Why is it so hard to convict someone of hate-speech?

TW: Hate-speech

I am working hard on my stretch experience and browsing the internet looking for examples of hate-speech, misinformation, and discrimination and analyzing how these incidents are handled by the general online public.

I have seen nasty, hate-filled spew online and I cannot help but wonder, why is it so hard to convict someone of online hate-speech? It seems as though there are very few consequences for those who refer to Muslims as “filthy rag-head terrorists,” Jews as “money-grubbing thieves,” and women as “feminist whores who deserve to get raped.” Where do we draw the line between insults and hate-speech; well, it gets a little fuzzy.

Let’s take a look at the Criminal Code of Canada. According to the code,

319 (1) Every one who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of

  • (a)an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or
  • (b)an offence punishable on summary conviction.

Alright, that seems simple enough. If you incite hatred against a group, you can be convicted. Right? Well, not really, the incitement needs to likely lead to the breach of peace and that can be hard to prove because it is difficult to say whether something said online is in fact a call to action, or merely a personal insult.

For example “One day men will realize that women ain’t shit and truly treat them like the trash they are #Fuckwomen #FuckFeminist #stupidgirls #meninists”

Does this tweet call for violence against women? Can it be proven that “treating women like trash” will likely result in a breach of the peace? These are the difficult questions that need to be answered in a court of law.

Ok, so we take people to court to prove that what they are saying is an incitement to action. Let’s do it. Let’s call the police and…

Where is the hate-speech coming from? To involve the police, you would need to know where the perpetrator lives and who specifically to contact. The following tweet is a clear example of online hate-speech because it calls for others to take action and kill Muslim people in the name of God. Without the technical know-how, it is impossible to know who this person is or where they are located.

“#breitbart comments get my #dick hard every time! #harddick #tcot #2a #bible #killmuslims #killforgod” (username: Rightist, handle:ConsDoFacebook)

Below, imposed on a photo of a man holding a gun are the words “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one Luke 22:36”

So, you are confident that what you are seeing is hate-speech and you have contacted the authorities in the offender’s area. The authorities can now bring this person to justice! Alas, if only it were that simple. The court also needs to be convinced that the person who owns the account is the same person who has written the hate-speech. Common defense claims include stories such as “I left my Facebook open on a public library computer” and “My friend must have hacked my account as a prank.” In these situations, it can be difficult to prove conclusively that the person who owns the account is the person writing the hate-speech.

To conclude, there are many reasons why it is hard to convict a person of online-hate speech. So, what can we do? Although you may not be able to bring the offender to justice, you can report the post and have it taken down. If this happens often enough, the person’s account will be banned from the site. Unfortunately, this is just a temporary solution and an offender can create another account to continue spreading hate.

It is the role of allies and advocates to report and/or respond in order to consistently address online hate-speech. Demonstrating that hate-speech will not be tolerated is one step in the right direction to changing a culture of oppression and discrimination in the online world.

All The Best,

Caitlin Thompson

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