The golden era of hate speech and what you can do about it

Do you know what a sermon preached by a medieval monk and today’s social media like Facebook and Twitter have in common? The answer lies in their ability to reach a large number of people — relative to the respective time period. This reach has made them opportune platforms to spread prejudice and hate speech, usually against a topical minority. [1]

Even though hate speech is not a new phenomenon, it has no universally agreed upon definition. Usually it is used to refer to hateful speech against a person or a group of people based on an attribute such as nationality, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientations to name a few. Usually hateful content alone is not enough to make a statement hate speech, but the context like the goal and reach of the statement as well as who is talking are of relevance [2]. Additionally, there generally is no legal term for hate speech, even though there are some crimes, e.g. defamation, that could also qualify as hate speech.

In recent years hate speech has been a common topic in the media and there has been growing concern about its effects and what could be done to alleviate the phenomenon. A related issue, or at least a counterargument used by some people to defend others accused of hate speech, is the right to freedom of speech and how constraining hate speech could also hamper free speech. Much of the debate revolves around social media, especially Facebook which has been a frequent platform for hateful interactions, extremists seeking to spread their message, and even spreading propaganda to incite ethnic prosecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, where Facebook has been the main point of access to internet [3].

Much of the dreadful power of the social media probably comes down to the ability to reach so many people using it. While the medieval monk had to be physically present and heard by his audience to be influential, through social media in theory anyone can reach millions of people from anywhere around the world. In addition to reaching huge audiences, it is also easy for like-minded people to chime in, like and comment to show their support and create an echo chamber where the commentators together attack against a common “enemy”. And to top it off, all this can be done without leaving your house and, on some platforms, practically anonymously.

One especially worrying trend is that even some public figures like politicians seem to be using the online hate to advance their agenda. Even though they may not necessarily be explicitly hateful in their statements, divisive and judgemental rhetoric give rise to and are tools used in hate speech [1]. Of course, a politician’s online presence may not be indicative of their general ability to make reasonable decisions, which should be a desirable quality in anyone responsible for deciding about integral issues for a whole nation, but in any case, setting such an example to their proponents seems questionable.

In this vein, I would encourage you to be aware of the online actions of the people you support, even if you personally are not an active user of any social media. Maybe in that way you can help to create a healthier environment for constructive discussion — one in which you don’t have to be afraid of voicing a differing opinion in fear of falling victim to an online mob lynch. And in case you are participating in any online discussions yourself, follow the advice given in the article published by YLE [1] and take a moment to edit your posts before sending them to weed out any underlying negative rhetoric that may sneak in when typing away in the heat of the moment. After all, exaggeration and inflaming do usually come more naturally than carefully wording you message to be critical, not accusatory.

[1] Vihapuhe on vuosisatoja vanha ilmiö — Tutkija: Nykypäivän teemat näkyivät vihapuheessa jo keskiajalla. 30.9.2018 (https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-10429263)

[2] Hate-Speech: A Five-Point Test for Journalists (https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/resources/publications/hate-speech)

[3] Revealed: Facebook hate speech exploded in Myanmar during Rohingya crisis. 3.4.2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/03/revealed-facebook-hate-speech-exploded-in-myanmar-during-rohingya-crisis)