What's In Blue

Posted Wed 27 Oct 2021

Arria-Formula Meeting on Hate Speech and Social Media

Tomorrow (28 October), Security Council members will hold a closed Arria-formula meeting via videoconference (VTC) on “Addressing and Countering Hate Speech and Preventing Incitement to Discrimination, Hostility, and Violence on Social Media”. The meeting is being organised by Kenya and the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. The expected briefers are Alice Nderitu, Under-Secretary-General and Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide and UN Focal Point on Hate Speech; Monika Bickert, Head of Global Policy Management at Facebook; Nick Pickels, Head of Global Public Policy Strategy, Development and Partnerships at Twitter; Tara Wadhwa, Director of Policy at TikTok; and Brett Salomon, Executive Director and co-founder of AccessNow, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to defending and expanding digital rights. Participation is open to current and incoming Council members.

This is a rare occasion in recent years when there is a closed Arria-formula meeting. While Arria-formula meetings can either be closed or open, Council members have increasingly chosen to convene them in an open format.

According to the concept note prepared by the meeting’s organisers, social media platforms are likely to become a key factor in promoting hate speech and facilitating incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence in situations addressed by the Security Council. The objective of the meeting is to facilitate a dialogue between Council members, the UN, and social media companies to improve responses to hate speech and incitement in conflict situations.

The concept note says that the Council has considered incitement as a critical component of conflict that can worsen violence and make it more difficult to manage. In resolutions 1373 and 1624— which were adopted in 2001 and 2005, respectively— the Security Council condemned the incitement of terrorist acts motivated by extremism and intolerance. The concept note also highlights how social media platforms can be used as an early-warning tool to detect escalating tensions and facilitate pre-emptive measures to prevent the outbreak of violent conflict.

Tomorrow’s meeting seeks to build on the high-level open debate on diversity and state-building, which was organised by Kenya on 12 October. At that meeting, Council members discussed how poor management of diversity can lead to threats to international peace and security. In this regard, some Council members stressed that social media can be manipulated to exploit divisions in societies that weaken the social fabric. They also highlighted that social media can create echo chambers that amplify grievances, which feed civic polarisation, misinformation, disinformation, incitement, and extremism. Some participants called for a cooperative approach among states, the UN, and social media companies to tackle hate speech and incitement.

Tomorrow’s meeting will also build on a high-level open debate on cybersecurity organised by Estonia on 29 June. At that meeting, some Council members stressed that social media has prompted the proliferation of hateful discourse that undermines social cohesion and attacks the foundations of democracies. They also expressed concern over the growing negative effects of fake news, deepfakes, misinformation, and disinformation on peace and security. Some participants in the meeting also noted that fake news has blunted responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by promoting vaccine hesitancy.

The issue of hate speech and incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence has been a key focus of the UN Office for the Prevention of Genocide. At tomorrow’s meeting, Nderitu is likely to refer to the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, which sets out a framework for addressing hate speech holistically, from the root causes and grievances driving it to its impact on victims and societies. Through this initiative, the UN has pledged to cooperate with social media companies to counter online hate speech and use education as a tool for tackling hate speech.

Nderitu may also apprise Council members of yesterday’s (26 October) ministerial conference on addressing hate speech through education, organised by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the UN Office of the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide. At the conference, Secretary-General António Guterres said that “social media provides a global megaphone for hate” and argued that “a dubious webpage or anonymous post can call into question decades, even centuries, of work, thought, study and careful analysis by scientists, historians or other experts”.

The meeting is taking place amid intensified public scrutiny over the content moderation practices of social media companies. Recent whistleblower complaints filed by Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, contain internal documents alleging that Facebook’s automated systems remove less than five percent of the hate speech on its platform. According to media reports, the leaked documents claim that Facebook was aware that weaker content moderation in non-English speaking countries made the platform vulnerable to abuse and contributed to the proliferation of hate speech and extremist rhetoric in several volatile regions, some of which are on the Security Council’s agenda. Furthermore, the whistleblower complaints allege that Facebook’s automated software— which occasionally relies on “blanket bans” that block common words— suppressed ordinary speech (that is, statements which are not considered hate speech) in Syria and in Palestinian territories.

Another set of leaked documents recently obtained by the Associated Press alleges that Facebook in India was selective in curtailing hate speech and inflammatory posts promoting anti-Muslim rhetoric, much of which was amplified by the platform’s algorithm.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to demand greater accountability from social media companies to prevent fake news from proliferating on their platforms. They may also call for a global code of conduct or a multilateral regulatory effort to adequately address hate speech, while safeguarding freedom of expression.

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