HateLab at Cardiff University and Mishcon de Reya have co-authored a report on online hate speech entitled Hatred Behind the Screens. The report highlights the nature, scale and impact of online abuse as well as the existing legal framework and potential routes for redress. The authors call for tougher internet regulation and a statutory duty of care – enforced by an independent regulator – to make big tech companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and for dealing with harm caused by content or activity on their services.

The report explains how online hate speech has risen over the past two years and how certain ‘trigger’ events such as terror attacks, general elections and the Brexit referendum can lead to spikes in the volume of online hate speech. It describes how social media and other “intermediary” platforms enable the spread of hate speech while being largely shielded from legal liability seeing as they are viewed as “platforms not publishers”.

Mishcon de Reya continues to work with clients who have experienced first-hand the scale and intensity of online hate speech and its ramifications including MP Luciana Berger.

Following the launch of this report Professor Matthew Williams and his HateLab at Cardiff University, together with legal experts from Mishcon de Reya, will continue to monitor online hate speech and its effects with the intention to collaborate on further research which will form part of the solution.

HateLab is a global hub for data and insight into hate speech and crime. Using data science methods, including ethical forms of AI, the initiative was set up to measure and counter the problem of hate both online and offline.

The Online Hate Speech Dashboard has been developed by academics with policy partners to pre-empt outbreaks of hate crime on the streets. It has been established with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as well as the US Department of Justice. It has received in excess of £1.7million in funding over five ongoing projects.

Commenting on the report, co-author Professor Matthew Williams said:

There is no doubt that online hate speech is on the rise, that it is damaging to its victims, and that there is no clear mechanism in place to address it. To remedy this, we require a cohesive approach with input from politicians, academics, lawyers and the victims themselves, plus greater engagement from the wider public. In the meantime, at Cardiff, we have established a means to track online hate speech. Through recognising trends and being able to clearly monitor the problem, we stand the best chance of identifying the root causes and therefore establishing the most effective remedies. We are just beginning to understand, for example, the positive role counter speech (any direct or general response to hateful or harmful speech which seeks to undermine it) can have.”

Mishcon de Reya Executive Partner James Libson said:

This report addresses a matter very close to the firm’s heart. Online hate speech can have profound consequences for victims and society at large, and we recognise the current limitations of the law as an instrument to tackle it. A cornerstone of our work at Mishcon de Reya is to help our clients fight online abuse. We support the growing push in the UK and elsewhere for tougher internet regulation in order to address illegal content, and to define more clearly what this is. It is possible to regulate online hate speech without compromising freedom of speech, and we will be providing our views to the Law Commission’s comprehensive review of hate crime legislation.

This report is an important first step in bringing an urgent issue to light.”

Mishcon de Reya client MP Luciana Berger, a victim of online hate speech, added:

It is imperative that we raise the profile of this issue, which has significant real life consequences for victims. As the report highlights, research shows that victims of online hate speech experience trauma in a pattern that is similar to the response of victims of physical crimes. It is time that we dispel the myth that language used online is a trivial matter and take decisive action to protect others from its harm. More and more people will experience the horrors of online hate speech unless we stand together and act swiftly and decisively to regulate it.” 

Download the report here.