July 2018. That time when the attention was focused on the World Cup in Russia. Shortly after a gruelling 2-1 loss to Belgium, the Brazilian national team bowed out of the tournament. Before the game had even finished, the witch-hunt had begun, with blame placed on the players and the coaching staff for poor performance and preparation. However, one target was chosen: midfielder Fernandinho, a Manchester City player. A sequence of mistakes on the pitch was the trigger for a flurry criticism on the midfielder’s social network profiles. The comments, however, went beyond setting out ideas; they were racist. Not one, not dozens, but thousands of hateful comments, open for anyone to read on Facebook, the most widely-used social network on the planet.
July 2018. That time when the attention was focused on the World Cup in Russia. Shortly after a gruelling 2-1 loss to Belgium, the Brazilian national team bowed out of the tournament. Before the game had even finished, the witch-hunt had begun, with blame placed on the players and the coaching staff for poor performance and preparation. However, one target was chosen: midfielder Fernandinho, a Manchester City player. A sequence of mistakes on the pitch was the trigger for a flurry of criticism on the midfielder’s social network profiles. The comments, however, went beyond setting out ideas; they were racist. Not one, not dozens, but thousands of hateful comments, open for anyone to read on Facebook, the most widely-used social network on the planet.
Behind these profiles are people and organized groups who have found, through the Internet, a way to spread hate speech. “On Internet, we had a democratization in the construction and presentation of speech. That is to say, everyone today has the possibility to express opinions, whereas before, journalists, educators, and academics had a ‘monopoly’ on it. It is now fragmented for everybody. It has created a false illusion that one is in a free environment, where everything is possible and acceptable”, explains Gerson de Moraes, Professor of Philosophy and Law at Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie, São Paulo, Brazil.
The French philosopher and anthropologist René Girard discusses the concept of mimetic desire, characterized by the will of two people regarding the same object leading to a dispute over possession or influence. One of Girard’s theories, “scapegoat,” is the research focus of Letícia Souza Furtado, a specialist in Public Law from Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUC-RS), Brazil. “The Girard’s thinking is useful to understand the situations unleashed on the Internet, because what has changed was the phenomenon dimension, not its essence. Violence among us happens through mimetic desire. The pleasure of having or doing something that cannot be done by all those who desire it culminates in a dispute. This conflict naturally leads to violence, through mutual irritation and provocation,” she adds.
In Girard’s mimetic desire theory, the ‘scapegoat’ emerges as a target for desires—either good or bad—of a social group. These are cases such as the housewife lynching, happened in Brazil due to a rumour spread on social media. Fabiane Maria de Jesus, then 33 years old, was brutally assaulted and killed, due a false rumour that a woman had been kidnapping and killing children for witchcraft rituals, which circulated in various social media platforms. The beating was filmed and the images also ended up on social media.
Image from istock.com
According to Moraes, hate speech have merely gained a support that did not exist in the past. In this case, the Internet demonstrates that there is a need for frequent reflection on technologies. “The mankind essence has not changed. Something that has been with mankind since the earliest times is the difficulty in living with what is different, in opposition to what you believe in. The Internet ends up enhancing this aggressive and hateful behaviour, leading many people to show their worst side. Such speeches often reverberate from smaller, noisy groups, which, given the level of violence, end up suppressing the desire others have to argue and debate ideas, creating a ‘never mind’ attitude.”
According to Girard, unsatisfied violence does not dissipate, it accumulates until it overflows. On this context, those who are close and vulnerable become the target, the so-called ‘substitute victim’. “The Internet offers a number of such targets. But no ‘choice’ is made. The process is intuitive rather than rational. In any case, violence usually falls on someone who already bears ‘the marks of a victim’, or ‘the outcast’. The polarization occurs ‘naturally’. Whether the subject is different or whether it stands out from the group for being more beautiful, or uglier; for having much more, or much less; for behaving in a completely asymmetrical way compared to others,” says Leticia.
Thousands of Cases
The racist offences against Fernandinho and Guarujá housewife are just two of the thousands that happen every day on social media. Another noteworthy case took place in 2017, when the world turned its attention to the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, in the United States. Racial tensions marking the history of the United States added yet another tragic episode. Using social media, white supremacist groups organized two protest marches, where they chanted neo-Nazi, racist, and xenophobic slogans. In reaction to this, people opposed the movement, which has its roots in the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that has preached white supremacy for over a century. Antifa protesters took over the streets against white supremacy. In the conflict, a woman participating in the counter-protest, Heather Heyer, was killed, run over by a car driven into the crowd by a white supremacist. Dozens more were injured.
Forming groups is one of the hallmarks of those who take part in hateful and divisive speech on social media, according to a classic study by French psychologist Gustave Le Bon. He states that the main characteristic of the mob is the irrational merging of individuals into one common feeling and need for leadership. This fact brings to light the concealment of the crowds’ political dimension, highlighting a dimension that Le Bon calls “pathological”, associated with the fact that the mob seeks only to subvert the established order.
These cases and the Girard and Le Bon’s studies demonstrate the need for questioning and training, which helps to expose human nature in a way that would make it possible to monitor the technology’s advances, taking into account its progress. Moraes comments that sharing the same ideas brings together those who are part of these groups because everyone has access to the Internet.
“People often associate with one another due to ideological similarities. Our society is not revolutionary. Looking at this kind of situation, we can see not only that the latent human needs to be part of a group or something bigger, but also their latent need for social acceptance. If people see that their speech is being reverberated, through the filter bubble, they fell part of. This behaviour is also strengthened, even with ideas of hatred and oppression,” he explains.
The NGO SaferNet, created in 2005 by members who work in the field of social justice and criminal law, focuses on defending and promoting human rights in South America. The same year it was founded, the institution launched the National Cyber Crimes Reporting Center. On the platform, people can anonymously report sites that contain any content that is considered racist, xenophobic or homophobic. The data is sent to government agencies such as the Federal Police and the Public Prosecution Service, which work together to investigate these allegations. In just over 12 years, more than 3.9 million cases have been reported by the platform, involving more than 700,000 sites in at least 101 countries.
Brazil is still moving toward creating legislation on online crimes and the use of the Internet. The main measure taken on the field was in 2014 with the passing of the Civil Internet Code, a bill that spent over five years in Congress before being passed. The established rights and duties when surfing the Internet are outlined, as well as the guidelines to be followed by the government.
In spite of this, experts say there is still much to do. Brazil is still moving towards creating legislation on online crimes and the use of the Internet. The main measure taken on the field was in 2014 with the passing of the Civil Internet Code, a bill that spent over five years in Congress before being passed. The established rights and duties when surfing the Internet are outlined, as well as the guidelines to be followed by the Government.
In spite of this, experts say there is still much to do. “The Internet offers these people the chance to give space to the violence that intoxicates them, without the consequences that would reduce the advantages of this catharsis. The anonymous meetings of subjects predisposed to virtual lynching—while reinforcing the feeling that what they do is right—greatly reduces the chance of being corrected in time,” points out Leticia. “There is a need for stricter punishments for cybercrime, but first we must strengthen investigative mechanisms to identify the perpetrators of these actions, as well as educate a society that is not yet ‘literate’ regarding the virtual environment.”
By Mário Quintino
Language Quality Assurance Reviewer