Hate Speech: Nations Fight Back

Hate Speech: Nations Fight Back

Costa Rica is known for its strong democracy, its stance in favor of human rights and its deep respect for the rule of law. It was therefore a shock when the 2018 general elections ushered in an unprecedented polarization of Costa Rican society.

Allegra Baiocchi, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Costa Rica, has witnessed the unprecedented polarization of society and the sharp rise of populist and conservative agendas, which has been accompanied by a sharp increase in hate speech and expressions of discrimination and xenophobia.

The landscape of the municipality of Acosta;  Costa Rica which was populated 2000 years ago by indigenous groups and today by people who are dedicated to agriculture.
ACosta Rica/Danilo Mora
Acosta; Costa Rica (files)

A study of hate

In response to this alarming trend, the UN Team in Costa Rica began rolling out its Hate Speech Action Plan and, in 2021, presented a landmark study on hate speech in Costa Rica.

“When we started working on this issue, we had many conversations about defending freedom of expression and combating hate speech and discrimination,” says Ms Baiocchi. “We know there is a danger that the fight against hate speech will be used to restrict freedom of expression, freedom of opinion.”

Ms. Baiocchi and her team realized that much of the content was focused on women, especially those in leadership positions; LGBTQ issues; and the migrant population. “When we started talking to the women and some of the people who had been targeted, they told us they were scared, scared to speak their minds,” she says.

A big problem, according to the senior UN official, is that the digital space is seen as a free space for everyone without any responsibility. Initially, the team tried to increase accountability, whether simply by reporting hate speech or discrimination on the platforms themselves, or using whatever legal basis exists in different countries.

But after meeting Meta, the owner of Facebook, they realized that while the company invests in mediating and cleaning up conversations, the task is overwhelming and Meta is not able to protect or limit everything. what is published on its platforms. .

The Costa Rica study also looked at the dual role of the press in relation to hate speech. “We have had cases where the media has on the one hand been the victim of hate speech, for investigating cases or criticizing the government, but on the other hand has covered stories in a way that can incite criticism. discrimination and hate speech.

Children wearing 'Unite Against Hate' t-shirts appear during an interfaith rally at New York's Park East Synagogue in memory of Jewish worshipers who were killed in Pittsburgh in the United States.  (October 31, 2018)
Children at an interfaith gathering at the Park East Synagogue, New York (archive)

Improved Protection

One of the outcomes of the study in Costa Rica was the formation of a partnership with the Lawyers Committee Association, which studied legal and judicial jurisdiction around hate speech as it evolves around the world.

The group looked at which countries have the best type of case law and helped create a handbook covering existing case law that can help victims.

“Right now in Costa Rica, if you have been the victim of hate speech, you can consult this manual and see what is already available to protect you,” says Ms. Baiocchi, adding that, according to her, the parliament has been a great ally, passing a law to protect women in politics.

“Many schools also teach debate and it’s really about how we can coexist in the world with different opinions,” says Ms Baiocchi. “I think that’s fundamentally the message behind any work on hate speech and discrimination. It’s about being able to respect each other and coexist.

Listen, question, learn

Education and literacy are the cornerstone of the approach adopted by the media development organization ‘Transitions’, based in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.

Jaroslav Valuch, media literacy and fact-checking project manager at the organization, explains that Transitions supports quality journalism and works on media literacy with overlooked groups to prevent conflict and improve people’s resilience in the face of disinformation hoaxes and hate speech.

“If we make people more resilient to this kind of misinformation, we may be able to counter or prevent violent radicalization. The problem with schools and the education system is that it takes a long time to change the curricula, to change the system. We needed interventions that could be implemented immediately.

Perhaps surprisingly, the sector of society that Transitions has identified as particularly prone to misinformation is its senior citizens. Indeed, according to Mr. Varuch, they feel excluded from society, spreading misinformation via chain emails or private messages.

“They feel underserved,” he says. “They feel that topics that are important to them are not covered by the mainstream media. And all of these concerns are very valid and relevant. They use this information and this hate speech as a kind of stick to beat the system or the government, to make them listen to their concerns”.

To counter the problem, Transitions organizes workshops in public libraries, which are very popular with seniors. During these sessions, participants learn basic investigative methods, learn to take a closer look at the source of the information they receive and disseminate.

“The ultimate goal is not necessarily to tell them not to spread fake news or to be wary of sources,” says Mr. Varuch. “It’s more like, ‘Hey, let’s enjoy some time together.’ And, as a by-product, we make them more resistant to misinformation and propaganda.

The program is now so successful that it operates throughout the Czech Republic, as well as neighboring countries such as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.

You can subscribe to our UN podcast series, UNiting Against Hate, here.