Invisible Threats: Online Hate Speech Against Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala
American Bar Association Center for Human Rights, 2019
54 Pages Posted: 6 Dec 2019
Date Written: May 21, 2019
Invisible Threats documents a coordinated campaign on social media to defame, harass, intimidate, and incite violence against human rights defenders in Guatemala. Social media users with formal and informal connections to the government, military and the business community, routinely characterize human rights defenders as criminals, terrorists, and communists. Using rhetoric from the thirty-six-year Guatemalan civil war and genocide, the coded speech of state-aligned actors often evades scrutiny under the content moderation policies of social media companies (SMCs). These campaigns create the conditions in which physical attacks on defenders are not prevented, investigated, or punished by the state. The report makes two primary recommendations. First, SMCs must take measures to prevent their platforms from being used to target, harass, and intimidate human rights defenders, or they risk being complicit in any resulting harms and injuries. Drawing on international law that prohibits states from targeting individuals for serious harm based on their political opinion, the report recommends that SMCs designate defenders as temporarily protected groups in contexts like Guatemala characterized by coordinated state persecution. Second, we recommend that social media platforms engage in context-specific content moderation, which implies dedicating more resources to distinguishing the coded meaning of speech and understanding the differential impact of the same words in distinct political settings. Companies might create interdisciplinary teams that draw upon the expertise of academics, linguists, and lawyers. Such efforts should focus first on hate speech in countries with weak rule of law and a history of violent aggression against protected groups. SMCs should provide heightened scrutiny of content in “critical countries,” engage localized personnel and guidance, and consider the greater impact of the speaker in monitoring and possibly de-platforming high profile accounts. SMCs can also improve flagging processes to facilitate the gathering of context-specific information by utilizing verified users as endorsed content moderators, creating and implementing online and social media literacy training programs, and creating appeals processes. These recommendations, when taken together, will increase protection for human rights defenders on the platform — both online and offline.
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