Hate speech and online harms

Yue Zhao (Marissa)

SID: 520112047


Globally, the use of social networks continues to grow, changing the way people live. More than half (59%) of the world’s population uses social media, according to Datareportal’s January 2023 Global Survey (Chaffey, 2023). A survey result conducted by the Pew Research Center (Auxier & Anderson, 2021) of social media use among U.S. adults shows that about 70% of Americans say they have used at least one social media site, and that figure has remained constant over the past five years. However, the research center also learned that about two-thirds of Americans believe that social media has had a large negative impact on the way the country develops today (Auxier, 2020). These individuals expressed concerns about exposure to misinformation, harassment, and hate speech, and the negative impact of echo chambers and demagogues. Experts point out that as the reach of the internet expands, those who are racist, misogynistic, or homophobic are using social networks as their niche, reinforcing prejudiced and discriminatory views and inciting violence. According to ADL’s 2020 survey about hate and harassment on social media in the United States, 41% of the respondents claimed to have experienced online harassment that year, and 27% reported severe harassment experience, with no significant difference from the previous year. ADL believes that although the platform seems to have adopted policy changes, it has not made the user’s online experience safer. Therefore, the governance of the Internet is crucial. This article will focus on online hate speech and its governance. Through relevant literature review and case analysis, it will analyze the concept of hate speech, its impact on the Internet, and possible challenges in governance, and then further explain it with real cases.

Literature review

Concept of hate speech

Hate speech is not just a verbal attack, but an act of violence that causes real harm. It is defined as speech that “expresses, encourages or incites hatred against a group of individuals with a particular characteristic, including race, ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation” (Parekh, 2012). Hate speech has three main characteristics: 1) it is directed at a specific or easily identifiable individual, or more commonly, a group of people with shared characteristics; 2) it implicitly or explicitly ascribes to them qualities widely considered highly unpopular, thereby To achieve the purpose of insulting the target group; 3) as a result, through this negative attribution, the target group will be regarded by the public as unpopular, untrustworthy, and legally hostile objects, resulting in substantial physical and psychological harm. Maitra and McGowan (2012) divide this harm into two types: causal and constitutive. Causal harm refers to the direct consequences of hate speech, including discrete discrimination and acts of violence. Discrete discrimination means that social media users who post harmful remarks may be scattered all over the world, and the harm suffered by the discriminated party is in all directions. Constitutive harm refers to the utterance itself being a harm. When a person’s speech reinforces and perpetuates existing systemic discrimination against marginalized groups, that person’s speech can oppress them because it occurs in a social environment permeated with this discrimination, known as the “systemic discrimination approach” (Gelber, 2019). Hence, causal and constitutive harms are co-existing, and relevant departments have the responsibility to provide policies and regulatory protection measures.

Impact on the Internet

The rise of the Internet has provided a platform for people to freely express and disseminate speech. Users are able to communicate instantly with people all over the world. Through the Internet interface, users can record and speak, and even expose certain atrocities, and use the weapon of public opinion to protect their rights. The #MeToo movement is an effective example of using the internet to speak out against sexual harassment and violence, where victims can use the hashtag to post about their experiences, learn that they are not alone, and get some encouragement and support (2022). However, freedom of speech on the Internet has also brought some negative effects. In the real world, hate speech shows up in human interactions in many forms, including prejudice or racism. With the development of the Internet, these speeches have found new media for dissemination. The proximity, anonymity, and global nature of social media have become effective tools for spreading extremism and hatred ( et al., 2021). This reinforces stereotypes and prejudices against certain groups of people in society, and it creates a double blow to the mental and emotional health of the victim. People pay attention to the right of individual freedom of speech, which promotes human freedom of thought, social development, and progress, but the opposite of hate speech also increases social hostility and distrust.

The challenges for governance

Due to a large number of harmful speeches on social media, the public expects relevant departments to carry out policy revisions and supervision. According to the ADL research report mentioned above, researchers found that even though social media companies have taken some governance measures, three consecutive years of data show that the situation has not improved. This suggests that there are some challenges in internet governance of hate speech that should be addressed. First, how to balance the contradiction between promoting free speech and minimizing censorship (Flew, 2021). That is, to provide users with the greatest freedom of speech within the scope of control. The second challenge is whether platform companies can rely on the public interest to moderate their content or government involvement. Public opinion is a weapon that has gradually become more powerful with the development of the Internet, but it is also difficult to control. Therefore, whether the government should intervene in governance and the degree of intervention has also become controversial topics. Third, how governments can enforce effective legal sanctions against hate speech and online abuse. There are different language systems and cultural backgrounds between countries, so the person in charge should have an in-depth understanding of different markets in order to achieve more effective governance (Sinpeng, 2021). Last but not least, it is difficult to detect and respond to hate speech content in dynamic speech environments, multiple languages, and diverse social and cultural contexts.

Case study

Women experience a significant amount of gender-based violence and hatred in the virtual world. In 2021, Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, said in a report: “The Internet has become a new battleground for women’s rights, expanding opportunities for women to express themselves, but also increasing the possibility of repression.” (Tallmann, 2022) Voices of women’s oppression are everywhere online, including those who have attained a certain level of achievement and status, such as journalists, politicians, athletes, and women’s rights defenders. Some women journalists are being attacked simply because of their profession, and the purpose of these attacks is to drive them out of the professional field, which is a serious violation of personal rights. Irene Khan also said that while both male and female journalists face safety threats, violent speech against women is mostly gender-based and highly sexualized. On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women Khan published a collection of essays, “#JournalistsToo–Women Journalists Speak Out”, which documented the personal experiences of harassment disclosed by eleven journalists from ten countries. Adela Navarro Bello is one of them, from Mexico. The attackers set up a website and Facebook fan page in which they made verbal attacks and fabricated lies to slander her, especially sexually related content. She tried to talk to Facebook staff several times, hoping to get support and help to stop the harassment, but the reply was that they could not delete those pages because it was “too difficult”. In addition, her lawyer informed her that since the other party was anonymous, she could not obtain government intervention by filing a defamation allegation. She received a response from the government through a joint petition with other female journalists who were also defamed and provided a list of black hands behind the scenes, but afterward, the same lies were still spread by others through social platforms. In this case, we found that Facebook was still unable to effectively stop the spread of hate speech even when the person reported it. Meanwhile, the same offensive content may reappear even if it is deleted. It is worth noting that allowing online hate speech against women to spread freely online can lead to wider sexism. In this case, we found that only relying on user public opinion to prevent speech harm cannot achieve the effect of complete elimination, and the government also needs to intervene in the governance process through policy regulation. The independent expert called on social media platforms to provide safe digital spaces for women and have a zero-tolerance approach to gender-based violence. In addition, the governments of various countries should participate in the protection of women’s rights and interests, and formulate effective safety precautions and protection measures (2021).

It is not only based on gender but also acts of verbal violence based on skin color, race, belief, sexual orientation, and other characteristics. Researchers point out that identifying hate speech relies on the social context of language (Sinpeng, 2021). Social platforms need to have an in-depth understanding of the market’s definition of hate speech in the context of the local language and relevant government legislation and also need to strengthen cooperative management by establishing intimate exchanges with the local community. Also, strengthen the training of page administrators to increase their vital role as gatekeepers. In the case of this article, it is reflected in the fact that the staff of Facebook’s local office in Mexico should actively understand the Mexican local government’s definition of anonymous online users and defamation crimes, and try their best to assist users who make appeals.


To sum up, with the emergence of new media technologies and the increase in the use of social media, users have found a more convenient and faster way to express their opinions. The Internet has provided fertile ground for the growth of free thought by encouraging people to exercise their right to free speech. However, amid the positive atmosphere, there are also negative influences. Online harassment, defamation, verbal abuse, and hate speech continue to breed. This article focuses on the negative impact of hate speech and governance challenges. Victims are subjected to vicious language, and they can take a heavy toll psychologically. If hate speech is not controlled and eliminated promptly, this prejudiced attitude may gradually continue and expand in society, damaging the interests of the parties involved. Therefore, social media companies and local governments should take protective and regulatory measures on time. There are four challenges are identified through the stage of governance. The balance between the right to allow free speech and the degree of regulation, the need for government involvement, effective law and policy change, and the difficulty of culturally diverse backgrounds in the change process. Using the example of defamatory and threatening messages women journalists encounter in their careers, the researchers reaffirm the shortcomings of corporate and government regulation. They should adopt different management policies according to the local culture, have a deep understanding of the language environment and legal regulations, strengthen the quality of platform administrators through training, and gradually reduce hate speech through continuous improvement and optimization.


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