The World Jewish Congress, in collaboration with the Greek, German and Swedish permanent missions to the United Nations in Geneva, held a virtual side event to the 48th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council to explore the challenges posed by the current climate of misinformation, exacerbated by social media and other platforms.
Participants also discussed ways to redress this phenomenon while ensuring freedom of expression at Tuesday’s event, titled “Education Against Hate Speech and Discrimination.”
The WJC gathering was held within the framework of Greece’s 2021 presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an international organization composed of 34 member-states that are dedicated to combating antisemitism and safeguarding the memory of the Holocaust. The event, also held in partnership with UNESCO, was moderated by Leon Saltiel, WJC representative to the United Nations in Geneva and UNESCO and WJC coordinator on countering antisemitism.
Amb. Chris Lazaris of Greece, IHRA Chair, opened the event by noting that the “COVID-19 pandemic provided a breeding ground for hatred and discrimination against vulnerable groups and minorities.” Calling on people to “speak the truth” and stand up to hate speech, Lazaris outlined Greece’s plans to host a conference in March addressing Holocaust distortion and the fight against antisemitism on the digital battlefield.
In a video message, Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, outlined the dangers of hate speech, saying it is “undermining social cohesion, creating psychological and emotional harm and violence.”
“We have a collective responsibility to address hate speech to prevent further violence,” she said. “It’s why UNESCO is committed to fostering an understanding of a speech and developing educational programs that address its root causes and counter its manifestations online and offline.”
Amb. Michaela Küchler of Germany, who previously served as IHRA Chair, talked in a separate video message about Holocaust distortion, describing it as the “greatest contemporary threat to the legacy of the Holocaust.” She warned that it “serves as a bridge between mainstream, and radical ideas.”
She also recognized that the pandemic had accelerated Holocaust denial and distortion, saying, “We all have a responsibility to act.” Concluding her remarks, Küchler outlined Protect the Facts campaign, the first global multilingual awareness effort countering Holocaust distortion.
Petra Mårselius, Head of Secretariat for the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, stressed that education is “the key to combating antisemitism and other forms of racism, distortion, denial and misinformation.” Mårselius also discussed the goals of the upcoming Malmö Forum, including pursuing “concrete action.” Sweden will assume the IHRA presidency next year.
In the panel discussion that followed, Prof. Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, called the rise of hate speech “a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare mongering.” Varennes also called for the tackling of “denialism,” emphasizing the importance of education.
Prof. Nikos Panagiotou of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki argued that social media was being used as a major platform to distribute hateful discriminatory content, noting that 64% of people between the ages of 16 to 24 have been exposed to hate speech on social media. He also spoke of the need for boosting public trust in institutions and ensuring that young people are media literate.
Sue Hampel, Chair of IHRA’s Education Working Group, highlighted the success of existing educational resources. She noted that IHRA materials allowed educators to build digital literacy skills and help people differentiate between factual and false information.
She also called for a successful multidisciplinary approach to countering hate speech. “We need education in a wide range of settings across all areas of society,” Hampel said.
Noting that “history shows us that violence starts with words,” Karel Fracapane, Program Specialist at UNESCO, outlined how education can combat the rise of antisemitic conspiracy myths fueled by the pandemic.
Fracapane said education was essential for students to develop “critical thinking skills, the ones that are needed to navigate the massive online landscape.” Fracapane also highlighted how it is crucial to “ensure that efforts to counter hate speech do not infringe on free expression and other fundamental human rights.”
Amb. Panayotis Stournaras, Permanent Representative of Greece to the UN in Geneva, concluded the event, by summarizing the basic points of the discussion, offering his concluding thoughts, and thanking all the sponsors and organizers.