Posts Tagged ‘hate speech’

Why tech companies can no longer ignore their role in shaping politics and society

April 25, 2023
A small portrait of Olga Solovyeva

Olga Solovyeva of Advox, a Global Voices project dedicated to protecting freedom of expression online, posted on 19 April 2023 a piece statign that the impact of technology on politics cannot be ignored anymore. It is a long piece that I copy in its totality as it is worth reading and of great rlevance for human rights defenders:

Amidst the rising influence of technology in global politics, particularly in authoritarian regimes, the imperative to acknowledge the political accountability of tech corporations has become increasingly apparent. In recent years, the ramifications of disregarding ethical practices underscore the urgent need for tech companies to prioritize responsible conduct. The manipulation of information online, traffic rerouting, restricting access to the internet, and operating surveillance are some examples of how states can misuse technology. While technology was once expected to become a symbol of resistance and liberation, illiberal regimes now use it to produce various forms of digital unfreedom that extend into material reality. But how do we ensure that Big Tech contributes to democratic practices rather than political oppression?

Why do tech companies have political responsibility?

In an innovation driven sector like technology, legislation cannot keep pace with new developments. Often, neither users nor makers consider the negative consequences of a new technology until they have experienced them, and the industry is left struggling with the ramifications of harm and, as a consequence, its own expanding responsibilities.

In recent years, Big Tech companies have made headlines more often for political events than industry ones. First, the revelations of Cambridge Analytica’s user data harvesting and consequent interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections brought public attention to the issues of uncontrolled data collection. However, even since the issues have been flagged up, social networking sites fail to remove mis/disinformation or take action against incidents of violence. Further public discussion questioned social media providers for neglecting the impact of algorithmic feeds on teenagers and young adults, contributing to the mental health epidemic marching through the world. Tech companies are directly involved in international politics, as in Myanmar, where Facebook became the synonym for the internet and eventually a key platform to fuel hatred and incite genocide. There is also the case of Pegasus, an elaborate surveillance software developed by the Israel-based NSO Group, which was used to spy on political activists worldwide.

Digital activists from Global Voices Advox report on the growing use of digital technology for advancing authoritarian regimes worldwide, focusing, among others, on issues such as surveillance, mis/disinformation and access to the internet in different contexts. Autocrats use the whole scale of digital technologies available. In Russia, where the interest of the state lies in keeping opposition views from the information environment, there is a strong emphasis on disinformation and censorship. Tanzania and Sudan are known for internet shutdowns, while in Turkey and Morocco, cases of public digital surveillance have become more common.

At the same time, the tech sector does not necessarily play on the dark side only. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Elon Musk’s SpaceX continued to support Starlink and provide internet access in Ukraine after the Russian invasion disrupted services. And yet, his recent purchase of Twitter brought multiple controversies, further empowering the attention economy of social media, which leads to fragmentation, polarisation and the decline of the public sphere. It’s impossible to separate tech companies from politics, and their role tends to cause controversy.

Good apple, bad apple

If you’re reading this text from your MacBook or iPhone, you probably have recognized the difference between living in a new information space with much less targeted advertising. In February 2022, Apple introduced its new privacy features allowing users to enable or block personal data tracing from the apps installed on the company’s devices, an innovation with significant political, social and economic consequences.

It’s crucial to understand the business decision that underpins the ongoing debate on personal data ethics and regulation. Protecting Apple users’ personal data means they will not be targeted with personally crafted advertising, and their data will not be used to predict consumer behaviour, which enables users’ right to privacy — one of the central categories of online service providers’ moral responsibilities and, essentially, a human right. This guarantee of the right attracts consumers to Apple products.

At the same time, this architectural decision caused significant distress to the market, as the stock prices of Meta and other social media companies plunged that day. Introducing an opt-out particularly for personal data collection means shrinking their potential advertising revenues as less data becomes available to develop personalized ads.

Apple made a policy-level decision, a milestone in the discussion on issues of user privacy regulation. Effectively, it is a subject of government concern on the intersection of information and business ethics, law and policy. This case illustrates the power of one company, which can be not just a game changer in the conversation on tech regulation but a shock for the industry, pushing other businesses to shift their business models and challenge the dynamics of Big Tech.

What is this decision for Apple? An enactment of an ethical stand signalling its political responsibility? An act of an excellent corporate citizen innovating to enable its customers’ rights for privacy? Or is it a marketing move to boost the sale of Apple products through engaging in a non-market activity? Regardless of the motivation, we have witnessed a tech company making a political change on an international level, since Apple products are in demand and sold worldwide.

At the same time, the company engages in other activities that may be seen as controversial. Along with other Big Tech companies, Apple increased its lobbying spending in 2022 as businesses face increased pressure from lawmakers raising antitrust concerns to curb the power of tech giants. Meanwhile, stepping outside the liberal democratic political climate, Apple faces decisions that challenge its political stand. In 2021 the company confirmed storing all personal data of Chinese users inside China-based data centres. China is known for using surveillance as a tool for political prosecution. Even though Apple claimed to maintain a high level of security, journalist sources report that the company handed over the keys to the government. The same year, Apple removed a smart voting app, one of the tools developed by the opposition in Russia to outplay electoral fraud. In both cases, the company’s decision-making had severe and direct political consequences, just like the decision to block personal data tracing on its devices. The only difference was the kind of pressure put on a company by the political system it was operating in.

Where does the political responsibility of Big Tech end?

In 2022 the world saw the global expansion of authoritarian rule, affecting developing states and established democracies. According to the 2022 Freedom House report, only 20 percent of the earth’s population live in a free country, while the remaining 80 percent are equally split between a partially free and not free world. The world is getting more authoritarian, and the political regime of a liberal democracy today is the exception rather than the rule.

Different autocracies pose challenging obstacles to tech companies, which remain the key producers of innovative technology. The role of the state defines the potential expectations of business, and their relationship patterns. In autocracies, political participation and public deliberation face repression through state authorities, and business is shaped by a political economy with the elements of state intervention. The state prevails, and it has more direct control over the company when needed, and the interference in economic life is ordinary and unpredictable. Autocrats are famous for censorship, propaganda, and interventions in electoral systems, all of which are delivered by technology provided by business.

One of the most common examples could be the situation in which a business organization has to obey the law of an authoritarian state to maintain political legitimacy, while the law itself may undermine the moral legitimacy of the company. The case of Apple in China is an example of this. However, it can have different consequences for companies in other countries. For instance, Verizon (the subsidiary that bought out Yahoo! in 2017) was sued for handing data to the Chinese government that led to political prosecution and the torture of dissidents. In authoritarian regimes, legislation is often designed to set out the specific requirements and processes for government agencies to obtain access to personal data, including surveillance purposes. Even though data handovers upon the request, e.g., the subpoena, are common for democratic regimes as well, the difference is how such data is further used and whether there are grounds for balancing it out with other institutional procedures.

Elaborating on the political responsibility of Big Tech

As the intersection of technology and politics continues to expand, grappling with the political implications of new creations becomes imperative for tech innovators. They must take proactive steps to develop robust political responsibility strategies while navigating authoritarian and other ethically fraught environments. Transparency is one way to meet these goals.

The practice of environmental social and governance (ESG) reporting and disclosure on ESG issues is an excellent example of how mandated transparency has led to accountability, and one that can be adapted to technological innovation. Openly revealing who has bought a certain technology will limit the ability of authoritarian governments to abuse it, for example. Additionally, integrating political responsibility as a part of responsible investment portfolios could represent a meaningful step forward to starting an open dialogue about tech, politics and society. This could be done by disclosing on direct political engagement of companies and adding additional transparency about contexts in which business operates.

Yet, such openness would be even more problematic — and potentially impossible — for tech companies that have been developed within the borders and hence the jurisdiction of authoritarian regimes. One of the most illustrative examples is the case of Yandex, a multinational company headquartered in Russia. The company has grown into a major tech player, often referred to as the “Russian Google.” Despite making an occasional compromise with the political system, the company kept the reputation of the most liberal company in the country while showing steady business growth.

However, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Yandex faced significant pressure, legislative restrictions, international sanctions and criticism from the public. From the first weeks of the war, YandexNews, daily visited by 40 million people, has been indexing only stories from state-owned media, amplifying the narratives of the “special operation.” Abiding by the law became equivalent to contributing to univocal media coverage dominated by the Russian state.

The war became the most significant trigger that affected the company, as the share price of this prominent business lost over 75 percent of its value. Many company employees, including top management, resigned or left the country in protest of the war led by Russia. Personal sanctions were applied to the company’s CEO and founder. Under pressure, the company sold their media assets to a holding loyal to the state. In December, the company’s founder left Yandex Russia but remained the key shareholder.

Scenarios like these establish a controversial ground for businesses that must come to terms with an authoritarian state’s rules to keep their business going. Albert Hirshman’s “Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States” suggests a framework of three strategies for responding to the perceived decrease in performance of an organization or a state. Using it as a guide to an organizational strategy, a tech company facing authoritarianism could leave, protest or comply.  However, as the suppression of public dissent usually characterizes authoritarianism, realistically, only two strategies are left: to stay or to go.

Nevertheless, both strategies bring further ethical concerns. With a lot said about the downsides of collaborating with autocrats, how ethical is it towards the employees and customers for a business to leave the declining state? Moreover, the business remains a profit-generating enterprise first of all, and very few countries in the world would make a market for a product so the company’s leadership could keep to the standard of political responsibility. We can’t all live in Norway, after all.

As the influence of tech companies continues to grow, it falls to civil society, journalists, tech users, and watchdog organisations to keep these firms accountable. Demanding transparency and collaborating to come up with new fair policies that could support tech companies in tough contexts could be one way forward. Meanwhile, it is important to educate the public and create incentives for consuming tech other than instant gratification. By working together, these stakeholders can start shaping a more ethical tech landscape, where common good carries more weight than corporate interest.

Twitter’s dangerous new direction

November 30, 2022

Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group – on 29 November 2022 – published a blog post,Twitter’s descent reminds us of the dangers of free speech absolutism” which is worth reading in full:

..A decade ago normative interpretations of freedom of expression under international human rights law and under relevant resolutions of the Human Rights Council were fairly finely balanced between the ‘anything goes’ ideology espoused by the United States (US) as well as by American human rights lawyers and experts (including several Special Rapporteurs) on the one hand, and those States and experts (especially from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – OIC) advocating a far more interventionist approach, on the other. However, over recent years the needle has shifted discernibly towards the latter view.

There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most important are, first, a growing recognition, initially on the part of European countries but also increasingly in the US, of the growing threat posed by incitement to religious or racial hatred (i.e., ‘hate speech’) to human rights in the digital age, and second, a growing acknowledgement that disinformation (or ‘fake news’) spread online can no longer be held in check by societal checks and balances (i.e., the long-held American view that ‘best antidote to bad speech is more speech’) and thus poses a direct threat to democracy. In a stark example of the latter point, the administration of President Joe Biden has repeatedly acknowledged, and promised to respond to, the key role that disinformation about US elections (i.e., ‘stop the steal’) played in inciting the mob that attacked Congress in January 2021.

Today, the international community, including members of the Human Rights Council, while certainly not united on the thorny question of the threshold between speech that is ok and speech that is not, at least share something of a (albeit wide) common ground.

What is more, that growing intergovernmental consensus has been reflected in the operations of another former absolutist bastion of free speech: the social media giants. Meta (formerly Facebook) and Twitter have been at the forefront of this shift, bringing in increasingly sophisticated content moderation protocols heavily influenced by international human rights law and by guidance provided by Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures, and UN frameworks like the Rabat Plan of Action.

Is Larry soaring or hurtling towards the ground?

Which makes recent developments at Twitter (Larry is the name of the blue Twitter bird), following the company’s takeover by Elon Musk, all the more dispiriting – but also all the more instructive (i.e., demonstrating that the Human Rights Council and the wider UN have been moving in the right direction over the past ten years).

Elon Musk is a freedom of expression absolutist who, moreover, subscribes to the widely held view among such extremists that free speech is being threatened by a censoring ‘woke’ orthodoxy.

Musk arrived at Twitter with a hard-line approach based on a belief that the platform’s efforts over recent years to check hate speech and malicious disinformation is part of some left-wing plot to destroy free speech and thus, in his mind, to threaten democracy. That is why he is now on a crusade to allow suspended users back on to the platform. The accounts of Donald Trump, Kanye West, and Jordan Peterson have been reinstated, along with nearly all those that were suspended for falling foul of old Twitter’s content rules on abuse, disinformation, and hate speech.

This means that Twitter is about to turn into a very unpleasant and potentially dangerous experiment in the reality of free expression without limit.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/06/03/more-on-facebook-and-twitter-and-content-moderation/

Greek court fails human rights defenders on antisemitism

February 18, 2022
greek orthodox bishop seraphim hate speech
Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus. Two activists were found to have falsely accused him of hate speech by a Greek court on Tuesday. Credit: Ewiki/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Several newspapers (here Anna Wichmann for GreekReporter of 16 February 2022) commented on the rather surprising ruling by a Greek court that two human rights activists falsely accused a Greek Orthodox bishop of hate speech and sentenced them to year-long prison sentences that were suspended for three years.

Bishop Seraphim, who is the Metropolitan of Piraeus, was acquitted on charges of hate speech. The bishop has made what many believe are both coded and explicit references to antisemitic tropes many times. For example when Greece introduced new legislation to expand rights for gay and lesbian couples in 2015, he claimed that an “international Zionist monster” was behind the bill.

He also claimed that Jews themselves funded and planned the Holocaust and charged that they were the reason for Greece’s financial troubles on Greek television five years ago. After his statement about the Holocaust began to garner controversy, the Greek Orthodox Bishop clarified that it was his own opinion and not that of the Greek Orthodox Church.

These comments were seen as extremely troubling in a country whose once vibrant Jewish community was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust, and antisemitic rhetoric and attacks, usually in the form of vandalism, are still a major problem.

The accused brought a formal complaint against the Bishop in 2017 in which they claimed he fueled hatred and incited violence against Greece’ Jewish minority with his inflammatory statements about Jews and the Holocaust. They also claimed that he had abused his office.

The prosecutor dismissed the activists’ complaint in 2019, but the Bishop decided to file his own motion against the activists for falsely accusing him of hate speech, and the prosecutor subsequently formally charged the accused in November.

Greece passed Law No. 4285/2014 in 2014, which criminalized hate speech — particularly speech which incites violence — and genocide denial. The law reads “Anyone, who publicly incites, provokes, or stirs, either orally or through the press, the Internet, or any other means, acts of violence or hatred against a person or group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, color, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, in a manner that endangers the public order and exposes the life, physical integrity, and freedom of persons defined above to danger, will be punished by imprisonment of from three months to three years and a fine of €5,000 to €20,000.”

Human rights groups around the world paid careful attention to the case; many believed that bringing the activists to trial alone was a sign of an alarming shift of the judicial system’s role in the country as a force against activists.

Amnesty International stated on social media that “The ruling poses a direct threat to the right to freedom of expression and has a chilling effect on human rights defenders advocating against racism and hate speech.”

Andrea Gilbert, one of the accused, who works for the Greek Helsinki Monitor rights group, expressed her outrage at the verdict to The Guardian: “Today’s outrageous verdict is representative of the institutionalized antisemitism that exists in Greece…We have immediately appealed and will fight it all the way.”

Activists and people who work for NGOs argue that the trial epitomizes how difficult it is for them to work in Greece.

“Human rights defenders (in Greece) are consistently targeted for their legitimate work…(They) face different types of attacks, including surveillance, judicial harassment, arbitrary arrests, detentions, ill-treatment, entry bans and expulsions,” the international secretariat of the World Organization Against Torture stated to The Guardian.

Although not included in the activists’ initial complaint of hate speech against Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim, he is also known to express what many believe are homophobic sentiments.

He has claimed that homosexuality brings about disease and can be “carcinogenic.” He has also called homosexuality an issue of “psychopathology” rather than sexuality.

In 2021, when Greece was hit with catastrophic wildfires that destroyed vast swaths of land and thousands of houses, Seraphim released a statement in which he hinted that the fires were a punishment for Greece adopting legislation that expanded the rights of gay people, writing:

“With love I would say to our leaders that when they show off the subversion of human ontology and human nature and institutionalize it as a “human right,” despite the fact that it doesn’t have any relationship with human nature, and they view it as a plus on their CV for advancement in their position of authority, they don’t understand that this is hubris, and each instance of hubris requires purification and ‘just repayment.’”

https://greekreporter.com/2022/02/16/greek-bishop-hate-speech-seraphim/embed/#?secret=PjaG4AEUTf#?secret=1rJoahvQnx

https://www.dw.com/en/dangerous-orthodoxy-greek-human-rights-activists-sentenced-for-challenging-clerical-antisemitism/av-60818537

Human Rights Watch World Report 2022: work to be done

January 18, 2022

Autocratic leaders faced significant backlash in 2021, but democracy will flourish in the contest with autocracy only if democratic leaders do a better job of addressing global problems, Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch, said today in releasing the Human Rights Watch World Report 2022.

From Cuba to Hong Kong, people took to the streets demanding democracy when unaccountable rulers, as they so often do, prioritized their own interests over those of their citizens, Roth said. However, many democratic leaders have been too mired in short-term preoccupations and scoring political points to address serious problems such as climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, poverty and inequality, racial injustice, or the threats from modern technology.

In country after country, large numbers of people have taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot, which shows the appeal of democracy remains strong,” Roth said. “But elected leaders need to do a better job of addressing major challenges to show that democratic government delivers on its promised dividends.

The Human Rights Watch World Report 2022, its 32nd edition, describes the human rights situation in nearly all of the approximately 100 countries where Human Rights Watch works.

World Report 2022, Human Rights Watch’s 32nd annual review of human rights practices and trends around the globe, reviews developments in more than 100 countries. READ IT HERE

In his introductory essay, Roth challenges the common view that autocracy is ascendent and democracy is on the decline. Many autocrats claim to serve their people better than democratically elected leaders, but they usually deliver mainly for themselves and then try to manipulate electoral systems so citizens cannot deliver a negative verdict. Autocrats typically try to divert attention with racist, sexist, xenophobic, or homophobic appeals, he said.

Covid-19 spotlighted this self-serving tendency, with many autocratic leaders downplaying the pandemic, turning their backs on scientific evidence, spreading false information, and failing to take basic measures to protect the health and lives of the public.

In an important and growing development that must worry some autocrats, a broad range of opposition political parties has begun to gloss over their policy differences to build alliances that prioritize their common interest in getting corrupt politicians or repressive leaders voted out of office, Roth said. 

In the Czech Republic, an unlikely coalition defeated Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. In Israel, an even unlikelier coalition ended the longtime rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Similar broad alliances of opposition parties have formed for forthcoming elections against Viktor Orban in Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. A comparable tendency within the US Democratic Party contributed to the selection of Joe Biden to contest the 2020 election against Donald Trump.

Moreover, as autocrats can no longer rely on subtly manipulated elections to preserve power, a growing number, from Nicaragua to Russia, are resorting to overt electoral charades that guarantee their desired result but confer none of the legitimacy sought from holding an election. This growing repression is a sign of weakness, not strength, Roth said.

However, to persuade people to abandon the self-serving rule of autocrats, democracies need to do better in addressing societal ills, Roth said.

For example, the climate crisis poses a dire threat to humankind, yet democratic leaders are only nibbling at the problem, he said, seemingly incapable of overcoming national perspectives and vested interests to take the major steps needed to avert catastrophic consequences. The World Report 2022 includes assessments of the climate policies of the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas emitters, as well as more than a dozen other countries where there have been significant policy developments related to the climate crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic also exposed weaknesses of democratic leaders. Democracies met the pandemic by developing highly effective mRNA vaccines with remarkable speed but have failed to ensure that the people of lower-income countries share this lifesaving invention. Some democratic governments took steps to mitigate the economic consequences of Covid-19 lockdowns, but have yet to tackle the broader and persistent problem of widespread poverty and inequality or to build adequate systems of social protection for the next inevitable economic disruption, he said.

Democracies regularly debate the threats posed by technology, he said. These include the dissemination of disinformation and hate speech by social media platforms, the large-scale invasion of privacy as an economic model, the intrusiveness of new surveillance tools, and the biases of artificial intelligence. But democratic leaders have taken only baby steps to address them.

Democracies fare no better when acting outside their borders. They frequently descend to the compromises of realpolitik, bolstering autocratic “friends” to curtail migration, fight terrorism, or protect supposed “stability” rather than defending democratic principles.

In contrast to Trump’s embrace of friendly autocrats when he was US president, Biden promised a foreign policy that would be guided by human rights. But the US has continued to provide arms to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel despite their persistent repression. In the face of an autocratic trend in Central America, Biden mainly prioritized efforts to curtail migration rather than autocracy.

Other Western leaders displayed similar weakness in their defense of democracy. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government helped to orchestrate global condemnation of the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. But while holding the European Union presidency, Germany helped to promote an EU investment deal with China despite Beijing’s use of ethnic Uyghur forced labor.

The government of French President Emmanuel Macron helped to coordinate broad condemnation of Beijing’s conduct in Xinjiang but was blind to the abysmal situation in Egypt.

If democracies are to prevail, their leaders must do more than spotlight the inevitable shortcomings of autocratic rule, Roth said. They must do a better job of meeting national and global challenges of making sure that democracy in fact delivers.

“Promoting democracy means standing up for democratic institutions such as independent courts, free media, robust parliaments, and vibrant civil societies even when that brings unwelcome scrutiny or challenges to executive policies,” Roth said. “And it demands elevating public discourse rather than stoking our worst sentiments, acting on democratic principles rather than merely voicing them, and unifying us before looming threats rather than dividing us in the quest for another do-nothing term in office.”

https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/13/future-autocrats-darker-it-seems

https://www.rferl.org/a/human-rights-watch-autocracy-democracy-rights/31652052.html

To Counter Domestic Extremism, Human Rights First Launches Pyrra

December 26, 2021

New enterprise uses machine learning to detect extremism across online platforms

On 7 December 2021, Human Rights First announced a new enterprise, originally conceived in its Innovation Lab as Extremist Explorer, that will help to track online extremism as the threats of domestic terrorism continue to grow.

Human Rights First originally developed Extremist Explorer to monitor and challenge violent domestic actors who threaten all our human rights. To generate the level of investment needed to quickly scale up this tool, the organization launched it as a venture-backed enterprise called Pyrra Technologies.

“There is an extremist epidemic online that leads to radical violence,” said Human Rights First CEO Michael Breen. “In the 21st century, the misuse of technology by extremists is one of the greatest threats to human rights. We set up our Innovation Lab to discover, develop, and deploy new technology to both protect and promote human rights.  Pyrra is the first tool the lab has launched.”

Pyrra’s custom AI sweeps sites to detect potentially dangerous content, extremist language, violent threats, and harmful disinformation across social media sites, chatrooms, and forums.

 “We’re in the early innings of threats and disinformation emerging from a proliferating number of smaller social media platforms with neither the resources nor the will to remove violative content,Welton Chang, founding CEO of Pyrra and former CTO at Human Rights First, said at the launch announcement.  “Pyrra takes the machine learning suite we started building at Human Rights First, greatly expands on its capabilities and combines it with a sophisticated user interface and workflow to make the work of detecting violent threats and hate speech more efficient and effective.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has been an early user of the technology. 
“To have a real impact, it’s not enough to react after an event happens, it’s not enough to know how extremists operate in online spaces, we must be able to see what’s next, to get ahead of extremism,” said Oren Segal, Vice President, Center on Extremism at the ADL. “That’s why it’s been so exciting for me and my team to see how this tool has evolved over time.  We’ve seen the insights, and how they can lead to real-world impact in the fight against hate.”   

 “It really is about protecting communities and our inclusive democracy,” said Heidi Beirich, PhD, Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder, Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.  “The amount of information has exploded, now we’re talking about massive networks and whole ecosystems – and the threats that are embedded in those places. The Holy Grail for people who work against extremism is to have an AI system that’s intuitive, easy to work with, that can help researchers track movements that are hiding out in the dark reaches of the internet. And that’s what Pyrra does.”

Moving forward, Human Rights First will continue to partner with Pyrra to monitor extremism while building more tools to confront human rights abuses. 

Kristofer Goldsmith, Advisor on Veterans Affairs and Extremism, Human Rights First and the CEO of Sparverius, researches extremism. “We have to spend days and days and days of our lives in the worst places on the internet to get extremists’ context.  But we’re at a point now where we cannot monitor all of these platforms at once. The AI powering Pyrra can,” he said.

Pyrra’s users, including human rights defenders, journalists, and pro-democracy organizations can benefit from using the tool as well as additional tools to monitor extremism that are coming from Human Rights First’s Innovation Lab.

“This is a great step for the Innovation Lab,” said Goldsmith. “We’ve got many other projects like Pyrra that we hope to be launching that we expect to have real-world impact in stopping real-world violent extremism.”   

https://www.humanrightsfirst.org/press-release/counter-domestic-extremism-human-rights-first-launches-pyrra

Climate defense suffers from on-line abuse of Environmental Defenders

October 30, 2020

Deutsche Welle carries a long but interesting piece on “What impact is hate speech having on climate activism around the world?”

From the Philippines to Brazil and Germany, environmental activists are reporting a rise in online abuse. What might seem like empty threats and insults, can silence debate and lead to violence.

Hate speech online

Renee Karunungan, an environmental campaigner from the Philippines, says being an activist leaves you “exposed” and an easy target for online hate. And she would know.  “I’ve had a lot of comments about my body and face,” she says, “things like ‘you’re so fat’ or ‘ugly’,” she says. “But also, things like ‘I will rape you‘.”  Such threats were one reason she decided to leave the country.  

There isn’t much data on online abuse against environmentalists. But Karunungan is one of many saying it’s on the rise.  

As it becomes woven into the fabric of digital life, we sometimes forget the impact a single comment can have, Karunungan says: “The trauma that an activist feels – it is not just ‘online’, it is real. It can get you into a very dark place.”  

Platforms like TikTok and Facebook have begun responding to calls for stricter regulation for stricter regulations.  [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/06/03/more-on-facebook-and-twitter-and-content-moderation/]..

“There is also a huge gray zone,” says Josephine Schmitt, researcher on hate speech at the Centre for Advanced Internet Studies, and definitions can be “very subjective.”  ..

While no international legal definition exists, the UN describes hate speech as communication attacking people or a group “based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identity factor.” 

According to several researchers and activists, environmental campaigning also serves as an identifying factor that attracts hate.  

Environmental defenders are attacked because they serve as a projection surface for all kinds of group-based enmity,” says Lorenz Blumenthaler of the anti-racist Amadeu Antonio Foundation. 

Blumenthaler says his foundation has seen an “immense increase” in hate speech against climate activists in Germany – and particularly against those who are young and female.  This year Luisa Neubauer, prominent organiser of Germany’s Fridays for Future movement, won a court case regarding hateful comments she received online. This came after far-right party Alternative für Deutschland’s criticisms of Greta Thunberg included likening her to a cult figure and mocking her autism

In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, for example, Mary Menton, environmental justice research fellow at Sussex University, says in there is often a fine line between hate speech and smear campaigns.  She has seen an increase in the use of fake news and smear campaigns – on both social and traditional media – aiming to discredit the character of Indigenous leaders or make them look like criminals. Coming from high-level sources, as well as local lobbies and rural conglomerates, these attacks create an atmosphere of impunity for attacks against these Indigenous activists, Menton says, while for activists themselves, “it creates the sense there is a target on their backs.“.. 

Some of it comes from international “climate trolls” calling climate change a hoax or the activists too young and uninformed. But the most frightening come from closer to home. “Some people outrightly say we are terrorists and don’t deserve to live,” Mitzi says.  In Philippines, eco-activists are targets for “red-tagging” – where government and security forces brand critics as “terrorists” or “communists.” 

Global Witness ranks it the second most dangerous place in the world for environmental defenders, with 46 murders last year, and Mitzi believes there is a clear link between hate speech online and actual violence. 

Online hate can delegitimize certain political views and be the first step in escalating intimidation. Mitzi says many environmental groups are frightened of having their offices raided by the police and have experienced being put under surveillance.

Ed O’Donovan, of Irish-based human rights organization Frontline Defenders says in contrast to the anonymous targeting of human rights defenders by bots, attacks on climate activists “often originate with state-controlled media or government officials.” 

And they can serve a very strategic purpose, dehumanizing activists so that there is less outrage when they are subject to criminal process, or even attacked and killed.  Extractive industries and businesses are also involved, he adds, highlighting how “very calculated” hate speech campaigns are used to divide local communities and gain consent for development projects.  

Indigenous people protesting against large-scale projects, like these activists against a mine in Peru, are particular targets for hate campaigns For those invested in suppressing climate activism, Wodtke says hate speech can be a low-cost, high-impact strategy. For environmental defenders, it diverts their “attention, resources and energy,” forcing them into a position of defence against attacks on their legitimacy.  …

https://www.dw.com/en/what-impact-is-hate-speech-having-on-climate-activism-around-the-world/a-55420930

Historic Conviction Against Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party

October 8, 2020

Justice Delivered in Greece

Magda Fyssa, the mother of late Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas, who was stabbed and killed by a supporter of the extreme right Golden Dawn party in 2013, celebrates immediately after the delivery of the verdict in Athens, October 7, 2020. 
Magda Fyssa, the mother of late Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas, who was stabbed and killed by a supporter of the extreme right Golden Dawn party in 2013, celebrates immediately after the delivery of the verdict in Athens, October 7, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

Living in Greece as I do, I can only warmly endorse the reactions of the international human rights community (here Human Rights Watch): In a momentous ruling today, an Athens appeals court found that the far-right neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party was operating as a criminal organization. The court also found that members of the group orchestrated or colluded in the 2013 murder of 34-year-old antifascist activist and rapper Pavlos Fyssas, the 2013 murder of 27-year-old Pakistani national Shehzad Luqman, and numerous brutal attacks against migrants, trade unionists, and human rights defenders.

It’s a landmark victory for the victims, their families, and civil society says HRW. An estimated 20,000 people who gathered in downtown Athens erupted in cheers when they heard the verdict. Magda Fyssa cried out, “You did it, my son!” perhaps finally finding some meaning in the otherwise senseless loss of her son Pavlos.  

People holding a banner depicting Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas, who was stabbed and killed by a supporter of the extreme right Golden Dawn party in 2013, gather for a protest outside a court in Athens, Wednesday, October 7, 2020. 
People holding a banner depicting Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas, who was stabbed and killed by a supporter of the extreme right Golden Dawn party in 2013, gather for a protest outside a court in Athens, Wednesday, October 7, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis

It has been a long time coming. Back in 2010-2013, when Golden Dawn flourished, Greece saw an epidemic of violence. In 2011-2012, we documented dozens of attacks on foreigners, who had been beaten, kicked, and chased down the streets of Athens by gangs of Greeks linked to Golden Dawn. Victims included migrants and asylum seekers, pregnant women, and children. Many attacks went unpunished, with police doing little to intervene and courts to hold perpetrators to account.

In January 2012, Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos sat across a table from us and denied any involvement in violence. Now he and seven other former lawmakers are facing sentences of up to 15 years in jail for leading a violent, criminal organization. Many others await sentencing for membership.

Talking about Golden Dawn, Michaloliakos said to us, “We want Greece to belong to the Greeks … if that makes us racist, then yes we are.

Today’s verdict, along with the massive crowd outside the courtroom, sends the clear message that these hateful ideas, and the violence that Golden Dawn spawned, are not welcome in Greek society anymore.

See also;

https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/01/10/greece-mps-of-golden-dawn-far-right-party-attack-minority-rights-defenders-no-police-action/

https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2013/08/28/documentary-exposing-golden-dawn-racism-awarded-in-sarajevo/

https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2013/08/16/knife-attack-targets-migrants-in-crete-greece/

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https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/07/justice-delivered-greece

Asfreeas Jafri wrote interesting opinion on “Majoritarianism”

July 24, 2020

Asfreeas Jafri in Politics, of 14th July, 2020 wrote a fascinating opinion piece which I think deserves more attention. It is mostly about India but has wider implications: for ease of reference here the full text:

One complaint I often get from friends is that I say very “offensive” things online. My Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, they accuse, are filled with the same sad and angry words against Islamophobia. Although despite my repetitive rants, they continue to ignore the agony of these words.

On July 10, 2020, the Turkish president announced that Hagia Sophia would be a mosque again.

Amongst other things, I am accused of being biased. Also, I am accused to be writing for a vested agenda. Usually, my Hindu friends make these allegations since I write a lot about the persecution of Indian Muslims. However, recently I noticed Muslim friends on social media making the same kind of accusations against those who expressed displeasure at the conversion of Hagia Sofia into a mosque.[ see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/06/the-unholy-wisdom-of-invoking-sovereignty/]

A few days back, some of them were irked after being questioned for running a homophobic WhySoProud trend on Twitter. This time the allegation against those Muslims who opposed this conversion is that they are doing this to please “Hindu liberals”.

Those who make these charges are undermining our agency and reason. It is insulting for me to think that what I and several other Muslims write, is not out of our individual agency and free will. When someone as outspoken as Umar Khalid is accused of doing that by several Muslims, I feel that we need to introspect.

The attackers are overlooking Umar’s incisive critique of Islamophobia in the Indian left. Muslims who are opposed to this are being called apologetic. I never pledged allegiance to the new sultan of Turkey. Not calling out Erdogan’s vile actions or political gimmicks does not fill any Muslims with a sense of vicarious guilt, at least in front of people we are allegedly supposed to be pleasing. But to say that those who dislike Erdogan are apologetic is quite irresponsible.

I will any day stand with someone like Umar Khalid who has been a constant ally in the fight against Islamophobia, rather than choosing a faraway ‘Sultan’ who is hardly bothered about the existence of Indian Muslims. It is people like Umar whose strong and sharp words have made young Muslims more unapologetic and bothered about their rights than their predecessors.

The other charge was against those liberals who wanted schools and hospitals on that disputed land, some congress leaders and “practising Hindu atheist” liberals like Dhruv Rathee who had strongly supported the Ayodhya verdict but are now opposed to Erdogan’s move. To many people’s shock, they had claimed that the Ayodhya verdict was respectable to all sides and that it will put a halt to the hate against Muslims. It did not halt. It actually increased.

I agree that this hypocrisy should be called out but when you also support either of the two majoritarian displays of power, are you not a hypocrite too? Also, what about those who have been vehemently opposed to the demolition and protested the SC verdict on Ayodhya? Do they have the right to comment on this?

Some found the comparison of Hagia Sofia with Babri Masjid as problematic. They said that it is not as bad in Turkey as it is in India. Umar rightly asks, ‘are we waiting for it to be that bad?’ Babri was illegally demolished and mobs killed hundreds. The history of these two events is different but what makes the comparison fair is how the Indian and Turkish governments and judiciary ignored the sentiment of the Muslim and Christian minorities. That the majoritarian will become the conscience of the state is starkly similar in both these cases.

As per media reports, Christians were blamed for spreading Coronavirus in Turkey. Consequently, some churches were attacked. The Christian community has faced mysterious disappearances and deaths, attacks and propaganda in recent years.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Recently, a group of Erdogan backed lawyers published an article to “redo” what happened in Armenia. As somebody who often hears Hindutva extremists warning to repeat 2002, which they eventually did in North East Delhi earlier this year, I understand the consequences of these hateful words. The increasing murderous hate attacks on Kurds in Erdogan’s Turkey are known to everybody except those who deny the Armenian genocide.

Erdogan supporters see him as the emperor of the neo-Ottoman empire. The majority rallies behind his brand of Islamic nationalism. Through a constitutional referendum, he has vested immense new authority in himself. Institutions look timid. Rogue opposition is either tamed or jailed. Rivals have been pushed into a tunnel of silence.

The pandemic was used to target the feeble opposition while political prisoners languishing in jails were given no relief. Amnesty International observed that rivals have been targeted using anti-terror laws during the pandemic.

Apart from the political opposition, universities, intellectuals, writers and journalists have invited the severe wrath of the Sultan. Many “Anti-national” academics have lost their jobs in recent years. Many renowned Human rights defenders and lawyers are behind bars.

Ever since the failed coup, suspicion and divisions amongst the Turks has reached new heights. The recent losses in elections, a growing economic crisis and waning popularity of the ruling party are being seen as the reasons behind these desperate populist decisions.

Many wrote that the mosque was “bought” by the Ottomans centuries ago. I did not want to argue about that since copies of the receipt in modern digital font and scanned PDFs of the transaction are easily available on WhatsApp! Several individuals shared stories of Israel, Greece and Spain converting mosques into other structures. This was followed by “where were you then” and whataboutery. Ironically, if you are opposed to what the aforesaid nations did, then you should be opposed to what Turkey did as well.

At the same, I also acknowledge that the western media and academia in the post-cold war world villainised Islam and Muslims. The “Muslim victim” did not fit into the “war on terror” narrative pushed by the west.

The attack on Islam and Muslims did not receive the same kind of recognition or outrage, and was side-lined. Writers like Chomsky and Edward Said have noted the West’s white-washing of its crimes in that part of the world and its malicious contempt for Islam. This has increased anti-West hostility in that region.

A few months ago, I read a blog post while casually scrolling on social media. A young Erdogan critic made a very significant point which I think should be thought about more in the above-mentioned context. He said that as long as the western standards of Human rights will be limited to the people living on the American soil, as long as the west hates on ordinary refugees and working-class innocent Muslims, as long as the occupation and Persecution of Palestine are seen as Israel’s sovereign right, as long as people deny what the US did to ordinary Iraqis, people in the Middle East will continue to invest in defenders who eventually oppress.

In December, while protesting the CAA at Jantar Mantar, I spoke to the Wire and NDTV. That video went viral on social media. It was shared by hundreds of Muslims in Pakistan including actress Mehwish Hayat.

On that thread, many Pakistanis had expressed solidarity with Indian Muslims. I replied to one of the comments, “The best Pakistani Muslims can do in the interest of Indian Muslims is to set a good example for India’s Hindus by treating their minorities well.”

It angered a lot of people. They replied with “Thank you Jinnah” taunts. Many users made the same comments on Indian Muslim handles after the Delhi violence.

What were they actually mocking? They were mocking the fact that Indian Muslims refused to go to Pakistan to be a majority and instead chose to live as a minority in India. This also suggests that they believe minority persecution is natural and that Indian Muslims missed an opportunity to be a persecuting majority. The recent demolition of a Hindu religious structure in Islamabad or the post-Babri demolitions and attack on Hindu religious sites in Pakistan and Bangladesh describe majoritarian solidarity aptly.

On the recent Krishna temple debate, I saw an interesting thread on Twitter where a Pakistani Muslim was explaining it to a Pakistani Hindu that Temples are not essential to the faith20 of Hinduism while mosques are essential to the faith of Islam.

Babri Masjid
People demolishing the Babri Masjid.

In India, the judiciary applied the same principle to say that mosques are not necessary for prayers. This opens a door to another important debate: Are laws merely a manifestation of the majoritarian interpretation of morality and righteousness?

Even in the West, the so-called cradle of secularism, minorities face rampant discrimination and attacks. The recent murder of George Floyd in broad daylight attests to that. The need of the hour is strong debate around majoritarianism. It must gain global momentum.

As long as we are afraid of losing friends and being unpopular, such a debate is not possible. Right now, our only “agenda” is to rattle our people’s numbed conscience. We need to be courageous to be truthful. Sometimes, we have to offend those who like us when we offend others.

When violence becomes an everyday character of society, when irrationality overpowers reasons, when cruelty is seen defence, when injustice flows in a people’s vein, when malice rules their heads, oppression pleases their hearts and vulgarity embeds itself in their “proud” nation’s soul, writers are bound to protest, annoy, and be repetitive in what they write.

https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2020/07/we-need-a-global-debate-on-majoritarianism/

More on Facebook and Twitter and content moderation

June 3, 2020

On 2 June 2020 many media (here Natasha Kuma) wrote about the ‘hot potatoe’ in the social media debate about which posts are harmful and should be deleted or given a warning. Interesting to note that the European Commission supported the unprecedented decision of Twitter to mark the message of the President Trump about the situation in Minneapolis as violating the rules of the company about the glorification of violence.

The EU Commissioner Thierry Breton said: “we welcome the contribution of Twitter, directed to the social network of respected European approach”. Breton also wrote: “Recent events in the United States show that we need to find the right answers to difficult questions. What should be the role of digital platforms in terms of preventing the flow of misinformation during the election, or the crisis in health care? How to prevent the spread of hate speech on the Internet?” Vice-President of the European Commission Faith Jourova in turn, said that politicians should respond to criticism with facts, not resorting to threats and attacks.

Some employees of Facebook staged a virtual protest against the decision of Mark Zuckerberg not to take any action on the statements of Trum,. The leaders of the three American civil rights groups after a conversation with Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, released a joint statement in which they say that human rights defenders were not satisfied with the explanation of Mark Zuckerberg position: “He (Zuckerberg) refuses to acknowledge that Facebook is promoting trump’s call for violence against the protesters. Mark sets a very dangerous precedent.”

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Earlier – on 14 May 2020 – David Cohen wrote about Facebook having outlined learnings and steps it has taken as a result of its Human Rights Impact Assessments in Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka

Facebook shared results from a human rights impact assessments it commissioned in 2018 to evaluate the role of its services in Cambodia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Director of human rights Miranda Sissons and product policy manager, human rights Alex Warofka said in a Newsroom post, “Freedom of expression is a foundational human right that allows for the free flow of information. We’re reminded how vital this is, in particular, as the world grapples with Covid-19, and accurate and authoritative information is more important than ever. Human rights defenders know this and fight for these freedoms every day. For Facebook, which stands for giving people voice, these rights are core to why we exist.

Sissons and Warofka said that since this research was conducted, Facebook took steps to formalize an approach to determine which countries require more investment, including increased staffing, product changes and further research.

Facebook worked with BSR on the assessment of its role in Cambodia, and with Article One for Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Recommendations that were similar across all three reports:

  • Improving corporate accountability around human rights.
  • Updating community standards and improving enforcement.
  • Investing in changes to platform architecture to promote authoritative information and reduce the spread of abusive content.
  • Improving reporting mechanisms and response times.
  • Engaging more regularly and substantively with civil society organizations.
  • Increasing transparency so that people better understand Facebook’s approach to content, misinformation and News Feed ranking.
  • Continuing human rights due diligence.

…Key updates to the social network’s community standards included a policy to remove verified misinformation that contributes to the risk of imminent physical harm, as well as protections for vulnerable groups (veiled women, LGBTQ+ individuals, human rights activists) who would run the risk of offline harm if they were “outed.”

Engagement with civil society organizations was formalized, and local fact-checking partnerships were bolstered in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Sissons and Warofka concluded, “As we work to protect human rights and mitigate the adverse impacts of our platform, we have sought to communicate more transparently and build trust with rights holders. We also aim to use our presence in places like Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Cambodia to advance human rights, as outlined in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and in Article One and BSR’s assessments. In particular, we are deeply troubled by the arrests of people who have used Facebook to engage in peaceful political expression, and we will continue to advocate for freedom of expression and stronger protections of user data.

https://www.adweek.com/digital/facebook-details-human-rights-impact-assessments-in-cambodia-indonesia-sri-lanka/

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But it is not all roses for Twitter either: On 11 May 2020 Frances Eve (deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders) wrote about Twitter becoming the “Chinese Government’s Double Weapon: Punishing Dissent and Propagating Disinformation”.

She relates the story of former journalist Zhang Jialong whose “criminal activity,” according to the prosecutor’s charge sheet, is that “from 2016 onwards, the defendant Zhang Jialong used his phone and computer…. many times to log onto the overseas platform ‘Twitter,’ and through the account ‘张贾龙@zhangjialong’ repeatedly used the platform to post and retweet a great amount of false information that defamed the image of the [Chinese Communist] Party, the state, and the government.”…..

Human rights defenders like Zhang are increasingly being accused of using Twitter, alongside Chinese social media platforms like Weibo, WeChat, and QQ, to commit the “crime” of “slandering” the Chinese Communist Party or the government by expressing their opinions. As many Chinese human rights activists have increasingly tried to express themselves uncensored on Twitter, police have stepped up its monitoring of the platform. Thirty minutes after activist Deng Chuanbin sent a tweet on May 16, 2019 that referenced the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, Sichuan police were outside his apartment building. He has been in pre-trial detention ever since, accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

…..While the Chinese government systematically denies Chinese people their right to express themselves freely on the Internet, … the government has aggressively used blocked western social media platforms like Twitter to promote its propaganda and launch disinformation campaigns overseas…

Zhang Jialong’s last tweet was an announcement of the birth of his daughter on June 8, 2019. He should be free and be able to watch her grow up. She deserves to grow up in a country where her father isn’t jailed for his speech.

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/v7ggvy/chinas-unleashing-a-propaganda-wolfpack-on-twitter-even-though-citizens-go-to-jail-for-tweeting

To see some other posts on content moderation: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/content-moderation/

Corona pandemic leads to “tsunami of hate and xenophobia” says Guterres

May 8, 2020
Coronavirus Has Sparked 'Tsunami Of Hate And Xenophobia': UN Chief
UN chief Antonio Guterres appealed for “an all-out effort to end hate speech globally. (File photo)

Additionally, “journalists, whistleblowers, health professionals, aid workers and human rights defenders are being targeted simply for doing their jobs,” Guterres said. The UN chief … singled out educational institutions to help teach “digital literacy” to young people — whom he called “captive and potentially despairing audiences.” Guterres also called on “the media, especially social media companies, to do much more to flag and… remove racist, misogynist and other harmful content.”

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/06/19/un-strategy-and-plan-of-action-on-hate-speech-launched/

https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/un-chief-antonio-guterres-says-coronavirus-covid-19-has-sparked-tsunami-of-hate-and-xenophobia-2225238