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The internet consistently confirms hate speech is a problem. Is there a solution?
Rob Hunter

30 Aug 2017 - 2:59 PM  UPDATED 30 Aug 2017 - 2:59 PM

The internet has provided the world with a vast array of glorious things – from videos of cats jumping in and out of boxes to videos of cats doing various other things. Unfortunately, it also has a negative side, with season one of The Good Fight exploring the incidence of online hate speech, and the sometimes murky legal differentiation between freedom of expression and illegal activity.

With online hate speech a growing issue and often seemingly little recourse available to those affected by it, the question arises: is the fight against hate speech a losing battle?

Few of us lack a web presence of some kind, and given the global, non-curated nature of the internet, along with the anonymity it provides, even cautious web users are vulnerable to abuse, with online issues often leading to real-world consequences.

When former Sydney footballer Adam Goodes was racially vilified during a game in 2015, the online backlash was severe, with a startling number of people personally attacking Goodes and arguing such abuse is all part of the game. In a positive sign, the response in the aftermath was largely (albeit far from entirely) one of support for Goodes, with the AFL and some of its high profile personalities spreading the message that hateful slurs, even if a man is audacious enough to be very good at football, are not acceptable.

Still, the incident resulted in the premature retirement of Goodes along with whatever trauma it caused, leaving the victim of the initial abuse the most negatively impacted party with little accountability on behalf of abusers.

In current domestic matters within Australia, the same-sex marriage debate continues, with well-founded concern that hate speech surrounding the upcoming plebiscite will have horrific consequences for the LGBTQI community. But despite the damage this debate and inevitable related hate speech continue to do, it seems unrealistic to assume there will be any form of legal consequence for those who resort to offensive slurs or otherwise harmful online attacks.

Similarly, issues of race, immigration and other hotbed topics consistently result in hateful online commentary, while anyone with a YouTube channel or who has contributed to an online messageboard is likely to be familiar with various forms of abuse.

Yet despite frequent examples of online abuse and the resulting damage to a person’s reputation, business or mental wellbeing, a legal grey area remains, as what constitutes hate speech and what is regarded as "freedom of expression" makes the action difficult to prosecute. The associated anonymity of the internet and the opportunity to harass targets remotely provides further protection for offenders, many of whom presumably hold little genuine belief in their espoused opinions, with a negative response from targeted victims often being the desired effect.

Subsequently, as the legal team of Reddick, Boseman & Kolstad discover in The Good Fight, the correct legal course of action towards online hate speech is far from simple, as the subjectivity of both free expression and reasonable reaction are not always easily quantified or necessarily legally actionable. The web’s high user rate, lack of filtering and the ability for users to reach an audience regardless of the substance of their content adds to the problem, making the issue especially hard to police.

From a legal perspective, the path is therefore not always clear, but though instigators of hate speech are not always held legally accountable for potentially harmful actions, the court of public opinion has frequently shown its willingness to defend the vulnerable. The same power people have to express hate speech in turn allows people to denounce it, with the public’s growing support of same-sex marriage and condemnation of recent activity in Charlottesville serving as a reminder that the public and media have a key role to play in the issue and that freedom of expression is a two-way street.

The interconnected nature of the world and current global tensions make the issue of online hate speech more pertinent than ever, with the uncomfortable balance between freedom of expression, subjectivity, censorship and protecting innocent people from abuse leaving no obvious answer to a growing concern. Frustratingly, it may be a case of slow progress rather than the appearance of an immediate solution, but in the meantime, sheer weight of numbers and public pressure may be the best option in attempting to protect web users and lay a foundation for acceptable online behaviour.

Until the good people at Reddick, Boseman & Kolstad can come up with a better solution than this admittedly highly imperfect one, individuals and the public may need to stay vigilant and keep fighting the good fight against the downside of free expression.


The Good Fight airs Wednesdays at 9:30pm on SBS. Watch the latest episode at SBS On Demand:

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