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In search of justice for hate speech victims

By Bayo Ogunmupe
21 June 2021   |   3:09 am
From doing business to staying informed of the news, everyone relies on access to information every now and then. But what happens when that information is incorrect, or worse still


From doing business to staying informed of the news, everyone relies on access to information every now and then. But what happens when that information is incorrect, or worse still when it targets us unjustly with real-world consequences. Notwithstanding, we often talk of fake news or disinformation as a political phenomenon, but it is becoming increasingly more direct.
Malicious actors who use hate as a weapon of distrust, and political division in the form of disinformation have colonized our digital spaces in order to negotiate and assert their own values, creating new forms of harm. Whether this harm emerges from fake news, fake videos of defamatory content or inaccurate information spread by administrative error; it is becoming increasingly difficult to remedy, since at present there are limited ways to seek justice in a globally digitized world.

There is a range of reasons why justice is hard to come by. These include technical architecture, confusion over jurisdiction and market interests, to name a few. But if you need redress for digital harm, do you know where to start? When a crime is committed, one would normally raise the issue of law enforcement. However, given the opaque nature of where responsibility belongs, and the nature of the defamatory content online, would law enforcement agents be able to uncover the perpetrator?
What if you experienced the harm in a different jurisdiction from your home country? Would the same rule apply? It is a daunting and expensive process to fix the problem, if that is even possible, let alone seeking redress. Sadly, nowadays, fake news, disinformation or misinformation is no longer a political phenomenon. It has shifted beyond the political. The misinformation surrounding COVID-19 vaccinations is a case in point.
Compounding the COVID-19 issue is the lack of access to vaccines and the structural barriers negatively impacting vaccination rates in various places, in Africa, and the communities of colour in the USA. From the BBC, we hear of the surge in hate crime against the Chinese and East Asian people during the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.K. According to Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, across 43 U.S. states, the percentage of white people who have received one COVID-19 vaccine dose (38 percent) was 1.6 times higher than the rate for black people (24 percent) and 1.5 times higher than the rate for Hispanic people (25 percent) as at April 2021.
Indeed, another report by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate identified 12 key disinformation dozen whose accounts exploit the default narrative that false content is 70 percent more likely to be reshared than true content. Yet another example, however, suggests that accurate information can be equally as harmful as inaccurate information depending on the context, person or service responsible for its proliferation.
The default vaccine hesitancy narrative is in fact, historically true. However, it does not demonstrate the magnitude of unequal access to healthcare for communities of colour. This one-sided narrative is thus being weaponized by malicious actors who have ill intent to cast blame and shame on these communities.
Thus, we need clear pathways to justice for individuals and groups being harmed online via technology. With inadequately regulated data services and products, the laws that have been established in the physical world are not reflected in the digital world. Consequently, the public has little to no visibility into who is behind intentionally harmful digital behaviour.
This has enabled familiar forms of physical abuse- bullying, gender-based violence, stalking, sexual assault, elder abuse, human trafficking- to multiply at uncontrollable scales. The current system rewards impunity, and bad actors continue to thrive in this lucrative slander-profiteering industry. One reputation management website generated $2million a year in revenue. Their mandate is to aid in the proliferation of harmful content on any given individual and provide expensive services to help remove it. Without action, the severity of these technology-enabled abuses will prevail. We can either act now or wait until these issues directly target us and the people we care about.
Left unaddressed, this problem will continue to grow more severe and at unprecedented scales. We need to act now.