critical spin on new media and activism
Can we stop hate speech on social media?

Can we stop hate speech on social media?

Online hate speech has become a great concern in the current public sphere. The affordances of Internet and new media allow these type of messages to spread faster and further, within a general context of information and institutional crisis. But every attempt to control it seems to be failing. Can we stop online hate speech without limiting freedom of expression?

Web 2.0 and social media promised us a democratic utopia in its beginnings. It would bring about an unlimited amount of freely circulating information and the possibilities of direct discussing and participating in the public sphere. It is true that new media have allowed a rich exchange of ideas and knowledge, which is a good example of this blog. However, the self-governed agora that new media tried to emulate has, far too often, become a wrestling ring … full of trolls.

Photo by :jovian: on / CC BY-NC

According to a survey of the Pew Research Center from 2017, 4 out of 10 people in the US have suffered online harassment and many more have been witnesses. The prospects are not very encouraging either. A report from the same institute on the future of online social climate shows that only 19% of the interviewees trust that the situation will improve, while 42% believe that the situation will remain the same and 39% believe that it will worsen.

Who are these trolls

We commonly call troll to anyone who participates in online conversations with the only purpose of disrupting it or annoying or offending someone. Their main alibies are the fact of not being face-to-face and anonymity. While their main motivation is a pure entertainment, or lulz, in the Internet slang. In this era of individualism and the exhibition of the self, the troll seeks to make the most vulgar, provocative, brutal or offensive comment to attract attention.

According to the online social climate study mentioned above, trolling is as old as the web. There has always been and will be a certain degree of incivility. Ultimately, trolling could be considered as a provocative game with roots in punk culture or Dadaism.

The problem is when trolling directly attacks the principles of equality and non-discrimination and openly promotes hate speech. Or even when there are organizations, companies and strategies that promote these discourses that pursue partisan or economic interests. If we add this to the current climate of political polarization, lack of trust in the institutions and rise of far-right parties, we can come to wonder whether the new media are contributing to democratize the public sphere or rather the opposite.

Limits to freedom of expression?

While trolls of all kind rely on freedom of expression to exercise their activity, this is not an absolute right. It can be in conflict with other fundamental rights such as privacy, equality or non-discrimination of individuals and/or groups. See, for example, Council of Europe’s legal framework. Moreover, the possibility of being exposed to offensive comments or threats may also restrict freedom of expression.

Hate speech has always been present in our societies, but with the generalization of the internet and social media, the speed and impact of its dissemination are much greater. Is it possible to apply the current legislation on this issue? What is being done to tackle this problem?

Moderation solutions

Previously the main technological platforms were in favour of a minimal intervention. Now they are beginning to worry about the contamination of the digital public space. Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube signed a code of conduct with the European Union in which they engaged to review all hate speech complaints within 24 hours.

They are also starting to receive some pressure. Last year, a group of advertisers withdrew their YouTube investment after they appeared next to radical videos. Beyond moderation, what we have is a model in which economic profit is directly linked to online participation, whatever motivates it.

Legislation on hate speech

Germany started 2018 applying the Network Enforcement Act that requires companies to remove hate speech within 24 hours, risking fines of up to 50 million euros. Not without controversy. The representative of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, Beatrix von Storch, and the satirical magazine Titanic have got their accounts temporally suspended.

Answer of Beatrix von Storch, that got her account suspended. Screenshot of DW.

Not even two months have passed and many actors ask for its withdrawal or reform for violating freedom of expression and also giving victimizing arguments to far-right organizations. Moreover, German Greens, point out that foreign private companies should not be those responsible for the moderation of issues that affect the public discourse of their country.

Artificial intelligence

Social media companies have claimed that AI will be a breakthrough in the elimination of hate speech. However, according to the Pew Research Center study, some fear that AI can create safe-zones in which the confrontation or the debate does not fit.

The more worrisome possibility is that privacy and safety advocates, in an effort to create a more safe and equal internet, will push bad actors into more-hidden channels such as Tor (…) The worst outcome is that we end up with a kind of Potemkin internet in which everything looks reasonably bright and sunny, which hides a more troubling and less transparent reality.

Other experts quoted underline that AI poses the moral dilemma of leaving to the machines what humans should regulate through a democratic process.

What can we do as individuals, citizens, activists?

Let’s not end all on a pessimist note where the only horizon of this technological dystopia is a dark one.

There are some actions and specific responses that we can give as individuals to online hate speech. This link collects a bunch of good recommendations. As ComDev practitioners, we can work from a human rights and values ​​approach – as previously explained in this blog. We should evaluate if it is necessary to confront to have short term impact. But mostly build alternative discourses, breaking stereotypes and attracting the audience with new forms of storytelling, also visual, with space for irony and humour. How to connect with the increasingly fragmented and polarized audience is surely one of the main challenges.

And finally, sure an obvious comment for many, but I think it helps to centre the perspective. Yes, social media amplify the scope of extremist and discriminatory messages. But if there is racism, machismo and discrimination in the networks, it is because there is racism, machismo and discrimination in society.

And you? What do you propose to stop hate speech?


  1. Christina Büns

    Very interesting & good read! It made me think of the Lebanese drama film ‘The Insult’ (also nominated for the Oscars) which I recently saw. Has someone watched it yet? I think the movie is a good example for what consequences hate speech in general can have. Maybe it even serves as an example for edutainment that could possibly decrease hate speech. And while I do not have a solution for stoping hate speech, I totally agree with the author: if there is ‘hate’ in the networks, it is because there is ‘hate’ in society, too.

    All the best,

  2. Dina Cereja

    This is indeed a great read and a very hot topic!
    From governments to private companies, hate speech is definitely becoming a major concern. A Reuter´s article this week proposed a combination of 3 measures to counter hate in social media and the internet: legal enforcement, content moderation and education. I don´t think legal enforcement itself and content moderation will be enough. The challenge seems to be really hard. For ex, Twitter is suspending profiles that promote violence and hate, but at a rate of approximately 500 million new tweets a day, it means they would have to employ 10,000 co-workers to scan content daily and they each would have to read 50 000 new tweets every day!
    As well, I don´t think simply deleting content after it has been in circulation is enough. Words on the web can carry as much weight as any other face-to-face conversation.
    I think education here is key, so we can treat the problem at its root, but for sure there are no quick fixes on this matter.

    @Christina, haven´t watched the movie, but will make sure to look into it!

  3. R A

    Thank you both for your kind comments! I am happy that you found the article interesting. @Christina, I didn’t know about the film but I will certainly try to watch it. Yes, my comment on offline world it is precisely because it’s shocking that the issues that have more hate comments are those concerning feminism or racism. Social media maybe encourage people to be less politically correct when they are under anonymity but the problem was already before. So yes, I agree with @Dina, education seems to be essential.

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