On Sept. 8, the anti-hate speech group Tokyo No Hate demonstrated in front of the Tokyo offices of Twitter. The group wants the social networking service to police its users more diligently with regard to racist and other discriminatory tweets.

Twitter forbids messages that denigrate individuals or groups because of race, ethnicity, place of origin, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability or gender, but Tokyo No Hate believes the Japanese arm of the company is not enforcing this policy. For its street protest, the group printed offensive tweets that had appeared on Twitter, which mainly targeted Japan residents of Korean or Chinese background, on pieces of paper and placed them on the sidewalk in front of Twitter’s offices so that passersby could read them and judge for themselves.

The group’s leader, Masayuki Ishino, recently told journalist Kayoko Ikeda on the web program Democracy Times that he got the idea from the satirist Shahak Shapira, who had a similar gripe against Twitter in Germany. Shapira felt the company did not sufficiently screen anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim and other racist remarks, so he made stencils of some of the offensive tweets and chalk-spray-painted them on the sidewalk outside of Twitter’s offices in Hamburg.

“I wanted to do the same,” Ishino told Ikeda, “but I would have been arrested, so we made placards.” This idea, however, was later jettisoned because participants did not want to hold signs with such offensive language on them. Instead they opted for placing the messages on the public portion of the sidewalk.

According to Ishino, many people who walked by and read them remarked that they had “heard” of hate speech but didn’t really know what it was, and now, reading examples of it, they understood just how caustic the language and the sentiments were. Ikeda herself was reluctant to repeat the words out loud on her show and simply showed some examples on screen: “Kill all Koreans,” “Koreans are nothing more than vermin,” “The world would be a better place without Chinese and Koreans.”

Japan implemented an anti-hate speech law in June 2016 in response to increasing attacks on residents of Korean descent. The media has since debated the effectiveness of the law, which does not stipulate punishment. Nevertheless, according to Ishino, the real problem is not so much the government’s response to hate speech, but rather the public’s understanding of the term. As Tokyo No Hate’s demonstration indicated, many people are unaware of the true nature of hate speech.

“When we decided to carry out this action,” Ishino said on Democracy Times, “we asked people to report hate-speech tweets to Twitter and to us.” The request went out on Aug. 23, and within around 10 days Tokyo No Hate had received approximately 1,160 responses. However, only about 400 of these tweets qualified as bigoted speech. The majority were basically users saying derisive things about others, usually individuals. In other words, the people who passed on these examples thought “hate speech” meant tweets posted in anger at other users for something those other users expressed.

According to Ishino’s research, when Twitter Japan sanctions a user by either removing tweets or suspending accounts it’s usually due to one-on-one attacks rather than destructive discriminatory language.

“If someone tweets about a community,” Ishino said, “Twitter reacts slowly, but if it’s an attack on an individual, they respond immediately.” The explanation may be that Twitter doesn’t want to get caught up in a possible libel action, but the company does not reveal its reasons, even to those who are affected.

One person who recently had his Twitter account permanently suspended is writer Tamotsu Sugano, who last year published a best-seller about the conservative lobbying organization Japan Conference. Since last spring Sugano has used Twitter to condemn Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his alleged involvement in two school-construction scandals. Various media reported that Sugano’s last tweet before Twitter pulled the plug was a call to opposition parties to submit a bill for a no-confidence vote when the Diet reopened last month.

Ishino commented that while Sugano’s language can be crude, it isn’t hate speech because it’s not “discriminating” in nature. Ikeda also noted that for writers, Twitter is an invaluable tool for promoting their work, so having his account suspended is a considerable handicap for Sugano. Twitter Japan has not revealed why it took down Sugano’s account and told Ishino that it makes such decisions not based on one tweet but on the user’s history.

In an interview last December with the Kanagawa Shimbun, Yu Sasamoto, Twitter Japan’s chief operating officer, discussed the company’s anti-hate speech policy, which had gone into effect a month earlier. He said that Twitter “values freedom of opinion,” but in order to achieve a “safe space” for dialogue, it must ban discriminatory rhetoric.

“I understand hate speech is not protected by freedom of speech rules,” he told the newspaper. “So blocking hate speech does not damage freedom of speech. It promotes it.” Hate speech can cause its targets to withdraw from the public sphere.

However, the mechanism for evaluating tweets is not localized. When Twitter Japan receives a complaint, says Sasamoto, the problematic tweet is sent to a “judgment division located outside of Japan,” presumably in the U.S., where “legal experts” decide if it should be removed. Why these considerations are not made in Japan is not explained, but in any case it can take months to reach a decision, and even Sasamoto admits that in Europe problematic posts are addressed within 24 hours of being reported.

On Democracy Times, Ishino said he believes social media should be monitored by a third party like the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization, which monitors radio and TV. Though restricting hate speech is problematic with regard to freedom of speech and the press, he says, “Human rights trump free speech rights.” He’s just not sure if Twitter thinks the same way.

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