My childhood in Romania was pretty basic. I was raised in a conservative society and was fed American entertainment 24 hours a day. Everything, from the movies I watched to the books I read, came mostly from the U.S. When I was 10, I was in a bookstore with my father when I spotted a notebook that I wanted to buy. I asked my father for it, but his answer was a clear “no.” My response came just as clearly: I sat down on the floor, arms crossed.
“Free speech,” I said, as I looked him in the eyes.
“Child, you are not in America, you are under my dictatorship,” my father said, clearly amused by my misdemeanor. He pulled me up and walked me out of the store.
As a European, hearing an American say “free speech” was fascinating. I couldn’t put my finger on the difference between Europe’s and America’s differing concepts of free speech, but I knew that Europeans never talked about it while Americans seemed to instinctively mention it whenever they could. Ten years later, as I hear tech companies defend their inability to regulate hate speech, the term “free speech” makes me shiver.
In recent years, we have seen countries in the European Union clash with American social media giants, as with the General Data Protection Regulation laws, which gave users more control over their data; the “right to be forgotten” enforced in the EU, which bans Google from sharing people’s personal information online if they have asked to erase it; and the German Media Authority’s regulation requiring accurate contact information to better regulate the ads posted on social media. At the same time, we have seen Facebook allow its advertisers to specifically reach “Jew haters,” or create a censorship guideline to delete posts targeted against a “protected category,” but not against a subset of that protected category. In one of the documents offering guidelines for Facebook’s censors, the question, “Which group is protected from hate speech?” was followed by three possible answers: “female drivers,” “black children” and “white men.” The correct answer? “White men.”
Had they been created in Europe, social media platforms would look different. Their fight to avoid any kind of governmental regulation probably wouldn’t have flourished. Strictly enforced regulations from the European Union would have taken the place of their own censorship guidelines. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s motto, “Move fast and break things,” would’ve probably raised more eyebrows — especially when “breaking things” creates a space where hate speech can flourish.
Europeans reject and criminalize any kind of hate speech. Following World War II, the Council of Europe established the European Court of Human Rights, which protects free speech up to a certain limit: That limit is where it starts interfering with human dignity.
Dignity is a word which seems missing from most of the debates we are having on the limits of free speech on social media platforms. We talk about the need to have our ideas heard, to be able to freely debate, to go against the status-quo. But as much as Americans value their “free speech,” this free speech does not happen in a vacuum. It happens within a historical background from which we are supposed to learn and strengthen our belief in giving each human being the right to “dignity.”
While many have already discussed the merits of regulating “hate speech” online in a similar fashion to European guidelines, others have complained that hate speech laws in Europe “suppress and punish left-wing viewpoints.” That is the point, though hate speech regulations were never meant to punish one side of the debate, but to punish those who bring the debate into the realms of violence and hatred. An example of Europe’s harsh laws was Azhar Ahmed’s case, when he as a British teenager wrote a post on his Facebook talking about the innocent Afghans killed by British soldiers after some British soldiers were killed in the war. In his post, he included the comment, “All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE F*****N SCUM!” which led to him being arrested for a “racially aggravated public order offense.” For many, this case might raise some question marks. For me, it only emphasizes the fact that both right-wing speech and left-wing arguments can be made without attacking the humanity and dignity of the “other,” whether the “other” is a group of innocent Afghans or British soldiers.
Europe’s hate speech laws are not perfect, but compared to the “free speech” argument, it strives to allow for discussions to happen in a safe space, helping maintain human empathy when arguing for one’s side of an argument. Whether a tweet or a Facebook post comes from someone from the political left or right, once violence is inserted, humane understanding is forgotten. In a political climate of increasing hatred, we should look for creating empathy on our social media platforms.
Anamaria Cuza can be reached at email@example.com.