so that they are able to recognise hate speech and act against it.
Additionally, civil society can do better in the area of communication strategies to protect fundamental rights in general. This would require an investment in capacity development, given that the required knowledge is not evenly disseminated. Grassroots actors don’t necessarily have the means to do this kind of work, but it’s this kind of work that often impacts on affected groups the most, as it is key in helping them reach out.
A lot more investment is needed to counter hate groups online, because online content can have an impact well beyond the context for which it was formulated. According to studies about anti-Semitic speech, people tend to feel threatened by what they see online regardless of how much impact it actually has on their reality, so clearly more investment is needed to counter this effect.
How is European Alternatives working to counter hate speech?
We work to connect groups that are working on similar issues and to fill the capacity gap. We’ve done this quite successfully through a series of training activities on Countering Hate Speech and Far-Right Radicalism in Central and Eastern Europe. It is important to bring together activists and citizens from different countries, because it is quite hard for people to understand that these are not isolated phenomena that are happening in their communities, but rather that a lot of communities are experiencing the same, and there is a range of solutions that have been tried in various local contexts to tackle it. It’s very important for these exchanges to continue, because we’ve seen it’s working: we see organisations collaborating across borders and exchanging experiences in ways that they can adapt to tackle hate speech in their own contexts.
It is also key to invest in civic education and human rights education as much as possible. We do this through an online course on Countering Hate Speech in Europe, which is based on online dialogue maintained with our partners. The videos are open source and are available on our YouTube channel. We have a playlist called ‘Countering Hate Speech’, so they can be watched in sequence. The course offers participants the opportunity to access expert content developed by European Alternatives and to put their own experiences, values and perspectives to the forefront while engaging with peers through a Virtual Exchange. At the end of the course, participants even learn how to plan and organise an Action Day Against Hate Speech.
Through these activities, we try to reach out to a high number of young people. Dialogue among individuals and among communities is key because on social media there are fewer and fewer spaces where people can have a real conversation in a safe environment. And dialogue is quite effective for raising awareness and thinking strategies through collectively.
I think the reason why we keep at this is because we think there cannot be a well-functioning democracy when people are not respected in the first place. Respect for our shared humanity is a precondition for any democratic reform to work.