Words as Weapons:The Devastating Effects of Online Hate Speech on the LGBTQ Community

Photo extracted from website : https://www.npr.org/2021/05/10/995328226/social-media-hate-speech-harassment-significant-problem-for-lgbtq-users-report 
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

“Of special concern, the prevalence and intensity of hate speech and harassment stands out as the most significant problem in urgent need of improvement,” 
——– GLAAD 2021 REPORT (Diaz, 2021)

The rapid development and emergence of new technology has led to the widespread availability of online platforms, providing new forms of interaction among people. However, this digital sphere has also become a breeding ground for online hate speech and has given rise to a new wave of conflicts that are fuelling hateful statements towards the LGBTQ community.  (Cazelatto & Cardin, 2017; Myers et al., 2019).

Tragic suicide triggered by online hate

Online hate speech has caused numerous tragic incidents, and instances such as the ones highlighted in this report (Press, 2022) are unfortunately not uncommon when it comes to the prevalence of online hate speech directed towards the LGBTQ community. The case study listed below serves as a tragic and devastating example of the potential consequences that online harms can inflict on these marginalised communities : A teen’s intimate messages to another boy were leaked by classmates. Hours later, he killed himself, his family says.

In September 2019, Channing Smith, a 16-year-old boy from Tennessee, tragically took his own life following the online leakage of explicit messages and images he had sent to another boy. This boy was forced to get out of the closet and mocked and humiliated by his classmates and people on the internet. The ‘outing incident’ led to a flood of online harassment and bullying toward Channing which ended his life (Chiu, 2019).

 A week prior to the tragic incident, Channing made his final Instagram post announcing his decision to withdraw from social media due to ongoing online hate speech and a resulting distrust of others. (Sacks, 2019). One of Channing’s classmates and his brother reported that the individual who posted derogatory messages exposing his sexual orientation did so to intentionally cause embarrassment and humiliation. The motive behind this act was reported to be vindictiveness (Chiu, 2019).

According to a report conducted by BuzzFeed.News (Sacks, 2019), Channing has been subjected to immense pain after being publicly outed and humiliated on the internet. He has also been subjected to physical assault and verbal abuse, with people labelling him as ‘bisexual’, a label that Channing has never identified himself with. This young boy has reportedly experienced harm both online and in real life due to his sexual expression and orientation. According to sources, the boy was allegedly attacked for exhibiting behaviours such as “talking in a girly voice and walking with sass.”  Being publicly labelled as ‘gay, bisexual, queer, or a sissy’ on the internet, and the potential for this information to spread widely and persist for a long time was devastating for this 16-year-old teenager.

The last Instagram Channing posted on his account.

Online hate speech and the LGBTQ community

Online hate speech has increasingly focused on gender differentiation as a primary target. Reports indicate that a significant number of individuals face persistent harassment, assault, and victimisation due to their gender identities, gender expression, and perceived or actual sexual orientations (Myers et al., 2019). The LGBTQ community has always remained a primary target for individuals who spread hateful statements in the digital realm (Ștefăniță & Buf, 2021).

LGBTQ is an acronym that represents the community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals. In the realm of sexuality and gender, there exist terms that describe orientations and identities that deviate from conventional heterosexual and cisgender norms (Rice, 2019). The LGBTQ+ community is often subjected to various forms of online hate speech, ranging from derogatory remarks on social media platforms to the dissemination of false information and propaganda (Keighley, 2021). The growing vulnerability of this community to online hate speech can be attributed to its marginalised status in most situations.

The impact of online harms towards the LGBTQ community

The LGBTQ community is heavily impacted by online hate speech while the digital sphere has increased the chance of fuelling homophobic hatred. This type of discourse is not only intimidating, but it also has a profound impact on individuals and limits their ability to exercise their right to sexual freedom (Cazelatto & Cardin, 2017). The distinctive characteristic of online anonymity has led to an increased likelihood of individuals perpetrating acts of hate online at a more severe level (Keighley, 2021). Data shows that online hate towards the LGBTQ community is increasing yearly (Brandwatch and Ditch the Label, 2016). According to Wang et al. (2018), LGBTQ+ individuals who are exposed to homophobic language on social media are at a higher risk of experiencing depression and anxiety. Furthermore, online hate speech can lead to a decrease in social support and an increase in social isolation among these already marginalised groups.

The LGBTQ community is facing ongoing challenges due to online harms that can have a significant impact on both their virtual and physical worlds. Those who being identified as non-heterosexual are at a higher risk of receiving a constant stream of hateful messages compared to their heterosexual counterparts. This persistent exposure to negativity can lead to the internalisation of negative attitudes towards themselves ultimately resulting in severe consequences such as depression and PTSD. (Ștefăniță & Buf, 2021). These harms can result in individuals withdrawing from society, experiencing social isolation, and placing blame on themselves. The rise of online threats that are based on heteronormative beliefs is causing a surge in the levels of internalised homophobia. This is primarily due to the act of downplaying or invalidating one’s own gender identity, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s materialising world (Keighley, 2021; Ștefăniță & Buf, 2021).

The discourse of online harm is promoting various forms of intolerance, prejudice, and violence toward sexual minorities. This includes practising assault, materialising homophobia, and reasoning harassment towards those with non-conventional gender identities. These harmful actions range from symbolic and verbal to physical violence. These acts are depriving victims of their most basic rights, causing harm to their physical, psychological, and moral well-being (Cazelatto & Cardin, 2017).

The effects of online violence can be numerous and detrimental to one’s psychological well-being, potentially leading to emotions such as anger, sadness, anxiety, depression, stress, shame, self-blame, and social isolation. In the case of the LGBTQ community, all symptoms are likely to become more severe. The prevalence of online hate messages is having a profound impact on the LGBTQ community. Victims of such messages are increasingly likely to feel guilty about their sexual orientation and may even isolate themselves to avoid being targeted. This disturbing trend raises concerns about the long-term psychological effects of online hate speech. According to Ștefăniță and Buf (2021), the proliferation of online hate has been found to have a detrimental impact on individuals, leading to increased negative emotions and even the potential for suicidal ideas.

Online hate speech and its harm

The prevalence of online hate speech has become a pressing issue in contemporary society, resulting in substantial damage to both individuals and communities. As stated in the website of United Nation(United Nations, 2022), hate speech is a term that describes hurtful words or actions intended to insult and degrade a particular group of individuals based on their social identity. This can take many forms, such as spoken words, non-verbal gestures, symbols, or messages conveyed through various forms of communication. In essence, this refers to any intentional attempt to diminish or degrade individuals based on their affiliation with a specific social group (Ștefăniță & Buf, 2021).

Though hate is certainly a driving force behind hate speech, it is not the sole factor at play. In today’s digital age, individuals have the ability to publicly post content that may insult and degrade members of certain groups. This can be done for a variety of reasons, ranging from boredom and attention-seeking to risk-taking and the desire for economic gain. Additionally, some individuals may engage in this behaviour out of a sense of fear of missing out on the latest controversy (Brown, 2017). The act of assaulting, offending, harassing, or attacking individuals based on their race, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or severe illness can have serious consequences. In some cases, it can even result in physical harm (Ștefăniță & Buf, 2021; Waldron, 2012).

Hate speech goes against fundamental principles of human rights, including tolerance, inclusion, and diversity (United Nations, 2022). It is a denial of these values and undermines the very essence of human rights norms and principles. The act of targeting specific individuals and groups may not only subject them to discrimination, abuse, and violence, but also lead to their exclusion from social and economic opportunities. Expressions of hatred have the potential to cause harm to societies, peace, and development if left unchecked. This is due to the fact that it creates a breeding ground for conflict, tension, and human rights violations, including atrocity crimes (Iginio Gagliardone et al., 2015).

With the aid of the virtual space’s low-cost, high-speed dissemination, and immediate revival mechanism, online hate speech has the potential to reach a larger scale of audience and have a more significant impact (Myers et al., 2019). Online hate speech is most likely to cause significant harm, including psychological distress, incitement of violence, hatred, and even terrorism. This is due to the fact that information in digital circulation can persist for extended periods in various formats across multiple platforms and can be linked and quoted repeatedly (Iginio Gagliardone et al., 2015). Moreover, it has the potential to foster a culture of bigotry and bias. Normalisation of hateful language and misinformation online can lead to the acceptance of such behaviour by individuals who come across it. The potential consequences of this are grave, as it may exacerbate the discrimination, harassment, and violence already faced by members of marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community (Keighley, 2021).

Regulating online harm

Amidst the surge of online hate speech on various social media platforms, concerns are mounting over the potential harm it may inflict. As a result, it has become imperative for these platforms to take steps to regulate and moderate such content (Sinpeng et al., 2021). Platforms have the responsibility and ability to establish a safer online environment for their users by regulating hate speech. Amid growing public concern over online harms, various forms of content regulation and speech restriction are being deemed necessary. The platform’s increased focus on user well-being can potentially result in higher levels of trust and engagement among users. In addition, the regulation of hate speech has the potential to impede the dissemination of inaccurate or detrimental content, which can result in adverse effects for both individuals and the wider community (Flew, 2021).

Platforms are accountable for safeguarding their users from any potential harm. Therefore, regulating hate speech is a crucial element in fulfilling this responsibility. However, this does not mean that platforms should censor all speech build upon all these offensive or controversial topics (Dias Oliva et al., 2020). Rather, it is important to strike a balance between safeguarding the right to free speech and curbing the spread of harmful speech (Gorenc, 2022).

In general, regulating hate speech online is crucial to creating a safe and welcoming online environment. Not only is there a moral imperative to regulate hate speech, but there is also a legal obligation to do so. Numerous nations have implemented legislation that forbids hate speech (Sinpeng et al., 2021). Online platforms may face legal consequences for facilitating environment for harms to happen. In a bid to steer clear of legal troubles and safeguard their reputation, platforms can take a proactive approach towards regulating hate speech. It is a responsibility that platforms should take seriously, not only for their users’ well-being but also to uphold their legal obligations and maintain their reputation (Flew, 2021).

Words could turn into weapons

The LGBTQ community has always been a main target of online hate speech, leading to severe consequences such as social exclusion, internalised homophobia, and even tragic cases of suicide. It is essential to recognize that online hate speech directed towards this community is not just a series of offensive expressions but has full potential to become a perilous weapon capable of inflicting harm and marginalising the entire community. As technology continues to advance, it is essential to recognize the risks and consequences of online hate speech towards the LGBTQ community and take steps to protect and support these individuals. This includes the implementation of more effective measures to prevent and address hate speech online, thus creating a society that is more accepting and open-minded.


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