The cesspit of hate that festers in online comments is practically threatening to drown out all civil discourse.
A simple scroll through Facebook walls, especially comments posted under news articles reveals a torrent of insults, threats, and vile attacks. The targets are often the usual suspects: minorities, foreigners, politicians, activists, journalists, and anyone who dares dissent.
There are too many examples to list here: suffice to say that Isabelle Bonnici was told she should have given her son – Jean Paul Sofia – a better education after he was crushed to death in a construction site. Third country nationals are collectively and relentlessly faced with vitriol, especially when one of their compatriots ends up in trouble. Research shows that many, especially TCNs, rarely, if ever, respond to the mob, lest it unleashes more hate.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that many individuals have been pushed over the edge, sometimes with tragic consequences.
The recent sentencing of a man who threatened the Repubblika president with acid throws light on the legal repercussions of hate speech. Yet, legal action alone cannot stem this toxic tide. We need a collective shift in perception, a reframing of what constitutes acceptable online behaviour.
We need a collective shift in perception, a reframing of what constitutes acceptable online behaviour
This relentless negativity poses the usual critical question: at what point does freedom of speech become a weaponised platform for bigotry and violence?
Freedom of expression is not a shield for hate speech but a cornerstone of democracy, allowing us to question, express opinions, and hold power to account. However, freedom comes with responsibility.
Whether we like it or not, there is a stark difference between voicing critical opinion and disagreeing respectfully, and spewing hateful invective and insults. Sadly, a cursory look on social media platforms shows that the horse has bolted.
Those of us who are witnessing the online mob cannot remain silent, lest we are inadvertently showing tacit approval.
We must actively call out hateful comments and report blatant instances of hate speech to the authorities, utilising the legal mechanisms in place to address such behaviour.
But individual action has its limits. The government and tech platforms also have a crucial role to play. Information campaigns can educate people about the harms of hate speech. Educational efforts in schools and communities can foster critical thinking and responsible online behaviour. Promoting counter-narratives that challenge extremist viewpoints can disrupt the echo chambers of hatred.
Technology companies, rightly criticised for inaction, must step up their content moderation efforts. This requires investment in human moderators, the development of effective AI tools, and clear policies on what constitutes unacceptable content.
Politicians have a duty to call out messages of hate (including that targeted against their political adversaries), racism and disinformation. It is simply not enough to have just one minister condemning the barrage of insults faced by the Filipino community for daring to celebrate a feast in public.
Media organisations should also moderate comments posted on their own platforms to try to keep discourse as civil as possible.
Unless necessary, we should not facilitate the litany of hatred out there by constantly emphasising the nationalities of suspects just to draw engagement.
Additionally, legal frameworks need to be reviewed and enforced consistently to ensure they effectively address the complexities of online hate speech. It would be good to see a more conspicuous presence of Malta’s Hate Crime and Speech Unit. Many are not even aware of its existence.
Ultimately, the solution lies in individual and collective responsibility. The least we can do is to engage in promoting respectful disagreement and call out vitriolic attacks whenever we see it online. That could be the start to reclaim the internet as a space for meaningful dialogue, rather than a toxic wasteland of hate.