[Interview] Economic downturns have a great impact on the rise of hate speech, INACH Chairman Schmidt says

Chairman of the International Network Against Cyber Hate (INACH) Philippe Schmidt said in an interview with the Stockholm Center for Freedom that in countries like Turkey, where the economy has taken a downturn, governments look for a scapegoat to blame.

“Economic downturns have a huge impact on the rise of hate speech, and of course the government also blames certain groups because they do not want to be seen as responsible for the economy,” he said. “Blaming people or groups is really the easiest way for governments to shift the responsibility from themselves.”

As part of SCF’s interview series “Freedom Talks,” our research director Dr. Merve R. Kayıkcı talked to Philippe Schmidt about online and offline hate speech and its direct impact on vulnerable groups such as refugees and asylum seekers.

Schmidt is a legal expert and a partner in the Schmidt Brunet Litzler law firm in Paris. He was formerly a senior lecturer at the University of Paris II. His areas of expertise are business combination law and tax law, which he practices for French and international clients.

He also offers the benefits of his expertise to the defense of human rights and the fight against racism and anti-Semitism through his work as president of INACH and vice president of LICRA. He also specializes in freedom of expression.

INACH aims to combat discrimination on the Internet. The organization was founded on October 4, 2002 by jugendschutz.net and the Magenta Foundation, Complaints Bureau for Discrimination on the Internet. INACH is a foundation under Dutch law and has its office/secretariat in Amsterdam.

Xenophobic populism and racist hate speech continue to make their mark on the contemporary political climate in Europe and other countries. What are some (social/political) dynamics that lead to a spike in hate speech? In turn, how does hate speech affect social peace?

When political parties and politicians normalize the use of hate speech in their campaigns to attract voters, it obviously leads to a spike in hate speech because it influences the population and acts as an example for others, showing them that it is normal to talk about certain groups and people in such ways. When social media platforms enable hate speech to exist and flourish, when there is no real effort by the media to counter misinformation and conspiracy theories, and when we as a society accept that we all live in a separate bubble where everyone has their own truth, those are circumstances that make it easy for hate speech to flourish because it does not get corrected.

Of course, the opposite is also true. If politicians, social media platforms, civil society and people in general make an effort to counter hate speech, to correct misinformation, then hate speech will decrease as well.

How does hate speech affect fundamental human rights and make targeted groups more vulnerable?

Hate speech dehumanizes groups and normalizes discrimination and it affects the everyday lives of those people who are targeted by hate speech. For instance, if a black politician cannot say anything without being targeted for their color, or a female politician cannot say anything without being targeted for her gender, they are being downgraded to one characteristic of what they are in general. But of course, hate speech happens among the general population. For instance refugees and migrants are usually spoken about in ways that are stereotypical. The media doesn’t cover their stories as individuals. We don’t know anything about them. Only their names are mentioned, or they are just referred to as numbers.

For example, a group of refugees drowned while trying to get to the UK. We only know how many died — 32 — that is all we know about them.

If we accept hate speech, then we are opening the way for hate acts to be normal and acceptable, too. Of course, hate speech will eventually incite violence, so words translate into actions, and I find the correlation between words and actions very important.

Also important to note is that when I talk about what should be done, I’m not necessarily referring to new laws, but to how everybody working in government or public institutions should act.

What are some of the groups in society most vulnerable to hate speech?

This changes depending on the period. However, minorities are one group that is always targeted. Minorities today could be the LGBTQ+, immigrants, Jews, so basically anybody who belongs to a group that can be discriminated against. For instance, women are not a minority but they are easier to discriminate against. These groups will also, of course, change in different countries. Even if some countries have the same minorities, the way in which they are targeted may not be the same.

Jews in France, for example, would more likely be victims of anti-Semitic hate crimes than racial discrimination. People from North Africa and black people would more be victims of racial discrimination.

Most of the time there are a lot of conspiracy theories involved, and it is not easy to take the relevant discussion to a more rational ground. Of course, the risk of being labeled as traitors or pawns of outside powers or large corporations, et cetera, is always there. The question of how to counter hate speech is especially problematic in countries like Turkey, where the courts are under political influence. In such a context how can activists raise awareness against hate speech and hate crimes?

Sometimes the relation between conspiracy theories and hate speech is not that apparent to people. In authoritarian regimes, where there is no distinction between the government and the law, and the media is controlled by the state, this issue becomes even more complicated. Again, activists need to educate the population on basic questions. For example, from which sources should people get their news?  Which sources are objective and independent? They should also raise awareness of the dehumanization of vulnerable groups such as refugees.

Activists should also keep educating people about democracy because we really see that it works. We just have to be patient. At INACH we would love to dissolve our organization tomorrow, but unfortunately that cannot be the case.

Social media plays an immense role in this process because most people use it, and they would take a stance, for instance, if the government shut it down.

Our organization closely monitors human rights violations in Turkey, which is in the midst of an economic downturn. Given the dramatic depreciation of the Turkish lira over the past few weeks, things will most probably get much worse. Pro-government circles have been voicing conspiracy theories, putting the blame on outside powers and the like. Can you tell us about the possible effects of an economic downturn on hate speech and hate crimes?

Economic downturns have a huge impact on the rise of hate speech because people look for a scapegoat. This leads to blaming and, of course, the government also blames certain groups because they don’t want to be seen as responsible for the economy. This is really a classic method that we can also see today. Blaming people or groups is really the easiest way for governments to shift the responsibility from themselves. Again, the Internet is a great way to spread such misinformation and conspiracy theories. It is unfortunately a very easy method that has a direct impact on vulnerable groups.

What are the long-lasting effects of hate speech? Especially on migrants and asylum seekers?

The more a piece of information is circulated, the more it has the chance of affecting the way people think about a certain issue. That is also why hate speech is currently at an all-time high, because the Internet has no borders and millions of people have access to publications that incite hate. There is no limit to the circulation and repetition of such publications. This means, of course, that there will be more victims of hate speech, and for migrants and refugee seekers, that means being confronted with exclusion, discrimination and violence.

I think everyone who communicates information has a certain responsibility. So it can be a newspaper publisher, a social media platform or even just an ordinary person sharing a social media post.

I also think policy-makers sometimes respond too quickly to negative social sentiments and change policies to make the majority feel good. This can, of course, further contribute to exclusionary policies.

People who resort to hate speech often frame it as their “freedom of expression.” How can we draw a line between the two? By targeting hate speech are we really targeting the freedom to express?

No. Freedom of speech is a very bad excuse for hate speech because like every freedom, there is a limit to freedom of speech. We are a human society, and in our societies limitless freedoms do not exist. The question is where is the limit? For me the answer is very clear: The limit to freedom of speech is the dignity of the other person. Of course, we cannot always clearly define what dignity is, as it changes from one country to another, but that is just the application. It is important as a principle to set the line at the dignity of another person. There is no group in the world to which this does not apply.

Can you tell us a bit about the relationship between hate speech and civil strife? What are the most important factors that transform hate speech into hate crime and ultimately into such things as civil war and genocide?

If hate speech is downplayed as just words, it will escalate into violence. We have too many historical examples to show. There was the genocide in Rwanda. Hatred starts with words but turns into behavior that leads to hate crimes. Even on an individual level, we have witnessed shootings at synagogues. There is a pyramid of hate that starts with prejudice, leads to hate and ends in violence.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic had an effect on the rise of hate speech? If so, how?

The pandemic has definitely had an effect on the rise of hate speech. People, of course, are more isolated at home and spend more time online. That is not to blame the Internet — I personally love spending time on the Internet. So the problem is not the Internet but how people are using the Internet. During online interactions people tend to find other people who think like themselves. So in some cases the Internet is not a place where people share ideas to get different perspectives. This is somewhat different from real life where you inevitably engage with people who think differently from you. So yes, the pandemic has had a terrible effect, especially because people felt insecure and they were looking for easy answers, which led to a lot of blaming. For instance, many Asian people were targeted in the early months of the pandemic.

How should civil society respond to hate speech? Especially in authoritarian regimes, what are some strategies civil society organizations can employ to counter the effects of hate speech?

We need to raise awareness about hate speech with whatever individual and collective means possible. I think it’s complicated, but there are many things we can do. At INACH we have members from authoritarian countries, and they fight such hate speech by using counter-narratives and counter-discourses either online or in real life. This is really a day-to-day fight, but countering mainstream trends of misinformation and conspiracy theories is really important.

How can we foster solidarity in a context where hate speech is rampant and even normalized?

The main issue is education, and we need to educate people in media literacy so that people recognize hate speech and are aware of it. The way in which education is done is also important. The focus should be to send positive messages to counter the hate and to foster understanding rather than criticism. Of course, we cannot just give up on criticism, but we need to do it in a way that is constructive.

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