Ending hate speech easier said than done

Tricky task to find the balance between security and liberty, profit and regulation, without impacting on freedoms of speech

In a flurry of pronouncements within an hour of the massacre at a Las Vegas country music festival, conservative commentators and activists linked the perpetrator, Stephen Paddock, to liberal or Islamist influences.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh, still the doyen of right-wing talk radio, credited the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria with being Paddock's ideological home, arguing that it was disguised by the liberal media because "for the American left, there is no such thing as militant Islamic terrorism".

A CBS vice-president and legal counsel, Ms Hayley Geftman-Gold, posted a Facebook comment that she was "not even sympathetic" to the victims because "country music fans often are Republican gun-toters".

Should any of these comments be the concern of the state? The general opinion, especially in the United States, is that governments should stay out of it.

For Washington, the anger such remarks may rouse and the distress they may cause must be endured in deference to the near-absolute right of free speech protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

But should we tolerate such verbal brutality? Can it not be "cured"?

There is a growing faction saying no and it has reached, at least in Europe, the stage of state action. The European Union Justice Commissioner, Ms Vera Jourova, has told social media giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, that they must eliminate both hate speech and fake news or face legislation criminalising them for not doing so.

Fake news is not the same as hate speech, but it can also be used to inflame social tensions.

Professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University, in a careful parsing of what constitutes harmful speech, argued that "there is a difference between permitting a culture of casual brutality and entertaining an opinion you strongly oppose. The former is a danger to a civil society (and to our health); the latter is the lifeblood of democracy".

Speech of the first kind, which "bullies and torments", is "from the perspective of our brain cells… Literally a form of violence".

Put that way, it appears obvious: The speech that harms should be criminalised, as much as a physical assault, and, in parts of Europe, it is being so.

Facebook, Twitter and Google are under increasing state and public pressure to clean up their sites, to stop posting material that causes more than distress and, apparently, real damage to the brain.

At a session with Google staff in London, where these issues were broached this past week, I was told that the concerns of governments and the public were registered, and that reform was on the way.

It is true that to juggle the demands of free speech and those of security now constitutes one of the largest ethical and practical problems facing democratic states - and the tech corporations.

Yet in the course of this complex balancing act, between security and liberty, profit and regulation, there is the danger of substantial damage to the freedoms of speech and the news media.

Liberals have a tricky task ahead, to address two different publics: One alarmed by hate speech and militant messages, the other by measures to stop them. Confusingly, these two publics are sometimes one.

The writer co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.