Tackle hate speech, before the next Buffalo
Days ago, Buffalo was just another city. Then, in one murderous afternoon, it joined Christchurch, Charleston, and El Paso on the list of places synonymous with hate crimes. That the list keeps growing is testament to our failure to tackle hate speech. We must act now, before the next atrocity.
Hate speech — hostile words or speech promoting intolerance — is as old as hate itself. But since the advent of the internet, it has found a potent amplifier. Chat forums, including on the dark web, are powerful tools for those seeking to infect minds with hate and incite them to violence.
This, investigators believe, was the process behind the Buffalo shooting, an attack UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called a “vile act of racist violent extremism.” Posts linked by police to the 18-year-old suspect suggest that he radicalized himself with hateful content he found online.
The suspect is believed to have plotted for months, spending hours on forums where racist language is widespread. There, in chat rooms, he first stumbled across white supremacist conspiracy theories and hate-filled terrorist manifestos. There, in chat rooms, he formed his plan to kill black people.
Emboldened, he wrote openly about his intentions, discussed tactics and weapons with other users, and meticulously documented his preparations. He even planned to inspire others to follow in his footsteps. On streaming sites, he weighed up how to maximize an audience for a live massacre.
This was no lone wolf. The suspect was engaged in a community. Platforms that connect the like-minded across borders and time zones are in themselves no bad thing. But when they legitimize the beliefs and actions of violent racists, they present an urgent problem. That demands a response.
We can’t afford to let this continue. The platforms share some of the blame for allowing this hate to proliferate. Those who preside over sites where such content is shared must be held responsible for monitoring it, just as live streaming sites must respond immediately to stop violent broadcasts.
We know that the platforms are abjectly failing to hold back the tide of online hate. One recent report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that social media companies were collectively failing to act on 89% of posts promoting white supremacist conspiracy theories.
That’s not to say we can place the sole onus on the platforms. Uncomfortable though it is, the truth is that the poison has already spread far and wide. The kind of language that inspired the Buffalo attack is now just as present on prime-time television as it is on the darker corners of the web.
Allowing hate to dominate in this way is extremely risky. We must wake up to the reality of millions of minds being fed distorted, hateful, and racist ideas and of what we will lose if we give in to those seeking power by instilling fear of the other. If hate is a poison, we urgently need an antidote.
Moderating hate speech at source is one tactic. But we need wider strategies to win this battle. We must get better at debunking hate and elevating the alternative, whether that means tweaking algorithms or speaking up in editorial meetings, on online forums and in face-to-face conversations.
At the United Nations we are urgently seeking strategies to tackle hate head on. Launched in 2020, our Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech lays out guidance to address the root causes and drivers of hate speech, and to empower people to recognize, reject and stand against it.
Building a better response must be our urgent priority. We can no longer tolerate such flagrant touting of racist ideas. It’s time for communicators and leaders to wrest back the megaphones, stand up to hate, and find better ways of spreading messages of peace and social cohesion.
Hateful people will always exist. But we can deny them the mass tools to infect other minds and incite violent acts. When our values are being put to the test, inaction is no longer an option. Failure to act will only breed more division, more victims, and more place names on that shameful list.