Sharing hate speech on social media to become criminal offence under new plan

Government plans to protect social-media companies from prosecution

Under Government proposals, the sharing or retweeting of hateful speech on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter would be a crime, even if the person sharing it was not the author. Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images

Under Government proposals, the sharing or retweeting of hateful speech on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter would be a crime, even if the person sharing it was not the author. Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images

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The sharing of hate speech on social media is to become a criminal offence under Government proposals to combat racism and bigotry.

This will mean that the sharing or retweeting of hateful speech on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter will be a crime, even if the person sharing it was not the author.

Under the Government plan, to be published on Thursday by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, there will be protections for social-media companies from prosecution. For example, it will be a defence for a company to show it had existing measures in place to prevent hate speech and was complying with these.

The proposed Bill will involve the complete repeal of the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989, which the Department of Justice viewed as ineffective at combating hate speech.

The planned law will, for the first time, provide protection to trans and disabled people alongside ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants and other members of the LGBT community.

“I am determined to tackle these crimes and to ensure that those who seek to divide our communities and spread hatred and fear are dealt with effectively by our criminal justice system,” Ms McEntee says in the foreword to the report.

A public consultation, on which the report is based, found “considerable disquiet” over public figures using the media and online platforms “to promote racist stereotypes and harmful myths in order to generate attention for their campaigns”.

“Participants were strongly of the view that there is a greater need for protection from hate speech on social media,” it says.

High bar

There will be a high bar for hate-speech prosecutions and the law will include protections for free speech. “Good faith” contributions to public debates, academia and the arts would be exempt.

While the old legislation protected only groups from incitement to hatred, the new law will protect individuals and groups.

Hate speech would also not necessarily have to be threatening or abusive in nature.

“So, a broadcast or speech which is clearly designed to incite hatred, but is couched in polite or coded language, would be covered by the new offence,” the report states.

The planned Bill will also include stiffer sentences for crimes classified as “hate crimes” such as assaults involving racism or homophobia.