Online Hate Speech as a Weapon of the 21st Century Czech Republic
21 September 2023
By Vanesa Harvanová
Today, it is impossible to imagine our lives without the internet and social media. Thanks to Facebook, Instagram, and other networks, we are in daily contact with family, friends, or colleagues. Social media networks, if used wisely, are a tool that make our lives easier. But spending time online also brings a number of negatives; poor social interaction of young people, anonymity, and a kind of detachment make social networks a prime space for spreading hatred. This is exploited by people who, from the safety of behind a keyboard, often do more harm than they would in a direct confrontation.
Hate speech against a certain group of people based on their origin, religion, or sexuality is seen every day on social media. For Romani people, they have been the target of stereotyping and hatred continuously for decades. Online hate speech is only a continuation of this historic antigypsyism in society in a new form.
Štefan Balog has been leading a group of young Romani volunteers in the Czech Republic to directly counter hate speech against Roma online for a number of years. The joint ROMEA / ERRC project, funded by the EVZ Foundation, seeks to identify, record, and take action against anti-Roma hate in online spaces. "ROMEA has long been dedicated to combating manifestations of stereotyping and hatred against Romani people. Thanks to a project supported by EVZ, we have been able to find and report more than 200 disturbing and often disgusting instances of hate speech through the volunteers of our fellows. In cooperation with the ERRC and Forum for Human Rights, we have even managed to bring some of them to court, which I see as a positive" says Štefan.
According to ROMEA's findings, the number of hateful comments against Romani people increases whenever Roma related topics appear in the mainstream media. Some of the biggest waves of hate speech have been caused in recent times by the publicisation of extremely violent hate crimes: the police killing of Romani man, Stanislav Tomáš, in 2021, and the arson attack on the two-year-old, Natálka, in Vítkov in 2009. It was the case of little Natálka that came to public attention again two months ago, when two of the four convicted arsonists applied for early release from prison and were granted their request.
"The released arsonists have unleashed a frenzy on social media. Most people reacted negatively to their release, but there were some who defended the arsonists or even attacked the family of the burned girl. Most often these people spoke negatively about the family, who, according to them, first pulled furniture and electronics out of the burning house and only after their daughter, which is of course nonsense. Some even rudely insulted the girl and exaggerated her suffering. The very worst cases, where people agreed with or even praised what the arsonists had done, were handed over to Alexandra Dubova at the Forum for Human Rights, who will file criminal charges against these people," Balog said.
Roma rights activists have long warned of the dangers of people who cross the line between opinion and crime among those who discuss issues on social media in the Czech Republic. People often think that if they post from their homes, it is only their opinion and not punishable. Such content posted on social media platforms can rapidly spiral out of hand and turn into dangerous hate speech. In 2018, a primary school in Teplice posted a photo of their first graders. Amongst the pupils were children from Arab, Vietnamese, and Romani families and it didn't take long for the wave of hate to build online. Some people began to label the children as ‘little suicide bombers‘, and also joked about the fact that the school was located on Plynárna Street (which translates to ‘Gasworks St‘ in English) and suggested sending the children to the gas chamber. Threats of violence were also directed towards teachers and school management.
The incident led to ROMEA launching the "They Want to Gas Them, We Want to Send them to School!" campaign, and proceeds from the campaign‘s fundraising were given to the school that was affected. One perpetrator was punished, albeit only with a suspended sentence.
Now, thanks to the current project supported by EVZ, Romani student volunteers have been able to find, report, and forward for further action more than 200 different hate comments. However, this number is still only a drop in the ocean.
"There is much more hate speech on social media. Some are deleted by the social network administrator themselves, some are deleted by the authors after a wave of criticism, and some are simply invisible because they are in private groups of people who share the same ideology," explains Zdeněk Ryšavý, the Director of ROMEA.
That is why this project with the ERRC and the Forum for Human Rights is so important. By taking cases of hate speech from the digital sphere and bringing them to the criminal legal environment, we are sending a message that such dangerous rhetoric is not only racist, it is illegal. It is probably impossible to completely wipe out racism from society. It is likely there will always be some level of hate speech in the digital world also. However, we can do our best to make such people think twice before using hate speech online. When racists realise that their hate speech is illegal, and that they could face consequences for using such dangerous language in public, we can can reduce the damage hate speech causes in the real world to real Romani individuals, familes, and communities.
This project was supported by the EVZ Foundation.