Have you ever been through hate speech online? Well, I have.
Have you ever been through hate speech during internet surfing? I guess a lot of you have. A survey from Pew Research Center (2021) has indicated that 41% of Americans have been harassed online. Clearly, hate speech and online harassment constantly happen during the daily use of social media. Interestingly, I am one of these victims too. At the age of 16, I went to New Zealand alone as a Chinese international student for high school. I was so different with others in many ways, such as race, ethnicity, cultural background, and language barrier. Unfortunately, online harassment came to me. In this blog, instead of complaining about hate speech as a victim, I would like to share some thoughts about hate speech and online harassment, including the background of hate speech, a case study, and why it is difficult to regulate around the world. I wish it can be helpful for some who are interested in this topic.
Based on the rapid development of internet in recent years, we have witnessed the emergence of social media and how it has changed people’s lifestyle and the way people communicate with others. The average daily use of media from mobile devices has risen exponentially in the past decade. The average time people spend on media using their digital devices has risen from 88 minutes to 177 minutes daily within only 3 years, from 2012 to 2015, and it will keep rising up to 203 minutes in 2018 as a forecast (Statista, 2016). Obviously, people are now becoming much more connected with the internet where they can receive or publish information online. While it can be considered as a great improvement which allows people to look at what is happening on the other side of the world and express their opinions through social media platforms, it is also making these online platforms a complex community. As the internet can create a connection for everyone, the online world is also becoming more diverse with full of differences among users, in terms of gender, ethnicity, cultural background, nationality, etc. Hence, divergence and disagreements often happen during the process of online communication, and sometimes turns into hate speech and online harms.
Speak of hate speech, it has been defined as speech that ‘expresses, encourages, stirs up, or incites hatred against a group of individuals distinguished by a particular feature or set of features such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation’ (Parekh, 2012, as cited in Flew, 2021, p. 115). It is worth mentioning here that a speech is not only considered as hate speech when the content appearing to be violent or aggressive towards certain individuals or groups, the potential incitement of hatred is also considered when defining hate speech. Facebook as one of the leading social media platforms, the amount of hate speech has been increasing rapidly in the past few years. In 2017 fourth quarter, Facebook has deleted 1.6 million of hate speech post. Only about three years later, in 2021 second quarter, this number has reached the peak of 31.5 million (Statista, 2023).
Why is there so much hate speech online?
The tolerance of difference is considered as a key factor in causing hate speech and online harassment, and it needs to be watched (Keen & Georgescu, 2014, as cited in Flew, 2021, p.116). More importantly, the algorithm in today’s online world may have negative impacts on the tolerance of difference, which may cause more amount of hate speech online. In 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand, a man named Brenton Harrison Tarrant has started a bloody massacre live streaming on Facebook, a tragedy that ends up with a total of 51 civilians dead and 40 injured. Before he took the criminal action, he had posted a number of white supremacists hate speech and a 74 pages extremist manifesto online. On March 15, Tarrant opened a Facebook live stream at 1:33 p.m., and began his shooting at 1:40 p.m. The streaming was not banned until 1:52 p.m. Nearly twenty minutes of bloody live streaming recording was wildly spread on various social media platforms, although there were many people who rejected such ruthless behavior, there were still a few voices of supporters existed. From his 74 pages manifesto named The Great Replacement, we can tell that he was an extreme white supremacist, and his main reason for the crime was his belief that due to the low birth rate of white people and the high birth rate of immigrant groups would directly lead to the cultural extinction and genocide of white people. Importantly, in the “Answering Possible Questions” part of his manifesto, he claims that he has received and developed such belief from the Internet, and it is the only place to find the truth. Clearly, his extreme belief and criminal motive is closely related to the information he obtained on the internet. In this case, it is worth mentioning that the algorithm might plays a significant role in such situation of receiving information from the internet. A large percentage of what people see from social media platforms online is based on their preferences, they are trapped in a “filter bubble” which the algorithm only provides information that supports their beliefs and ignore the difference voices (Pariser, 2011). In respond to what Tarrant said in his manifesto “the internet is the only place you can find truth”, he was very likely trapped in a such “filter bubble”. As soon as he was started surfing on the internet as a white supremacist, the more time he spent on researching relevant information online, the more hatred grew in his mind as he might be supported constantly from the algorithm, and eventually led to the tragedy. Similarly, not only Tarrant, based on the filter bubble that algorithm provides us, our beliefs and values might be overrated, as well as confirming our bias. Everyone lives in their own world where they can only listen to the same voice as themselves, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, even it is radical or extreme. This kind of excessive self-selection and self-satisfaction can gradually influence opinions forming and value judgement to a certain group of people, as well as making them subconsciously reject different opinions, which may lead to the expression of hate speech against others who holds different opinions.
Hate Speech and Freedom of Expression.
Can we guarantee that hate speech is always under control if it is so detrimental to the society? Unfortunately, we cannot. Despite many companies and governments all around the world are putting so much effort on the regulation of hate speech, the efficiency and outcome is very much limited. For instance, as mentioned previously, even though Facebook has been taking actions on hate speech post, the amount of such posts was still increasing over years, and the report shows that Facebook has been deleting more and more hate speech post, which seems not very helpful in solving this issue. It is difficult to regulate hate speech online, and it has different complexities in different areas of the world. It is challenging to formulate a perfect solution for hate speech online when it coexists with the right to freedom of expression (Flew, 2021). The internet has created an online community for people to communicate, and it is also an important way to promote the free exchange of information on a global scale (Stevenson, 2007). Meanwhile, everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966). With the right to freedom of expression, people can be collaborative, people can share the information openly at an equal position online. This kind of freedom and innovation are also crucial factors for the development of internet. However, it is also a fertile land where hate speech can grow well. Therefore, online regulation is an indispensable means. Different countries adopt different measures based on their social conditions to balance the relationship between the value of freedom and internet regulation. And the government has different thresholds for speech restriction, and the purpose of most regulation is to protect freedom while reducing harmful speech. However, balancing this relationship is a difficult issue.
The conflict between online regulation and freedom of speech is reflected in the real society and has also caused obvious obstacles, especially when the government formulates laws related to internet governance. For example, the U.S. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, which aimed to control internet pornography. But in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, stating that the definition of pornography was too broad and could hinder the free flow of online information (Stevenson, 2007). In terms of the internet governance on the conflict between online regulation and freedom of speech, different country has different focuses and concerns. However, the internet is global, it is impossible to cut the internet into different pieces which fits to different countries. For different countries, there are different restrictions on the content and scale of regulation required, which makes it difficult to establish unified standards globally. For instance, as you may be aware of, Google is not available in China. Google has shut down its China-based search engine due to the censorship disputes with the authorities in 2010 (Computer News Middle East, 2012). In this case, China as an independent nation, it has its own concerns about online regulation and restriction undeniably. However, there are still 31 percent of Chinese internet users had used VPN (Virtual Private Network) to access blocked websites in 2017 (Petrosyan, 2022). By using VPN, those blocked website in China will be easily accessed, such as Google and YouTube. Indeed, there are many Chinese YouTubers who create and publish content on YouTube. Without any doubts, these Chinese users using VPN are more likely to see information which they do not often see within Chinese network, such as hate speech about racism against Asians, and it eventually makes the negative impact on hate speech spread to a larger scale. Therefore, it proves that the internet is a complex area, and it is difficult to regulate by a unified standard that is effective to manage hate speech online for all different countries.
Despite hate speech has been considered as a rising issue in today’s online world, the regulation about it is limited, in terms of its implement and efficiency. Indeed, it is difficult to regulate from the perspective of online governance. For both the regulation on the content and executive standard, different countries are facing different challenges based on their own background and social situation. Meanwhile, the conflict between hate speech and freedom of expression is also making it difficult to moderate for both government and companies. However, there are things that we can do as individuals to avoid us speaking hatefully ourselves. For instance, we could try to escape from “filter bubble”. Instead of only following what we are interested in, try to have look on other kinds of content as well, which can help us to be more comprehensive in forming our opinions and judgements. Lastly, it is essential to always respect different opinions because there is always someone better.
China blocks Google indefinitely. (2012). Computer News Middle East.
Flew, T. (2021). Regulating platforms. Polity Press.
Petrosyan, A. (2022). Leading markets for VPN usage among internet users worldwide as of 2nd quarter 2017. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/301204/top-markets-vpn-proxy-usage/
Pariser, E. (2011). Beware online “filter bubbles”. TED. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles?language=en
Stevenson, C. (2007). Breaching the great firewall: China’s Internet censorship and the quest for freedom of expression in a connected world. Boston College International and Comparative Law Review, 30(2), 531–558.
Statista Research Department, (2016). Average daily media use in the United States from 2012 to 2018, by device (in minutes). Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/270781/average-daily-media-use-in-the-us/
Statista Research Department, (2023). Actioned hate speech content items on Facebook worldwide from 4th quarter 2017 to 4th quarter 2022 (in millions). Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1013804/facebook-hate-speech-content-deletion-quarter/