This comment is an excerpt from a survey of Jewish communities in the European Union: “I have the feeling that since going on Facebook, I have experienced more anti-Semitic comments in a few years than I have done my whole life.” But the sentiments it expresses are by no means limited to one group.
In the UK, a British teenager recently committed suicide after a spate of online bullying, and in Italy a gay boy killed himself after bullying online and at school. Again in the UK, journalists and politicians have been subjected to intimidation and threats of violence via Twitter. In Austria, a 61-year-old was recently found guilty of inciting racial hatred on her Facebook page.
However, a few relatively simply measures could bring lasting changes to the general climate of impunity that reigns on the internet and social media platforms. These moves would not stifle freedom of speech; what they most require is political will and a willingness to learn from others' experience.
One of these is education. Some offensive comments made online are not intended to be so – they are just unfactual and ill-considered. To combat this, policymakers need to develop a list of guidelines on ethical behaviour on the internet. This would help children and young adults understand what tone and vocabulary are acceptable, that anonymity is no excuse for being abusive, and that it is possible to make negative comments without becoming aggressive.
Some EU countries have specialised police units that monitor and investigate cyber-hate – but not all of them. And even where they exist, such divisions are often too under-staffed and under-financed to get to grips with a problem that is still relatively new.
Related to this is the issue of reporting. Victims of hate crime frequently do not report incidents because they do not think it will change anything, or because they do not trust the police or other authorities. The European Commission has reserved the phone number 116 for helplines to be used across the EU. But the helpline for victims of crime is operational in only five member states. Surely it is time for other countries to activate and promote it?
Last but not least, public figures of any kind must be more explicit in their condemnation of bias-motivated crime, both on and off-line. If they do not set an example, why should anyone else follow?
The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, of which I am the director, collects data on cyber-hate from the perspective of those targeted. The figures testify to the extent of the problem, and should motivate decision-makers to formulate policies that protect citizens from online harassment.
In our survey of Jewish communities cited above, to be published this autumn, abuse on the internet was considered the single most serious manifestation of anti-Semitism. In another recent study of ours, up to one in five of the 93,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people surveyed across the EU said that their last incidence of harassment was online and as many as 15% said their most serious incidence of harassment was on the internet. And our forthcoming report of violence against women will show that in the EU up to 21% of young women have received unwanted sexually explicit e-mails or text messages. Up to 28% have been the target of offensive propositioning on social networking sites or in internet chat rooms.
Online harassment and bullying do not just affect those directly targeted. They inflict terrible damage on levels of social solidarity and trust – the fundamental sense of living in a safe society where all enjoy equal rights and protection.
This is the essence of being a citizen. And this, too, is why we need to take action on cyber-hate.
Morten Kjaerum is the director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.