Hate speech online may soon carry the same penalties as real-world hate crimes

In a new directive, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will aim to implement harsher penalties for those perpetrating online abuse. The director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, has initiated the crackdown on social media abuse in the wake of the Charlottesville attacks. Last week’s fatal rally gave rise and credibility to the notion that online hate speech isn’t self-contained, but rather gains momentum and culminates in the real world as tragic violence.

Hate speech online may soon carry the same penalties as real-world hate crimes

As such, messages inciting violence or the desire to kill online will be treated akin to hate speech delivered in person. “We commit to treating online hate crimes just as seriously as those experienced face to face,” Saunders explained to The Guardian. “Left unchallenged, even low-level offending can subsequently fuel the kind of dangerous hostility that has been plastered across our media in recent days. That is why countering it is a priority for the CPS.”

The policy documents covering the new initiative pertain to an all-encompassing range of hate crimes, from racial and religious prejudice, to attacks on disability, to transphobic, homophobic and biphobic hate. The latter of these, the CPS stipulated, doesn’t come under the realm of homophobic hate, creating as it does wholly different needs and experiences.

Saunders is attuned to the fact that some people might view the changes as draconian, but reiterates the necessity of the crackdown: “In a world of grotesque physical attacks that may appear a heavy-handed approach to some. But perhaps we should ask the question, what is it that the perpetrators seek to achieve? One common thread that links online purveyors of hate with those who commit physical hate crimes or real-world terrorists is the desire to undermine and instill fear in those they target, both individually and collectively in their communities, because of their characteristics, be that faith, religion, disability or sexuality.”

The overarching aim of the initiative is to bolster the protection and support that victims of abuse receive. It consolidates the recent success achieved by the CPS in prosecuting hate crimes; in 2015-16, the body completed 15,442 hate crime prosecutions, the highest ever, with a commendable prosecution rate of 83.6%. When compared with the conviction statistics for, say, sexual violence, which lies at a paltry 5.7% (of the meagre 15% of cases reported to the police), these achievements are staggering.

Saunders believes the crackdown on social media hate will serve to shut down any further avenues for perpetrating hate, which causes blanket harm however it’s dished out. “Whether shouted in their face on the street, daubed on their wall or tweeted into their living room, the impact of hateful abuse on a victim can be equally devastating,” said Saunders.

News of the CPS’s endeavours to shut down online hate comes hot on the heels of wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge to remove “any post that promotes or celebrates hate crimes” from social media giant Facebook. In a didactic post on, you guessed it, Facebook, the CEO stipulated that: “It’s important that Facebook is a place where people with different views can share their ideas. Debate is part of a healthy society. But when someone tries to silence others or attacks them based on who they are or what they believe, that hurts us all and is unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, Twitter got its comeuppance earlier this month for failing to eradicate hate speech on its site, at the mercy of artist Shahak Shapira. The German-Israeli artist took to Twitter’s Hamburg HQ and stencilled its pavements with hateful tweets he’d reported which the site had failed to remove. “If Twitter forces me to see these things, then they’ll have to see them too,” said Shapira. Hear, hear. The more measures implemented to keep hate speech (and with it, legions of distress) in check, the better.

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