Why are social networking sites so reluctant to ban hateful users?

The right to free speech is not an excuse for turning a blind eye to online aggression.

Picture of Donald Trump giving a speech

Social networking sites have been both the heroes and villains of the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting loved ones across Tiers and time zones while simultaneously providing a safe haven for fake news and hate speech.

This latter is perhaps best illustrated by none other than the former President of the United States, Donald Trump, whose tweets following the presidential election have been widely condemned for inciting the January Capitol riot, which led to the deaths of five people.

While Trump is the most eminent figure to have been banned by the social media giant, he is by no means the first. In November 2018, the Canadian journalist Meghan Murphy was banned permanently from Twitter for hateful speech towards transgender people. Murphy’s response was to launch a legal dispute contesting her right to free speech.

When right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins suffered a similar fate in June 2020, BBC News drew comparisons between Hopkins and Trump, but commented that ‘leaving such tweets up in the public interest is an exception Twitter makes for world leaders – other accounts like Ms Hopkins’ risk being suspended when they break Twitter’s rules.’

Is the right to free speech, even if it constitutes hateful abuse, really in the public interest? And, if so, will it always take a riot to prompt social media giants to act?

Social media – a censorship free zone?

We have no problem identifying aggression or unacceptable conduct in real life. When it comes to social networking sites, however, the boundaries seem more blurred.

A lack of clarity and universality when it comes to bans is certainly not helping, as more than 70% of Americans, and more than 80% of Republican-leaning voters, believe that social networking sites intentionally censure opinions they do not agree with. Even scholars in Law and Ethics disagree on what constitutes harmful speech and whether such forms of speech should be restricted.

When Meghan Murphy accused Twitter of stifling her right to free speech, she tapped into the heart of the issue that is tying Twitter’s hands. Does permanently removing an individual from a social media platform stifle necessary debate? In the interests of avoiding a repeat of Capitol Hill, it is essential that we clarify the boundaries between free speech and hate speech and/or the processes necessary to define acceptable speech.

Consensus and consistency

One concern for social networking sites is the public backlash they might receive for ‘no-platforming’ controversial speakers. In the first study to model the factors that influence the acceptance of restrictions on free speech by social media sites, we find that users closely scrutinize how social networking sites handle controversies arising from political debates. Findings from our research show that observers of online aggression make trade-offs between free speech and the desire to punish aggression. Our findings show that, while observers of social media interactions dislike aggression and are willing to see it punished, the rhetoric of free speech is systematically employed to justify aggression that come from the observer’s own political side. In other words, free speech concerns are leveraged to foster partisan interests. .

The importance of preserving public trust means that social media sites should evaluate each banning case cautiously. In circumstances where banning an individual is inevitable because of high levels of online aggression, it is essential that the sites justify their decision to observing users and explain why the ban should not be interpreted as a limitation to users’ right to free speech.

The controversy that currently surrounds social media bans highlights the need for wider and more transparent discussions on what kind of speech should be restricted on social media, especially when it comes to political debates. Embedding rules against online aggression into public policy, rather than relying on the discretion of tech giants, would be one way to ensure a consistent approach to banning decisions. A clear policy, with buy-in from users, could prevent scepticism around bans that emerges from inconsistently and unfounded application of censorship.

We have seen the deadly consequences that can result from online aggression. Policy makers must exercise their power to make sure there are no safe spaces for hate speech.

Professor Paolo Antonetti, Professor in Marketing at NEOMA Business School and Dr Benedetta Crisafulli, Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management are co-authors of the paper “I will defend your right to free speech, provided I agree with you”: How social media  users react (or not) to online out-group aggression recently published by Psychology & Marketing.

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How words can misfire in a foreign language. A look at the impact of our research on the role of multilingualism in psychotherapy

In this blog, Jean-Marc Dewaele, Professor in Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism in the Department of Applied Linguistics & Communication, discusses the origins of his research and why multilingualism needs to considered in the practice of psychotherapy.

Two women speaking

Two women speaking

Early experiences in life can shape future research interests, just as a butterfly flapping its wings in one place can ultimately trigger a typhoon across the world.  I remember standing in a little beach restaurant in Crete, aged 10, amid the sound of waves and the smells of thyme in the summer heat. I was with my new Greek friend. We communicated almost entirely in gestures because he did not know Dutch or French and I only knew a few words of Greek.  He had just convinced me to walk to the table where his dad was having an Ouzo, and firmly utter the mysterious word “μαλάκας”.  Little did I realise that I was about to call a colonel in the Greek army a “wanker”. I planted myself in front of the dad, looked him in the eye, said the word, and watched with astonishment as he went pale and then very red, before noticing his son smiling behind a pillar.  Though I have forgotten whether or not I was punished, I remember being amazed that a word that was gibberish to me could have such a powerful impact on somebody else.

This embarrassing episode triggered a research question that came to fruition thirty years later, as I embarked on a series of studies on the language preferences of multilinguals in communicating emotions.  I demonstrated that multilinguals’ first language(s) (L1) typically have more emotional resonance than foreign languages (LX), and that L1s are typically preferred to communicate emotions (Dewaele 2010).  The reason is that L1(s) are more embodied, having been acquired in early childhood, a period of intense affective socialization, when languages develop together with autobiographical memory and emotion regulation systems.  In contrast, LXs are acquired later in life and typically in a classroom, where words lack any rich emotional connotations, making those words feel uncalibrated and “detached”.  Although this perception may disappear after intense secondary affective LX socialisation, many LX users may occasionally struggle with emotion words and emotion-laden words.

The detachment effect of the LX has both positive and negative psychological consequences. LX users may feel inauthentic expressing their emotions in the LX, but its reduced emotional resonance can also allow them to talk about topics that would be too painful to discuss in the L1. Cook (2019) observed this in her interviews with refugees who had had been tortured in their L1.  Although some complained about feeling blunt and clumsy in English LX, they also considered it to be a liberating tool, which enabled them to bear witness to their trauma, and which contributed to the [re]invention and performance of a new self.

The insight that LX users may switch languages unconsciously or strategically in discussing their emotions was a central point of Dewaele (2010). It led Dr Beverley Costa, a psychotherapist who ran a counselling service that offered therapeutic support to Black, Asian and minority communities in the UK, to contact me. There began our joint interdisciplinary mixed-methods research into the problems facing both therapists and patients who are English LX users (Costa & Dewaele, 2012, 2019; Dewaele & Costa, 2013; Rolland et al., 2017, 2020).  It was the first research in the field to collect both quantitative and qualitative data from large numbers of multilingual patients and therapists in the UK, and thus marked a departure from the traditional approach in the field which was based on case-studies.  Statistical analyses and thematic analyses of interview data revealed that patients who are LX users in English sometimes struggled with expressing their emotions, and felt alienated when therapists ignored their multilingualism and multiculturalism, which are a central part of their identity. Many therapists were reluctant to allow other languages but English in the session for fear of losing control.  These fears were very much rooted in the monolingual ideology that dominates mental healthcare in the UK. There is very little training for therapists and counsellors to equip them to treat multilingual and multicultural patients.

In order to raise awareness about multilingualism, we have jointly presented our research to charities and service providers.  Costa trained over 3,640 British therapists between 2013 and 2020.  This training had a significant effect on the therapists’ beliefs, attitudes and practices regarding their multilingual patients. The sessions increased practitioners’ confidence about working with patients’ multilingualism, and how it could be a therapeutic asset in treatment (Bager-Charleson et al., 2017).  The techniques developed from our research are helping LX-using patients dealing with anxiety and depression more effectively (Costa, 2020).  The key points of our research have been incorporated into the core competencies for supervisors for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and in training programmes for clinical supervisors for the NHS at Universities of Reading and Southampton.

References
Bager-Charleson, S., Dewaele, J.-M., Costa, B., & Kasap, Z. (2017) A multilingual outlook: Can awareness-raising about multilingualism affect therapists’ practice? A mixed-method evaluation. Language and Psychoanalysis 6, 56-75.
Cook, S. (2019) Exploring the role of multilingualism in the therapeutic journey of survivors of torture and human trafficking. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Birkbeck, University of London.
Costa, B. (2020) Other Tongues: Psychological therapies in a multilingual world. London: PCCS Books.
Costa, B., & Dewaele, J.-M. (2012) Psychotherapy across languages: beliefs, attitudes and practices of monolingual and multilingual therapists with their multilingual patients. Language and Psychoanalysis 1, 19-40. Winner of the Equality and Diversity Research Award (2013) from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Costa, B., & Dewaele, J.-M. (2019) The talking cure – building the core skills and the confidence of counsellors and psychotherapists to work effectively with multilingual patients through training and supervision. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 19, 231–240.
Dewaele, J.-M. (2010) Emotions in multiple languages. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Dewaele, J.-M. & Costa, B. (2013) Multilingual clients’ experience of psychotherapy. Language and Psychoanalysis 2, 31-50.
Rolland, L., Dewaele, J.-M., & Costa, B. (2017) Multilingualism and psychotherapy: Exploring multilingual clients’ experiences of language practices in psychotherapy. International Journal of Multilingualism 14, 69-85.
Rolland, L., Costa, B., & Dewaele, J.-M. (2020) Negotiating the language(s) for psychotherapy talk: A mixed methods study from the perspective of multilingual clients. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/capr.12369

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Exploring global disparities in criminal sentencing

Catherine Heard directs the World Prison Research Programme, at Birkbeck’s Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research. The research team monitors trends in world prison populations and examines the causes and the consequences of rising levels of imprisonment. The Institute’s latest comparative research on the sentencing of burglary, drug importation and murder highlights vast disparities between different jurisdictions in their approaches to custodial sentencing across a range of offences. Here, Catherine discusses some of the most striking disparities.

Imagine being convicted of a crime in another country, where the sentencing framework is very different to the one in your home country. For drug trafficking, you could be looking at life imprisonment and a hefty fine if you were sentenced in Thailand, but be home within months if you happened to be in the Netherlands.

Working with international research partners, we have examined how three hypothetical offence scenarios – below – would be dealt with in ten jurisdictions: Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, New York State, India, Thailand, England and Wales, Hungary, the Netherlands, and New South Wales, Australia. The work involved researching sentencing laws and policies, and interviewing 70 experienced defence lawyers about sentencing in practice.

Burglary

P-, a 32-year-old man, broke into a house when the residents were at work, accessing the rear of the house via a back alley and breaking a window to gain entry. He stole jewellery and cash belonging to one of the residents, worth a total of approximately [US$ 500]. He has several prior convictions for the same type of offence and other similar offences.

Drug importation

K-, a 26-year-old woman, was recruited in her home country of [Nigeria] to transport heroin in return for a cash payment. She had flown to [England] from her home country, carrying the heroin in a hidden compartment in a money belt. The quantity of heroin was 400 grams, or a little under 1 lb.

Intentional homicide

Two 23-year-old friends, L- and J-, got into an argument while drinking together in a bar. Both left the scene, and L- texted a mutual friend to say that he was going to kill J-. The next morning, on leaving his home for work, J- was confronted by L- who had been waiting for him outside his property. L- was armed with a knife, which he used to stab J- fatally in the chest.

Note: Minor adjustments were made to the value of items stolen, the country the drugs were imported from, and whether cocaine or heroin was imported, to ensure appropriateness for each country.

These contrasting scenarios allowed for clear comparisons between various elements of legal systems and sentencing frameworks, while also engaging important criminal justice and social policy issues.

Previous convictions a bar to non-custodial options

For the domestic burglar P-, non-custodial options would have been possible, even likely, in most of the ten countries, without the aggravating factor of his previous convictions. (His chances of avoiding prison would have been all the stronger if P- had pleaded guilty and made reparation.) But because of his prior offences, P- would probably get an immediate custodial sentence of several years, with three or four years likely in most countries. Only in the Netherlands would P- have a real prospect of avoiding prison, if his lawyer could convince the court that custody would serve no purpose and P- had better rehabilitation prospects in the community.

Disproportionately severe sentencing of drug offences

The most striking degree of disparity was found in the drug importation scenario. K- would be likely to receive a life sentence in Thailand, a 20 year term in India, 15 years in South Africa, and between five and 18 years in most of the other countries. Again, the Netherlands was the exception, with lawyers estimating her likely sentence at around four months.

In six jurisdictions, K- was also liable to receive a fine on top of custody: in New South Wales, the fine could equate to almost US$700,000 (but would be at the court’s discretion). In Brazil, a minimum fine equivalent to around US$3,500 would apply. In Kenya, South Africa, Thailand, and India, non-payment of the fine would probably mean extra time in custody. In Brazil it would mean removal from the electoral roll and losing the right to work.

Life sentences

In the case of L-, the perpetrator of homicide with intent, a life sentence would be the probable outcome in most of the ten countries. This would currently take effect as a whole life sentence (that is, with no possibility of release) in Kenya, potentially also South Africa, and as a minimum term of 20 to 25 years in England and Wales, New York State and New South Wales, with a right to apply for release on parole thereafter. In India and Thailand limited remission can be earned after a certain point. Also in Thailand, prisoners can earn eligibility for royal pardon and release as part of a system of intermittent amnesties.

The death penalty remains on the statute book as the sanction for murder in Kenya (where it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2017), Thailand and India. In Thailand it is also mandated in drug trafficking cases but is generally commuted to life imprisonment if there is a confession. None of the defence lawyers considered a death sentence likely on the facts in L-’s case.

Brazil, alone among the ten countries, has no life sentence. For homicide, a mandatory minimum of 12 years applies: if judges sentence above this level (up to a statutory maximum of 30 years) they are expected to provide reasons. In Brazil, L- would probably receive a 14 year sentence, the first five or six years to be served in maximum security conditions.

In the Netherlands, life sentences  are almost never used. The most likely outcome for L- in a Dutch court would be a custodial term somewhere between three and twelve years, with a stay in a psychiatric treatment centre afterwards if the court was satisfied that he had a treatable condition. (Otherwise, the custodial term would likely be ten to twelve years, but without a potentially open-ended period in a psychiatric clinic.)

Do long prison sentences deter?

Politicians and governments tend to justify the use of life or very long custodial sentences largely on grounds of deterrence. The same reasoning has supported tougher sentences for repeat offenders, with fairly long custodial terms even when the index offence and the prior convictions did not involve violence. But the research evidence on the (general or specific/individual) deterrent effects of harsh sentences suggests that they are limited; the certainty of detection and punishment are more effective deterrents. Deterrence theory also fails to account for impulsivity, unmet mental health needs, the influence of drugs and alcohol, or the role of poverty and weak social support – all factors known to underlie much offending.

What is beyond doubt is that the introduction of tougher, more arbitrary sentencing regimes greatly increased prison populations, while doing nothing to resolve the underlying and complex drivers of much (re-)offending.

Further information

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The surprising impact of innovation on reducing climate change

New research by the Department of Management’s Dr Fred A. Yamoah and colleagues explores the relationship between innovation input, governance and carbon dioxide emissions.

Picture of a wind farm

There is no doubt that the humanitarian and economic impact of climate change is a matter for global concern. However, prior research tells us that it is emerging and developing economies that are likely to be hit hardest by the impact of global warming.

In their 2019 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that emerging and developing economies, with their heavy reliance on agriculture, forestry and tourism, were more at risk from the adverse impact of climate change than more developed economies. Indeed, the IPCC found that every one-degree centigrade increase in temperature would lead to a 1.3% drop in economic growth in an emerging economy.

What role does innovation play in the fight against climate change?

Typically, the fate of countries in this position has been viewed somewhat fatalistically, with little known about what can be done to mitigate the damage caused by the poor climate choices of more developed countries. However, since innovative technologies are known to have a positive impact on climate change factors by conserving energy and reducing emissions, we wanted to know whether increased innovation input could support developing economies in the fight against climate change.

Our study involved an analysis of data from the World Bank database on 29 emerging countries over the period from 1990 to 2018. My colleagues Godfred Adjapong Afrifa, Gloria Appiah (both Kent Business School), Ishmael Tingbani (Bournemouth University) and I examined whether investment in cutting-edge technologies could help address climate change problems in emerging economies, and how this relationship is supported or mitigated by governance factors.

The impact of governance

Why is it important to consider governance alongside innovation and climate change? First of all, it is good for business: stakeholder theory tells us that organisations that please their stakeholders by following ethical norms of fairness, trustworthiness and respect are likely to see improved overall performance in the long term.

When it comes to climate change targets, governments and international governing bodies such as the EU or ECOWAS are among the most critical stakeholders, as they are more likely to take a long term view and possess the necessary regulatory powers to ensure best practices are upheld.

How innovation benefits emerging economies

The introduction of innovative technologies and practices can benefit emerging economies in a number of ways. For farmers, genetic technologies can develop resilient crops that adapt to environmental challenges in agriculture. New technologies also typically conserve energy and reduce harmful fuel emissions.

Looking at the data, our results suggest that emerging countries with high innovative competencies reduce climate change problems by approximately 26.8%, with a 10% increase in cutting-edge technology.

While these findings show the dramatic impact of innovation on mitigating the negative effects climate change, it is important to note that the positive results were moderated by governance factors, as the quality of governance influences countries’ investment in innovative technologies towards curbing environmental damage.

Contrary to the typically deterministic view of climate change, our results suggest that emerging economies’ innovation efforts could have a significant impact on national and global success in the fight against climate change.

Further Information:

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