Tackling racial discrimination online

Thursday, 21 March 2019 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This year's theme is "Mitigating and countering rising nationalist populism and extreme supremacist ideologies".

On 21 March 1960, the police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa, against the apartheid "pass laws". In remembrance, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UNGA) proclaimed this day the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1966, in its resolution 2142 (XXI).

If, in 2019, the apartheid has been dismantled in South Africa, this does not mean the battle against racial discrimination has been won. Instead, it is still a very tangible reality for many. What is more, there seems to be, in many Western countries, an alarming trend reversal in what had appeared to be a general progress towards more tolerance and more equality between people from different races. Hence the theme chosen by the UN in 2019, "Mitigating and countering rising nationalist populism and extreme supremacist ideologies", observing that "racist extremist movements based on ideologies that seek to promote populist, nationalist agendas are spreading in various parts of the world, fuelling racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, often targeting migrants and refugees as well as people of African descent".

In Europe, the generations born after World War II are more educated, they have been instilled with permissive values from the movements of the 1960s and from globalisation. These features make them less likely to hold racist views. If that is so, then why have so many national authorities across Europe been reporting unprecedented increases in racist abuse and defamation?

Racial discrimination is not new, but it has taken on brand new characteristics in the 21st century, due to – in large part – the consequences of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Racism has now gone digital. This makes it more prevalent and visible, but also more difficult to grasp and combat.

Indeed, although laws are in place in many European countries to prevent racist abuse and defamation online, several obstacles prevent national authorities from efficiently taking down illicit content and holding their authors accountable. There is a form of self-censorship among victims of racial discrimination online: as an example, in France, it is estimated that only 3 per cent of people targeted by racist insults report it to the police (17 per cent if the insults include threats). This highlights another reality: the normalisation of racist content online.

Another issue is that, even if this content is reported, social media platforms do not always take it down in a fast and efficient manner. To solve this, the European Commission (EC) has announced, in 2016, the launch of a Code of Conduct for IT companies which has, so far, shown encouraging results.

To counter racist hate speech online, awareness efforts are needed at the youngest age. This is why the Council of Europe launched, in 2016, the No Hate Speech Movement (NHSM), a youth-driven, global mobilisation aiming to prevent and counter hate speech. European Safer Internet Centres' (SICs) activities support this movement, such as the Luxembourgish SIC's "Share Respect – Stop Online Hate Speech!" campaign and a national awareness-raising effort in Bulgaria. The BIK Youth Panel has also been, in 2016 and 2017, actively engaged in countering online hate speech and promoting tolerance. In 2017, the BIK Team organised a MOOC (massive open online course) on the European Schoolnet Academy, involving a module on online hate speech and radicalisation. More recently, for Safer Internet Day (SID) 2019, many SICs sparked discussion on online hate speech, such as the German SIC, with its #lauteralshass (#louderthanhate) campaign.

Additionally, the SELMA (Social and Emotional Learning for Mutual Awareness) project aims to tackle online hate speech by promoting mutual awareness, tolerance and respect. In the framework of this project, the SELMA Toolkit will be released in May 2019; a set of principles, methods and activities that will enable different types of stakeholders to work on online hate speech with 11-to-16-year-old teenagers.

Find out more about the work of the Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe, including their awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services.

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