Hate speech: A growing international threat

While hate speech is nothing new, it has arguably been enhanced by the internet, which has allowed lies, conspiracies and threats to spread instantly around the world

ONU  -   United against hate

Hate speech is having a demonstrable effect on society: one of the many similarities between the January attacks versus the 6 January 2021 attacks is that each occurred after certain groups repeatedly directed dangerous rhetoric and false claims against each other.

Concern over this growing phenomenon has led independent human rights experts to call on major social media platforms to change their business models and take more responsibility for combating the rise of hate speech online.

Recently, the case of controversial influencer Andrew Tate came into the media spotlight, following his arrest in Romania as part of an investigation into alleged human trafficking and rape, which he denies.

Tate had already been banned from several major social networks, including TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, for expressing misogynistic views and hate speech.

Hate and violence in South Sudan

In South Sudan, internet access is limited to a small elite, but activists like Edmund Yakani, one of the country's most prominent human rights defenders, are nonetheless targeted by hate speech online.

Yakani explains to UN News how inciting hatred, both within the country and from the diaspora, is contributing to increasing violence in the world's newest nation: 60% of South Sudan's deadly violence, he says, is caused by hate speech.

Yakani says he has often been the victim of online attacks, in which his image, or statements he has made, have been distorted. "Some describe me as some kind of animal, a cockroach, a monkey or a snake, or simply call me a murderer."

"This narrative has huge implications. It destroys my social fabric, my relationships with others, and generates mistrust and lack of trust from people towards me," he says.

Hate speech is having a destabilising influence in his country, Yakani worries, making violence the main tool for resolving disputes. The answer, he believes, is to invest more in effective responses, including targeted sanctions for perpetrators, better legislation and education.

Despite the many risks to his own security, Yakani continues to fight to ensure accountability, justice and respect for human rights.

"Anyone who stands up and demands accountability, transparency and fights corruption, or demands democratic transformation, is always a target of hate speech," he says.

© UNICEF/Dhiraj Singh -Children in a Mumbai slum. Dalits, also called untouchables, are often the most disadvantaged members of Hindu society
Coming out as a Dalit

When in 2015 Yashica Dutt publicly described herself as a Dalit - a group of people who, according to those who subscribe to the Indian caste system, sit at the bottom of the pyramid, also called the untouchables - she became another victim of hate speech.

"I was very vocal. I was talking about how caste is and how we have to identify and acknowledge that it exists and stop erasing it. And obviously that narrative upset a lot of people, so I've been part of a lot of troll attacks." 

The journalist and award-winning author of the memoir "Coming out as Dalit" argues that caste exists in Indian societies, whether in the country itself or in the Indian diaspora. In her opinion, the rise of social media has brought back racism, hatred and verbal attacks.

Her Tumblr blog, "Documents of Dalit discrimination", is an effort to create a safe space to talk about the trauma of being of a lower caste, but she says she now faces hate speech on Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis. 

"If I give a talk or participate in a panel discussion, there are always some trolls," she says. "They tell me I'm being paid by a mystery agency, rather than because I'm really fed up with the discrimination I'm facing and the people around me are facing." 

Hate speech "really takes a heinous form on the internet, because you can mobilise armies of trolls to swarm your account and make sure you never use your voice again. And it's pretty scary," she says.

According to Dutt, a prominent far-right account incited his one million followers to hurl insults, slander and threats of physical or sexual assault, and even death.

"I had to log off for a long time. Even though I live in New York, a lot of the threats come from India. And now we also have the rise of Hindu fundamentalist communities in the US. It was scary, and over time I've learned to deal with it," she says.

"Consciously or unconsciously, this affects how we use our voice. Ultimately, you think, if I tweet this particular way, what's the consequence?"

© Unsplash - Following the recent acquisition of Twitter, there has been a sharp increase in hate speech on the social network
Burying hope

Another woman who has experienced the deadly effects of hate speech is writer and journalist Martina Mlinaverić.

For years, Mlinarević, who is also Bosnia and Herzegovina's ambassador to the Czech Republic, wrote about aspects of corruption in her country. For this, she received threats and insults on the internet, but the level of abuse reached a new dimension when a photo of her mastectomy scar was published in a magazine, something unheard of in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"I had to move with a small child to another city because of threats and cyber-bullying. The hardest and saddest thing for me was to flee my hometown, where I lived for 37 years."

Mlinarević explains how in 2020, when she arrived in Prague, a doll created to look like her was burned at a traditional carnival.

"It was a kind of persecution campaign to punish me not only for the exposure of the scar on my chest, but also for daring to comment on politics and promote gender issues and all the other problems," she declares.

All these attacks went unpunished at the time, and turned into misogynistic and intimidating threats against her safety and family. "For me, that was the moment I buried all my hopes for the area I came from".

Despite her experiences, Mlinaverić remains optimistic for the future. "I try to work with young people as much as I can, I try to empower their voice, the voice of girls and women, and I try to teach them to stand up for themselves, and for others. Hopefully the future will bring something better for all our children".