Digital Literacy as Strategy Responding to Hate Speech in Social Media

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Digital Literacy in various media. (Photo: Special)

Social Media and Hate Speech Intensity

In the last few years there has been a revolution in the process of communication between people. The presence of the internet as a form of new media  has formed a new pattern of communication between community members. Dennis Mcquail, a prominent communications scientist, mentioned that one of the most important changes is the improving interactivity and connectivity [1] . This condition is further explained by another scientist, Martin Lister et al. According to him, new media offer liveliness that can not be given by traditional media (passive). This aspect of interactivity became the main character for the new media [2] .

Social media as one of the new media becomes a phenomenon in the world including in Indonesia with an amazing growing number of users. Data of Indonesian Internet Network User Association (APJII) as of January 2016 mentioned there are 79 million users of social media in Indonesia. This number is expected to continue to grow along with the increasingly diverse social media features that can be used by users. Various studies on the motives of social media usage indicate various flexibility obtained by users such as in finding alternative information, communicating with distant colleagues, or as a space of self-existence.

Conceptually, the basic role of social media is sharing information in virtual communities, and discussion forums. The role can be achieved because it is participative, open, encouraging conversation, growing community, and connectivity between users. Social media allows all users to become producers of information, present an open space for responding to information, ultimately building a virtual community with discussions in virtual space. Research shows an increase in the intensity of discussions in various fields, such as social, economics, culture, and politics.

The problem, the flexibility of discussion in social media is implying some negative impacts. One of the them is the presence and increased intensity of hate speechThe EU Community defines this concept as referring to the expressions that incites, propagates, justifies the hatred which is usually associated with certain tribe, race and religion. Hate speech is a form of intolerance to other groups of people. Another view sees its following impact which considers hate speech as an expression that attacks and encourages violence.

This hate speech issue is getting more serious when many cases of violence are caused by provocations via social media. For example, the burning of the Tolikara mosque in Papua has caused widespread fanfare because of the information confusion in social media. Attacking sentences to certain tribe, race or religion often found. Another form is a provocation made Persija Jakarta supporters during a match between Sriwijaya versus Persib Bandung. Incitements through social media encourage the vandalism and attacks to the authorities.

Responding to many cases caused by hate speech, the Indonesian National Police has issued a circular regulating hate speech . The issuance got various responses. Some supported this because the intensity of hate speech was increasingly alarming. On the other hand, others expected clarification from the authority to make everything clear that it was not an instrument to limit freedom of expression.

The essence of democratic life is characterized by the respect for freedom of expression and forbidding attacks on individual rights. This dilemmatic condition encourages the classic yet urgent question, How can we maintain freedom of speech without making an expression of hatred attack the rights of others?

Settle Down the Freedom of Expression, Control the Hate Speech

The final question prompts an important discussion about freedom of expression. In a pluralistic society, characterized by religious and cultural diversity, it is sometimes important to place freedom of expression with other rights such as thinking or religion. Anne Weber in her research proposed an effort to balance two interests [3] . On one hand the right to communicate ideas about religious beliefs to society and on the other, the right to respect freedom of thought, belief and religion. Anne stressed that balance because according to her in some circumstances, freedom of expression can also be a threat to the right to respect privacy.

Anticipating the dilemmatic position, various countries have organized hate speech discourse explicitly. This issue is considered so serious that it gets full attention also from the state even before the  social media booming. The European Union, for example, imposes limits on the freedom of expression of respect for the rights of others and morality. The Committee of European Ministers gives definition to hate speech as every expression that spreads, incites, promotes and justifies hatred based on racial, xenophobic, anti-Semitism (discrimination on Jews) sentiments or other forms of intolerant based hatred, including aggressive nationalism, ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility to minorities or immigrants.

Meanwhile, Americans who glorify freedom of expression also stated that it is not absolute. The legislation regulates rigid hate speech with various arrangements on: (1) prohibiting attacks aimed at intimidating, violating, or humiliating victims, (2) rules on ethnic or racial intimidation, (3) laws prohibiting hatred-driven actions such as the burning of a cross or a swastika image (Nazi); (4) laws that prohibit the deliberate cover of a person’s identity; (5) statute or general legal prohibition against hate speech that disrupts the peace (6) law or general prohibition of the law against the sentence that attacks / speech hatred that disrupt the peace; (7) civic action for defamation; (8) individual civil recovery due to the impact of hate speech (9) criminal defamation of the group; (10) the law limits hatred in certain limited environments such as workplaces or universities (11) the use of public permit to reject demonstrations related to hate speech [4] .

Similarly in South Africa which once had a long story of racism. The Constitution states that freedom of expression can not lead to expression of: a. War propaganda b. Incitement that triggers violence c. Hatred advocacy based on race, ethnicity, gender and religion that triggers sedition and brings harm. [5] At its peak, besides the state, the UN through the International Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination makes clear on hate speech in the framework of respecting human rights on dignity and equality.

New Media, Democracy, and New Society Order

New media does not just change the pattern of communication between citizens. It built a new system that is often called cyberdemocracy or cyber democracy. This democratic model signifies the process of freedom, participation, and competition which do not only happen offline or face to face but also online. Martin Hilbert characterized this cyber democracy as an increase in personal freedom in decision making [6] . Freedom of information makes everyone personally able to make decisions. Meanwhile, Joanah Gadzikwa emphasizes the concept of interactivity in cyber democracy, more than freedom of information access and transparency.

According to Mark Poster, the center of the cyberspace democracy concept is the concept of public space [7] . Habermas described that the ideal concept of democracy in the concept of public space that is free where every citizen is able to communicate and discuss their opinion logically without any pressure from any parties. Some experts haveconsidered mass media as the embodiment of the public space concept. However, the economic interests of large capitalist politics which are growing stronger make the media even farther from its position to provide a discussion room which promotes equality. At this point, many start to call the new media as a form of that public space.

The assumption that the internet is a new public space arose from  the tendency of conformity criteria of the emergence of public spaces. Habermas mentions three conditions for the emergence of a public space, namely: the absence of status, mutual interest, and inclusiveness [8] . The first criterion, namely the absence of status, is marked by the absence of restrictions for individuals who wish to enter and discuss on the internet. The absence of status on the internet is also evident from the absence of division or classification of the people based on social class because all the individuals who are on the internet are incorporated into internet users. The second criterion, which is the aspect of mutual interest, is marked by the many issues discussed by the public on the internet. Issues discussed in the discussions on the internet generally are various issues that concern the interests of various groups of people in the real world. As for the third criterion, which is inclusiveness, this criterion is found on the internet because the internet is very inclusive and open to everyone. The removal of boundaries in the internet cause the number of people who discuss in the internet to be unlimited.

In a wider perspective than just politics, the Internet builds a new order that is often called the digital society. The digital society is characterized by freedom, participation, and networking (community). They do everything in real life on a computer screen; talking, having intellectual discussion, sharing knowledge, supporting each other, making plans, looking for friends, lovers, enemies, playing, etc. [9] .

This discussion on the digital society order brings to the two groups of digital society, digital native and digital immigrant. Digital Immigrant , those who are born before the digital technology was invented, had to learn or migrate. While digital natives are those born when digital technology has been discovered. Digital native look at the world horizontally, they see all with egalitarian view. This equal view makes it easy for them to interact and share ideas with others. This viewpoint is different from the digital immigrant or analog generation that is very hierarchical.

Recommendations: Educating the Digital Society

In the context of this digital society, we envisage the potential for hate speech by observing the discussions’ activeness  in social media. Formulating better regulations is a way but it requires intelligence of the digital community. This concept is often referred to as Digital Literacy. Digital literacy is more complex. Referring to Allan Martin, digital literacy is a combination of several forms of literacy: computer, information, technology, visual, media and communication. This means that digital literacy requires mastery of technology, the competence to analyze information, the ability to communicate effectively, enjoy visual works [10] .

Digital literacy enables people to access, sort and understand different types of information which can be used to improve the quality of life. In addition they can participate in social life, state and politics by conveying their aspirations in certain channels. Through digital media, people can voice their perspectives and opinions for justice without harming others. Digital literacy allows a person to watch the environment well. So he can participate in social life better [11] .

In the context of resisting hate speech, Unesco has formulated several important steps in creating this digital society’s intelligence [12] , namely:

  • Digital Literacy Campaign

Citizenship education prepares a person to be educated and responsible as a citizen. The objective of raising awareness on the social and cultural rights and political rights of individuals and groups, including the freedom of expression and the consequences. In responding to hate speech, citizenship education includes knowledge to identify and the ability to handle it. With the changing concept of the digital society, citizenship education must add digital literacy into the teachings. The public are now not only consumesr but producers of information so they do not only need the ability to produce messages but also ethical knowledge. So, in this case, the initiative of parties in preserving the campaign of digital literacy, should be encouraged in various circles of society.

  • Education, Structurized Steps against Hate Speech

So far, the media literacy campaign, run sporadically, depends on the initiative. Looking at the potential of massive hatred utterance in the future, more structurized steps are needed. Educational institutions such as schools or colleges may have to think about introducing digital literacy into their learning materials. This proposal is also a projection step, considering the students who are mostly new media users, so in the future we can set up a capable and tolerant digital society. (*)


[1]   See Dennis Mcquail, Mcquail’s Mass Communication Theory. 2011

[2]   See Martin Lister et al, New Media, Critical Introduction, 2009

[3] See Anne Weber, Manual on Hate Speech.2009

[4] See Ronna Greff Schneider, Speech hate in United Speech: recent Legal Development

[5]   See Freedom Expression Institute, Hate Speech and Freedom of Expression in South Africa.2013

[6]   See Martin Hilbert, Digital Processes and Democratic Theories.2007

[7]   See Mark Poster, Cyberdemocracy: Internet and Public Sphere.1995.

[8] See F Budi Hardiman. Demokrasi Deliberatif (Deliberative Democracy).2009

[9] See Erhan Akyzazi. Cyberculture and Interactivity. 2005

[10] See Allan Martin, Digital Natives and digital literacy. 2008

[11] See Dyah Herlina, Membangun Karakter Bangsa lewat Literasi digital  (Building the Nation’s Character through Digital Literacy).

[12] See Unesco Publishing, Countering hate speech.

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Suko Widodo

Suko Widodo

Dosen Ilmu Komunikasi FISIP UNAIR