The Jewish community has welcomed news that the Met Police is to create a new £1.7 million unit dedicated to fighting online racism, including anti-Semitism, and that it will train a volunteer army.
Comprising five officers, the two-year project was approved by the London Mayor’s office at the end of July, to “filter and identify” hate crimes online, including social media, before helping regional police forces take action.
Crucially, it will also “recruit, train and manage… community volunteers” who will be asked to “identify, report and challenge” online hatred.
“We welcome the announcement of increased resources,” said Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies.
“It is a good start and a much-needed message that anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, homophobia, misogyny and all forms of abuse are just as wrong online as they are in person.”
Part funded by the Home Office, the Online Hate Crime Hub will “provide additional intelligence-gathering opportunities” using “new data analytics” to try to trace online racists, who usually hide their real-life identities.
Critics included Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, who acknowledged that the move was “well-intentioned” but cautioned that the police should not aim to become “chatroom moderators”.
The Hub has said it will use “predictive policing methods to enable crime prevention,” prompting Farron to warn: “We want more police on the street, not thought police… There is a real danger of undermining our very precious freedom of speech.”
In recent months, tech giants have agreed to do more themselves. In December, Twitter explicitly banned “hateful conduct” for the first time, and social media firms all agreed to remove hate-speech within 24 hours.
Police chiefs have acknowledged the “increasing role that online hate played in targeting individuals and communities,” with perpetrators hiding behind “a veil of anonymity, making it harder to bring them to justice”.
Discussing the armchair army, they said: “A key element of this programme is the delivery of the community hub element, which will work with and support community volunteers to identify, report and challenge online hate material.”
Volunteers should be “skilled in the use of social media and able to both identify and appropriately respond to inappropriate content in the online environment to build the counter-narrative,” they added.
Last month, the government promised “tougher sentences” for those found guilty on hate crimes, in new Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s first significant act since replacing Theresa May.
“Hatred directed against any community, race or religion has no place whatsoever in our diverse society and it needs to be kicked to the curb eradicate hate crime,” she said.