News from the Centre

Uncanny Global: Online Defamation is on the Rise Almost Everywhere

04.12.2018 For all of its benefits, the Internet has also created large global public cyber-spaces for the spread of defamation. Burgeoning online hate speech – verbal degradation and humiliation of other individuals and groups – deeply undermines public discourse. Given that online defamation spreads with little heed of territorial borders, it becomes an issue for global cooperation. At the same time, global cooperation against hate speech faces particular challenges. However, our understanding of these phenomena is far from clear. At the Centre, we have set ourselves the task of addressing this issue.

What are we talking about? Defamation is the communication of a false statement that harms the reputation of an individual, a company business, product, group, government, religion, or entire nation. Defamation is regulated in civil and/or criminal law, depending on national legislation. Often comments are racist or sexist and hence target certain people or groups. Online defamation is thus a generic term for the phenomenon of group-related misanthropy or sedition on the Internet and social media spaces.

Marginalized groups are favoured objects of defamation. However, established groups or individuals can also become the target of defamatory campaigns.

Defamations are attributions by others. The actors themselves regard their statements as true or legitimate. This topic is therefore largely about the social understanding of what is perceived as defamation and what is to be fought against. The online 'pillory' functions as an extended form of the public sphere. This ranges from private peer groups in social networks to globally active influencers, NGOs and state actors.

Many countries, especially in the South, have abolished defamation laws in recent years. These laws had a different target. They penalised the public utterance of information that was deamed defamatory towards established circles or state representatives. Many African states for example abolished those paragraphes in criminal law in recent years and the statement of the African Commission on Human and Peoples‘ Rights puts it straightforward:

No one shall be found liable for true statements.

Many countries de-criminalized defamation as part of a trend to open up society and free speech. However, in recent years online developments gave way to an opposite trend. According to an UNESCO-report, countries in every region have started to increasingly criminalize instances of defamation by expanding their respective legislation to online content. Cybercrime and anti-terrorism laws have been passed throughout the world.

In the United Arab Ermirates, online defamation penalty exceeds criminal defamation law provisions at least fivefold.

The challenge in highly industrialized countries and may other countries seems to be different. Online defamation targets minorities and uses language that was unseen in 'classical' defamation cases against authorities. The multi-user-capability and the anonymity of the internet enables actors ('trolls') of defamation campaigns to simulate majorities of opinion and influence and to avoid criminal justice not least by cross-border action strategies.

Regulation of hate speech therefore constitutes a hot topic between regulatory (grous of) states and multi-national platform business companies. The European Code of Conduct from 2016 established a first framework for compliance of internet giants like Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube with Instagram, Google+, Snapchat and Dailymotion also joining the agreement in 2018.

There is much debate about the techniques used here. This debate may hide another debate that is largely missing: in which way is a deliberative society able to agree on basics for (public) communication and to enforce this agreement by law? Algorithmic cleansing works by industry proprietary solutions outside transparent governance arrangements. This may constitute a challenge for the legitimacy of procedures agreed on in a global context.

Instead of ethical decisions regarding content, companies may be requested to be far more transparent towards their users and provide much more information especially for vicitims of hate speech.

A complex deliberation about procedures and standards for open societies in a globally interconnected world is in demand. Online defamation comes from above and from below. Rightwing trolls in Germany target the establishment and minorities at the same time. In Southeast Asia Buddhists are using online tools against uncanny minorities like the Rohingyas in Myanmar and the Tamils in Sri Lanka. In Kambodscha an incumbent president silenced the opposition via Facebook. Online defamation in US election campaigns is notorious and transborder interference a matter of ongoing investigation. Lès Majeste-realities seem to be obvious in Thailand, Russia and China, to name only three examples.

The free press allover the world has mixed feelings when it comes to defamation and online defamation. The fourth estate in many countries is accused of defamation for telling uncanny truths or citing opposing views. Not every society is going easy with this. But tabloids all over the world are investing in moderated platforms to keep quality online discussions alive. Numerous free platforms in many countries are the only space to make missing facts available including in war zones.

Some join hate speech and fake news discussions to raise their voice. #wirsindhier ('we are here') is an active group in Germany.

When we discuss "Online Defamation" on 11 December in Duisburg, this discussion will be live streamed on Youtube and we will talk discuss the topic on Twitter with you via #ResistHateSpeech.

11th Käte Hamburger Dialogue
Resisting Online Defamation:
Prospects for Global Cooperation

11th December 2018
6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. (Livestream)

NETZ – NanoEnergieTechnikZentrum, Room 2.42
University of Duisburg-Essen, Campus Duisburg
Carl-Benz-Str. 199, 47057 Duisburg

Flyer '11th Käte Hamburger Dialogue: Resisting Online Defamation'

Briefing 'Online Defamation'