Fines proposed for hate speech on social media

How much responsibility should be placed on social media for what content appears on their sites? (Source: Jason Howie via flickr).

by George Cook

Defining exactly what falls within the confines of hate speech has always been a topic which sparks fierce debate. There are those who argue that curtailing free speech is dangerous and something that should be avoided, but when that speech incites hatred and involves illegal content clearly a line has been crossed and measures need to be taken. And this is exactly what the German government are trying to do.

They have drafted a law which would see social media sites fined for not removing fake news, hate speech and illegal content. The last two are hard to argue against; speech that incites hatred against anyone should have no place in the 21st century. But what is ‘fake news’? This then brings us into dangerous territory, as who has the right to decide what is fake news and what is not?

Whilst it is clear some facts can be proved and disproved, some news -which is often deemed fake- is evidently not. Like Trump saying the BBC, yes the BBC the bastion of our free and open democracy, is “fake news”. Could giving a government the power to diminish the reputation and reliability of certain news agencies turn Germany -and other countries which adopt this policy- into states where they control too much of the media? And surely this, in turn, is limiting free speech. Even though it will ultimately be up to the social media sites to fine such fake content, Germany will surely have a say in what content they wish to see punished and removed.

I am not advocating for hate speech or illegal content. I have no objections to these things being outlawed as they are disturbing and, especially with young children on social media, not a side of society we should be portraying. This measure is drastically needed in order to make social media a safer space for all people. In a time of increased marginalisation, especially for minorities, it is time for social media companies to take action for allowing such content to remain prominent on their sites. This will create a more open and tolerant society.

The UK should aim to adopt similar methods in relation to hate speech and illegal content in an attempt to prevent further radicalisation of young people online. This content should not be so easily accessible to children either, with explicit content such as celebrity sex tapes sometimes appearing on social media.

However, whether the UK should fine companies for allowing ‘fake news’ is a different matter. Banning it could lead to serious difficulties in the way the free press operates. Certain media outlets would become favoured by the government, and that is not how a free and open democracy works.

Doubtless, hate speech and illegal content need exterminating from social media, but curtailing the powers of the media and deeming certain news stories as “fake” is a dangerous path. What counts as fake news is dependent on your ideology, your positionality and whether you are the reincarnation of Donald Trump or part of the ‘liberal elite’.