From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala was engaged in a brutal civil war that left more than 200,000 people dead. For Richard Ashby Wilson, the two years he spent in the country during that turbulent period permanently changed the trajectory of his research career.
During the conflict, the Guatemalan military conducted a host of human rights violations, especially against Mayan citizens. Wilson traveled there in the 1980s to study Mayan ethnic and religious identity but soon shifted his focus to studying human rights violations in the context of armed conflict and its aftermath.
Now the Gladstein Distinguished Chair of Human Rights, Wilson has spent the last 30 years studying how societies deal with human rights violations with a focus on the legal processes used to address a legacy of mass atrocities.
His understanding of legal foundations is essential to Wilson’s research, which has focused on international criminal tribunals for trying war crimes and crimes against humanity. His interdisciplinary approach, tying together anthropology and the law, elucidates how judicial institutions operate using both quantitative and qualitative measures.
“In order to do this kind of research on transitional justice, you have to understand the legal doctrine they’re using in national and international courts and commissions,” Wilson says.
Free Speech or Incitement of Violence?
Presently, Wilson is conducting research on incitement, particularly instances in which a political leader or media figure instigates violence or a criminal act. His work focuses on how criminal courts try, and often fail, to hold defendants responsible for inciting violence.
“Courts find it very hard to punish a political or media figure for their words because a court of law has to show speech was the causal trigger for violence,” says Wilson. “I wanted to know, why is it so hard to convict them?”
Proving that speech is the cause of violence is a challenging standard for attorneys, especially in America. In European countries like France and Germany, incitement laws protect religious and ethnic minorities from white nationalist and xenophobic sentiments, says Wilson.
In the U.S., however, the bar is much higher due to the legal precedent set in 1969 in a landmark case, Wilson explains. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, a Ku Klux Klan leader was prosecuted for advocating violence in a televised broadcast of a KKK rally. When this case reached the Supreme Court, it set the standard, now commonly known as the Brandenburg test, that in order for speech to be considered incitement, it must meet three criteria: It must be directed at inciting or producing lawless action, that action must be imminent, and the encouragement must be likely to incite or produce such action.
“Incitement is meant to be a crime of prevention, and yet there’s no clear guidance on how to assess risk,” Wilson says. “The courts haven’t told us that, so I had to find that out somewhere else.”
To attempt to quantify this risk, Wilson drew from behavioral research and developed a list of ten factors that can help determine the likelihood of speech inciting violence.
‘The world’s events have turned more closely to my research than the other way around.’ — Richard Ashby Wilson
When he applied his criteria to the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one woman dead and dozens injured, Wilson found the likelihood of violence. He examined conversations about the rally online in the weeks leading up to the event and found ten of the ten factors were present in those discussions.
“The server was being monitored by the police,” Wilson says. “If they used my incitement scale, they would have identified that violence was likely to take place and they could have forestalled the march, or ensured the marchers and protesters were safely separated.”
Wilson says these ten factors are not in themselves reasons to suppress speech, rather they provide concrete guidance, backed by empirical data, as to which speech acts are most likely to incite violence.
“We don’t want to regulate all speech. We don’t want to regulate all speech we find offensive. Much offensive speech can be met with counter-speech, like arguing with the people who are proponents of racism,” Wilson says. “There’s only a small section of speech in a dangerous context that is likely to cause violence.”
Wilson started researching incitement and hate speech in 2011, before these topics became a pervasive element of contemporary American politics. He says studying human rights for decades has prepared him to understand what is happening in politics today.
For instance, the 2008 recession mirrored the 1930s depression in Europe in which extreme economic hardships, along with other factors, created an atmosphere of intense fear and political upheaval, he says.
Much like the 1930s, which saw the rise of figures like Mussolini and Hitler, authoritarian “strong men” figures have emerged in Turkey, the Philippines, Russia, and Brazil in recent years. These leaders are all promising the same things: safety, security, and jobs.
“They frighten the population and then say ‘I’m the only one who can save you,’” Wilson explains. “They call up fears of, for instance, foreigners coming into the country and then say ‘I’m the only one who can protect you from them.’”
“When I started, people thought I was talking about historical events in other countries,” Wilson says. “It did occur in other places then, but now we’re experiencing a constant barrage of political propaganda in our own country and hate speech in mainstream politics.
“The world’s events have turned more closely to my research than the other way around.”
Keeping it Civil: Social Media Moderation Policies
As part of the way world events continue to shape his work, Wilson recently took a comprehensive look at one emerging platform for speech: social media. He and UConn School of Law colleague Molly Land completed a report on content moderation policies for the American Bar Association.
Titled “Invisible Threats: Mitigating the Risk of Violence from Online Hate Speech against Human Rights Defenders,” the publication delves into how social media companies can customize their strategies to suit unique needs in different countries and cultures since speech that may be innocuous in one setting, could be dangerous in another.
“Social media platforms currently don’t have a way to tailor their polices to different countries or areas,” Wilson says. “We want to try to design a context-specific approach to content moderation policies that takes local variance in language, politics, and culture into account.”
The project focuses on Guatemala where human rights activists have been targets of hate speech on social media and violence. In 2018, 26 human rights activists were killed in Guatemala.
“The link between online hate speech and offline violence has been asserted, but there’s no evidence,” Wilson says. “I want to find out if there’s a true connection between the two and if there is, how social media companies respond and change their content moderation policies?”