While the Charlie Hebdo team were targeted for exercising their right to freedom of speech, there remains far more inflammatory and derogatory expression on Facebook and social media that goes unchecked. What often flies under the radar is the pervasive hate speech that is more or less ubiquitous on the web, alongside cat videos and Tumblr blogs, choking Internet forums and clogging YouTube comment sections.
In a very real way, the presence of hate speech online has far more toxic and worrying ramifications, many of them below the threshold of awareness.
As a fundamental right, freedom of speech is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada. The right allows and protects the independent voicing of opinion, without fear of censorship or punishment. Under this protection, the West is lauded for its diversity, culture, and fair forum for equal and respectable discussion. It is this freedom that allows for Seth Rogen’s The Interview, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and satirical cartoon publications such as Charlie Hebdo.
Not coincidentally, freedom of speech is also one of the most theatrically abused freedoms in the West, next to the United States’ Second Amendment. Whereas Charlie Hebdo had a legitimate claim to be protected by freedom of speech — the pieces in question being satirical cartoons — the usage of the phrase online is more often a blatant excuse than a reason.
Besides infantile homophobic and racist comments under YouTube videos, tasteless sexist jokes on 4chan forums, and religious-bashing flamers on Twitter, hate groups and speech on Facebook have become a serious problem, promoting and encouraging intolerable behaviour online.
The naturalization and advancement of bigotry leads to an acceptance and encouragement of base behaviour.
Though these sites promise safety, fairness, and freedom for their users, a considerable chunk of provocative hate slander and ignorant bashing goes unregulated, unfiltered, and becomes normalized through time. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen “fag,” or “slut” framed casually in a comment, alongside supportive statements or scathing replies.
It is that same casualness elicited in comments and posts that is equally potent and dangerous to the hate groups formed on Facebook. Groups such as “Jewish Ritual Murder” on Facebook promote false and bigoted information and bias, disseminated, which hurts and affects communities, and the ubiquity of racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs in online colloquial settings even further damage.
They do damage not only in their offhand manner, but in their naturalization and acceptance of prejudice. Is this really a safe society for everyone, where a hashtag like #KillAllMuslims trends online, or where rape culture chants from the comments section of pictures are the norm?
I’m not reframing the broken windows theory when it comes to what makes an unsafe society, but the naturalization and advancement of bigotry does lead to acceptance, and possibly encouragement, of this sort of behaviour. The Internet is no less subject to this ideological propagation than the natural world. The Internet gives a voice to people, but ultimately, it is the voice of the human condition in its idealism and squalor: both the best and the worst aspects of humanity are online.
Freedom of speech becomes a problem when groups and communities begin to feel physically threatened and powerless. Whether it be casual or personal, hatred and bigotry has no place in democratic societies, and especially not online. Social media needs to smarten up and learn the difference between respectful speech and bigotry or discrimination when it comes to “free speech” on their platforms.