According to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), "freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man. It is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society’. This means, amongst other things that every ‘formality’, ‘condition’, ‘restriction’ or ‘penalty’ imposed in this sphere must be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued."
The issue has incited empirical investigations at the institutional levels nationally and internationally, as well as by the media having to deal with a barrage of comments on a daily basis.
PRISM - "Preventing, Reddressing & Inhibiting Hate Speech in New Media" - received funding from the Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Programme of the European Union to research online hate speech in France, Italy, Romania, Spain, and the UK, among other work. The 2015 PRISM report "Backgrounds, Experiences and Responses to Online Hate Speech: A Comparative Cross-Country Analysis" includes material from social media and comments sections, as well as related interviews with a cross-section of society.
Carried out by University of Barcelona faculty, it starts out by acknowledging the importance the issue of online hate speech, or "cyber hate", has gained in the institutional and governmental scenario. It mentions that both UNESCO and the ECRI published reports on the issue also in 2015: The former focused on "the existing initiatives to combat online hate speech", while the latter focused on the worrying upward trend that hate speech had shown across social media over the previous year.
The PRISM report also mentions vigorous initiatives by the French president and German Minister of Justice to get Internet companies to actively monitor and remove hate speech from their spaces.
The report argues that online behaviour has repercussions for offline behaviour, as well, possibly as a foundational part of a "pyramid of hate" that reaches from the propagation of stereotypes at the bottom to the extreme of genocide at the top. The argument is that the more a bottom tier becomes normalised, the greater the chance is a higher tier will enter the process of being socially accepted as well. Overt discriminatory speech would fall into the second tier, and possibly lead into more structural discrimination (i.e. exclusion from education and job opportunities), which could then lead into individual- or community-based acts of physical violence, and finally into genocide.
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