Sadiq Khan has launched the first ever 'online hate crime hub' to help police fight social media abuse

The unit will tackle online hate and provide more consistent support for victims in London, said Sadiq Khan at its official launch as part of the Online Hate Crime Summit on Monday.

The Hub will be made up of five specially-trained Met police officers who will work with social media organisations, academic hate crime specialists and criminal justice partners to investigate online hate crimes in London.

The unit will cost £1.7m over two years. Funding will come from the Metropolitan Police, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), and contributions from the Home Office Police Innovation Fund.

Online hate is a growing issue for social media platforms and the UK is struggling to balance free speech and the rapid development of technology with the protection of users from abuse and extreme content online.

Westminster attack

John Donovan, one of the officers working at the Online Hate Crime Hub, told HOPE not hate that the unofficial launch of the unit had been a month ago, precipitated by the Westminster attacks. He says until now, online hate has often been “at the lower end of the harm scale, so victims usually get a neighbourhood PC who has no training in this type of crime”.

The unit will find perpetrators of online hate crimes and send details to the police officers handling the case, providing a faster, more consistent response.

Representatives from Twitter, Facebook, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Met Police and charities joined victims of online hate at the Summit to discuss how they could work together.

Left-to-right James Barnes (Cyberstalking researcher), Victoria Wright, (Disability rights campaigner), Mike Jervis (Active Change Foundation), Craig McCann (Moonshot CVE), Karim Palant (Facebook), Nick Pickles (Twitter)

Surviving online hate

Raj Jeyaraj, president of the Strathclyde University Students Association, and frequent victim of online hate due to his disability, his Malaysian origin and for often being mistaken for a Muslim, says the more active he is online, the greater the risk of being targeted. Jeyaraj has called for the police to allocate more resources to keep up with the constantly evolving hate online.

“Policing has to drastically change in the future,” he said.

Legislation for online hate has not been updated for nearly 15 years

“Every time there is an event somewhere in the world, it’s like we teleported there and did it. We constantly get bomb threats and insults [online],” Jeyaraj added.

Carl Miller, director of the Centre for the Analysis, presented research at the Summit showing how key events, especially terrorist attacks, drove large increases in the volume of anti-Muslim messages on Twitter. These were usually anti-Islamic slurs, derogatory comments (‘Muslims are terrorists’), and statements claiming Muslims wished to destroy the West.

He highlighted that online hate came from very different groups – from core anti-Muslim organisations to gaming communities and football fans. Surprisingly, London was not only the most active part of Twitter in the UK, but also the biggest producer of Twitter hate.

Carl Miller, research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, shows online hate recorded after the Westminster attacks

Victoria Wright, a disability and disfigurement rights campaigner in London, who has been subjected to online abuse, said:

“It is important to talk to people when you’re being targeted, not to keep it to yourself as that’s when you get dark thoughts. Harassment and intimidation are not allowed on the street, it shouldn’t be allowed online.”

Most online hate crimes are not reported and the Online Hate Crime Hub is aiming to change that.

until now, online hate has often been “at the lower end of the harm scale, so victims usually get a neighbourhood PC who has no training in this type of crime”

Experts at the Summit also discussed how to deal with the perpetrators of online hate. Stephen Kavanagh, Chief Constable of Essex Police, said however awful online hate was:

“We cannot imprison our way out of it” and that “haters are not born, many just don’t realise the dis-inhibition that comes from being behind a screen”.

Expanding the toolkit to challenge online hate beyond traditional arrests could allow a more effective response. Craig McCann, from Moonshot CVE, an organisation countering extremism through data innovation, stressed the need to be a better strategy for countering different levels of online hate:

“What are we doing about online hate that falls below the threshold of being a crime?”

The young

Several people called for better education when it came to teenagers perpetrating hate.

“For many young people, online hate is a victimless crime, they don’t see the impact; we need to work on education,” said one audience member.

McCann pointed out there were great projects out there educating people about online hate but that the effort was not consistent and sporadic.

Wright cautioned that the police needed to be careful with criminalising the perpetrators.

“I don’t want a 14-year-old sending me a nasty tweet to get a criminal record the same way I don’t want to be arrested for saying Nigel Farage is stupid,” she said.

Kavanagh said the police would need help with responding to online hate from many different actors, especially the social platforms on which the hate is spewed.

“The police have the humility to know they can’t tackle this alone – hate crime is not new but it is adapting at a crazy pace [online],” he said.

Online Hate Crime Hub targets

Nick Pickles, Twitter’s head of policy for the UK, admitted Twitter had not been as effective as it needed to be in dealing with online hate, but that people with racist views online had racist views before the internet, too.

“We’ve been very mechanical, victims have had to come to us,” he said.

He added that different perpetrators were at different levels of hatred, “some are frankly gone, but others can be impacted.”

He also described banning followers and using time-outs as a method of deterrence for users pushing abuse which didn’t reach criminal levels.

“We want people to have a voice on Twitter, but we reserve the right to take away the microphone,” he said.