Freedom Of Speech Is Not Freedom To Spread Racial Hatred On Social Media: UN Experts

GENEVA (03 January 2023) – UN experts said today
that a sharp increase in the use of the racist “N” word
on Twitter after its recent acquisition highlights the
urgent need for a deeper level of accountability from social
media corporations over the expression of hatred towards
people of African descent. The experts expressed their
concerns in the following statement:

“In the
early days of the Twitter acquisition, the Network Contagion
Research Institute of Rutgers University highlighted that
the use of the hateful and racist “N” word on the
platform increased by almost 500 per cent within a 12-hour
period compared to the previous average. Although Twitter
advised this was based on a trolling campaign and that there
is no place for hatred, the expression of hatred against
people of African descent is deeply concerning and merits an
urgent response centred on human rights.

speech”, advocacy of national, racial and religious hatred
that constitutes incitement to discrimination and violence,
as well as racism on social media, are not just a concern
for Twitter but also for other social media giants such as
Meta. While some claim to not allow hate speech there is a
gap between company commitments to their policies and
enforcement on social media sites. This is particularly
salient in the approval of inflammatory ads, electoral
disinformation on Facebook, and content that talks of
conspiracy theories. Research from Global Witness and
SumOfUs recently revealed how Meta is unable to block
certain advertisements.

In response to many
complaints, Meta took a significant step with the
establishment of an oversight board in 2020. This group of
experts from diverse areas of expertise is in place to
“promote free expression by making principled, independent
decisions regarding content on Facebook and Instagram and by
issuing recommendations on the relevant Facebook Company
Content policy”. Resourced with funds and having received
two million appeals regarding content, the Board has made a
number of recommendations and decisions. However, the
effectiveness of the Oversight Board can only be seen over a
long-time horizon and will require continued commitment at
the highest levels of the social media to review and modify
their mechanisms to address incitement to racial hatred
online. There is a risk of arbitrariness and profit
interests getting in the way of how social media platforms
monitor and regulate themselves.

The UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, recently penned
an open
to Twitter CEO Elon Musk which emphasised that
free speech is not a free pass to spread harmful
disinformation that results in real world harms. As he
underlined Human rights law is clear – freedom of
expression stops at hatred that incites discrimination,
hostility or violence. We see too often that the spread of
hatred and hate speech against people of African descent,
and other groups, not only undermines their rights but
creates major fissures in societies. These are increasingly
difficult to overcome and a source of various forms of
destabilisation within countries.

Allowing and
tolerating the incitement to hatred and advocacy of hatred
against people of African descent and other marginalized
groups and expression of hatred against marginalised groups,
as well as individual members of such groups through online
platforms, not only encourages the perpetrators, but also
constitutes a continuous source of chronic race-based
traumatic stress and trauma. These can be cumulative effects
of racism on an individual’s mental and physical health.
The presence of racial hatred further undermines the
confidence of the affected communities in utilising social
media and seeking justice. It is especially alarming if we
take into account the fact that young people live a
significant part of their lives in cyber space. Experiences
gained from cyber platforms frequently shape their values,
attitudes, and actions.

Content moderation can only
address a part of what happens in cyber space but does not
take into account the intended and unintended effects in
society. There are deeper issues about advocacy of racial
hatred, lack of accountability for abuses, and an absence of
efforts to promote tolerance. If addressed, these can be
strong determining factors in building a positive future
both online and offline. At stake is the future of current
and succeeding generations, as well as social cohesion
amongst and across communities. Social media has a major
role to prevent further rifts so that racial justice and
human rights can be upheld to build less racist, less
divisive, more tolerant, just, and equitable

Social media companies must urgently
address posts and activities that advocate hatred and
constitute incitement to discrimination, in line with
international standards for freedom of expression.

call upon Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Tim
Cook, and CEOs of other social media platforms to center
human rights, racial justice, accountability, transparency,
corporate social responsibility, and ethics in their
business model. We remind them that corporate accountability
for racial justice and human rights is a core social
responsibility. Respecting human rights is in the long-term
interest of these companies and their shareholders. The International
Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
and the United
Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

provide a clear path forward on how this can be done. We
urge all CEOs and leaders of social media to fully assume
their responsibility to respect human rights and address
racial hatred.”


: Ms. Catherine Namakula (Chair), Ms.
Barbara Reynolds (Vice-Chair), Ms. Miriam Ekiudoko and Mr.
Sushil Raj Working
Group of Experts on People of African Descent
; Ms.
Pichamon Yeophantong (Chairperson), Mr. Damilola Olawuyi
(vice-chairperson), Ms. Fernanda Hopenhaym, Ms. Elżbieta
Karska, and Mr. Robert McCorquodale Working
Group on the issue of human rights and transnational
corporations and other business enterprises
; Mr.
Ravindran Daniel
Ms. Jelena Aparac, Ms. Sorcha MacLeod,
Mr. Chris Kwaja, Mr. Carlos Salazar Couto
Group on the use of mercenaries
; Ms. Ashwini K.P. Special
Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial
discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance
Ms. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special
Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights
and fundamental freedoms while countering
; Ms. Muluka-Anne Miti-Drummond, Independent
Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with
Mr. Tomoya Obokata, Special
Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its
causes and consequences
; Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn,
the Special
Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia
Ms. Isha Dyfan, the Independent Expert on the situation of
human rights in Somalia; Mr. Alioune Tine, the independent
expert on the situation of human rights in Mali; Ms. Reem
Alsalem, Special
Rapporteur on violence against women, including its causes
and consequences
; Mr. Morris Tidball-Binz, Special
Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary
; Ms. Paula Gaviria Betancur, Special
Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced
; Mr.Ian Fry, Special
Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights
in the context of climate

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