When an iPhone can be dangerous
The speed and ubiquity of mobile devices have changed the context of "hate speech" online, writes Peter Molnar.
Do these smartphones represent a clear and present danger of inciting hatred? (Photo by Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon)
Not long ago racist content and other incitement to hatred on the internet seemed unlikely to cause imminent danger of violence. The fast development of internet access on mobile devices has changed this. Those who are infected by the virus of prejudice can now look for ideological guidance or even practical instruction from websites that incite hatred against groups often viewed with hostility or as threatening enemies that may be attacked in ‘self-defence’.
I wrote in the context of a 2008 LGBTQ parade in Budapest:
“Instrumental incitement to violence on the Internet, even if somewhat remote and in advance (which, with the proliferation of mobile devices, it will not necessarily be) coupled with ‘hate speech’ at the demonstration, meets even the most demanding test for prohibiting only speech that creates – or directly and decisively contributes to the creation of – a clear and present danger of violence. Incitement to violence on the Internet, even if practically targeted and instrumental, might be still more off the beaten track than ‘hate speech’ live at a demonstration.”
Four years later a rapidly growing number of people with mobile devices can access the internet in a rapidly expanding scale of spaces. Incitement to violence is no longer necessarily “somewhat remote and in advance”. It can be right there in the inflammatory environment of a football stadium or a pub.
Writing about incitement against the LGBTQ parade in Budapest in 2008, I argued:
“Considering the instrumental character of this incitement to violence, it has to be remembered that the most terrifying example of the directly instrumental use of modern communication tools to produce violence is the use of the radio during the genocide in Rwanda. Besides spreading hatred, Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines provided continuous, well-targeted, practical information for the perpetrators to find their victims.”
The development of mobile devices has changed the context of “hate speech”. On the internet incitement against targeted groups – usually minorities that are often discriminated against like Roma-Hungarians – can increasingly reach people as it did with radio, unconstrained by the static location of a computer.
What follows is not an argument for broad restriction of freedom of speech through the internet or radio. These are technologies of freedom that enable open, robust and participatory public discourse. As I have argued, “content-based bans on speech…especially in the internet era, seem like jumping on a shadow. Legal prohibition should be reserved for incitement that causes imminent danger. …art and education in the broadest sense are the most effective preventatives against ‘hate speech’; they can powerfully cure public discourse as they reach the roots of prejudice: ignorance, misunderstanding, and false beliefs.”
Instead of endlessly repeating arguments for content-specific prohibitions against “hate speech” on the internet with the reasoning that the internet makes it easier to spread “hate speech” (as it makes it easier to communicate any content, including responses to “hate speech”), I propose an alternative approach.
Let’s focus on the dynamically changing technological context of how racist speech and other similar incitement on the internet is likely to cause imminent danger. Let’s focus on situations where mobile communication devices can directly connect incitement to hatred online with places where violence may actually occur in the real world. In such environments, incitement to hatred on the internet can create imminent danger with a direct causal connection between online incitement and clear and present danger. Mobile devices seem to draw a line between speech that is constitutionally protected, even if its content must be morally condemned, and incitement that needs to be prohibited in contexts where it would create imminent danger.
Peter Molnar is co-editor and chapter author of The Content and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulation and Responses.