Opinion – Ronaldo Lemos: How to deal with dangerous speeches?


Since the change of government, a political issue has become central: the fight against misinformation. There is a whole package of legislative and administrative changes being designed to combat this phenomenon. The measures include the creation of a “prosecutor’s office” to combat misinformation at the AGU (Attorney General of the Union) and legislative changes that risk being implemented suddenly, by provisional measure.

You have to be very careful with these efforts. First, the term “disinformation” has no legal definition. Not even in society there is consensus on its meaning. Not knowing exactly what you’re fighting is a recipe for successive mistakes.

To clarify the debate, it is worth considering, for example, the work of journalist and researcher Susan Benesch. Susan is a staunch supporter of free speech and author of the project called “Dangerous Speeches”. In this project, she mapped processes of radicalization around the world. She concluded that whenever an act of violence erupts in society, it is preceded by a discursive process that normalizes and even encourages that violence.

Unlike “disinformation”, the definition of dangerous speech is clear and straightforward: any form of expression (speech, text, images, videos, etc.) that increases the risk that its audience will support or commit violence against members of another group .

One of the cases mapped by Susan is the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994, when thousands of Hutus massacred around 800,000 people of the Tutsi ethnic group, using machetes as a weapon, which demonstrates the degree of motivation and radicalization when the violence broke out. The inflammatory discourse against the Tutsi was built up over years. So much so that the International Criminal Court expressly condemned the editors of RTLM radio (which was known in the country as “Radio Machete”) for inciting genocide, precisely because of the propagation of content that led to radicalization over the years.

Susan’s main point is that dangerous speech is not just about the content itself. They have at least five elements: the author/speaker of the speech, the message, the audience, the media used and the social and historical context in which they are delivered. To deal with the problem it is necessary to take into account all these elements.

The consequence of this is that Susan defends that the simple censorship or suppression of speeches, even if dangerous, is not the best way to combat processes of social radicalization. One of the reasons is that censorship most of the time comes to nothing. On the contrary, it pushes the problematic discourses deeper and deeper, away from the eyes of the social safeguards that really matter, such as schools, teachers, religious leaders, families and other protections that should act as a containment against violence before it happens.

In this context, what to do in Brazil? The first measure is to mature the debate. The problem is not “disinformation”, but speeches capable of leading to violence and political and social rupture. The method of combat must not be censorship. Censorship focuses on just one element: the message.

Combating dangerous speech must encompass Susan’s five elements. For example, combating inauthentic methods of mass propagation, and the hidden funding of radicalization campaigns. It is also necessary to work to reduce the incentives for radicalization, reinforcing social protections. In democratic societies, shut up doesn’t work.

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