Digital Democracy

Digitalization and the Public Sphere in Brazil

Opinion | The challenges of the public debate about hate speeches on the networks

A study by FGV DAPP based on data from Twitter and Facebook shows gaps in the definition and application of concepts such as freedom of speech and censorship

By Luiza Santos* and Renata Tomaz**

The topic of hate speech and its propagation on social networks has been raising the interest of researchers, institutions of different natures and the wider sectors of civil society. From the legal and theoretical realm into the public arena of networks, the topic has become polarized and led to discursive approaches that place the voices of different social actors in a context of dispute. Measuring the volume of this debate is important, since maintaining a space for freedom of speech, security and tolerance to diversity is essential to ensure the existence of democratic societies.

This measurement was the goal of the policy paper “Hate speech in digital environments: Definitions, specificities and context of online discrimination in Brazil on Twitter and Facebook”, published by the Department of Public Policy Analysis of Fundação Getulio Vargas in March 2021. We conducted the study in the context of the project Digitalization and Democracy in Brazil, a partnership between FGV DAPP and the Germany Embassy in Brasília. The methodology consisted of analyzing the debate about hate speech between November 2020 and February 2021 and identifying which subjects produced peaks of publications on Twitter and Facebook.

Som of the topics that mobilized the posts in that period were freedom of speech and censorship. The posts were mostly motivated by the suspension of the profiles of the former American President Donald Trump on different digital platforms in January. The companies justified the suspensions by claiming that the discourses of the then president of the United States had not only incited the storming of the United States capitol but also motivated other similar acts. The quantitative analysis of the tweets and registers on Facebook identified narratives employed by users who defended Trump’s freedom of speech as an absolute right and classified the measure taken by the platforms as censorship.

More than a legal and discursive dispute, the investigation carried out by FGV DAPP found gaps in the definition and application of the concepts of freedom of speech and hate speech. This was confirmed by the bibliographic research conducted by the study, which indicated at least two efforts to deal with this topic. The first effort comes from governments, who seek to develop legal mechanisms to fill the gaps through which hate discourses seep, including the gap of the freedom of speech discourse. The second effort comes from the digital platforms, who attempt to define (in their terms of use and community guidelines, for example) which vulnerable groups are attacked in their websites and which sanctions they can employ to fight such attacks.

In Brazil, the effort in the legal field is twofold. Firstly, through devices that seeks to undo the idea of the internet as a lawless land. The 2014 Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, for example, establishes guidelines to frame the online environment legally. Secondly, there is an effort to pass legislation that clarifies the criteria for the defense and accountability of actors involved in the dissemination of hate speech. One example is the Bill 2.630, which institutes the Brazilian Law on Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency on the Internet – the so-called “Fake News Law”. Some of its controversial measures include demanding that social media platforms disclosure publicly-available trimestral reports on the accounts and contents removed, and the permission to exclude content without notifying the user in cases of incitation of violence and immediate damage that is difficult to repair.

The platforms are based on their respective countries, but operate in the entire world. With their terms of use and community guidelines, they establish the acceptable and unacceptable behaviors within their space, as well as the penalties for violating the norms. The research by FGV DAPP indicated that this process of self-regulation of the big techs is unclear regarding sanctions and imprecise regarding the definitions of freedom of speech and hate speech. There is also a lack of some minimum level of standardization of these concepts among corporations. The challenges also include sociocultural and linguistic issues, which are intensified by the diversity of languages spoken online, with videos, memes, hashtags, terms that are particular to certain communities, etc.

The topic of hate speech and freedom of speech has many intricate details, including the challenge in defining these concepts and the different points of view provided by different actors involved in the debate: users, minority groups, communication professions, public figures, countries and digital platforms. Therefore, it seems that developing legislation and norms to regulate the usage of social platforms is as important as promoting listening policies. It is essential to make all different voices audible so that the actions of countries and companies are not limited to punishment, but instead offer a repertoire of words, terms, expressions and languages that enable the development of narratives by different social and political actors through which hates speeches can be identified and, consequently, fought.

If, on one hand, public policies must resist the advances of the ecosystem of disinformation in the discursive production of online discrimination, on the other hand, they must also develop a vocabulary to understand diversity and difference. Such policies must foment, promote and legitimize public arenas of debate with contextualized approaches, surpassing the global treatment given by platforms to issues that are made more complex by local conflicts and specificities.

*Luiza Carolina dos Santos is a journalist with a doctorate degree in communication and information (UFRGS) and a researcher at FGC DAPP.
**Renata Tomaz is a journalist with a doctorate degree in communication and culture (ECO-UFRJ) and a researcher at FGV DAPP within the project Digitalization and Democracy in Brazil, and a post doctorate researcher at the Graduate Program in Media and Daily Life at UFF.

The opinions expressed by members of the different teams at Fundação Getulio Vargas, where identified as such in articles and interviews published in the media in general, represent exclusively the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the institutional position of FGV.

The article was published in the section Ponto de vista of Nexo Políticas Públicas and can be accessed here



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