Online Hate Speech: The menace to the Internet

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

A global network of billions of computers and other electronic devices that exist worldwide is called the Internet. The Internet makes it possible to do a lot of things, including access almost any information and communicate with anyone in the world, and hence revolutionized the world we live today. The World Wide Web, most often referred as the Web, is a collection of various websites that you can access via the Internet. Text, images, and other aspects combine to create a website. Websites can be interactive in a way that is specific to the operating systems of a computer. (Global, n.d.)

The Internet also gave birth to another important component called social media. Social media are the methods of communication where individuals create, share, and exchange knowledge and concepts in online communities and networks. (Tufts, n.d.) The growth of social media has led to establishments of well-known social media platforms which later became known as social media giants. Social media giants are a group of companies that control social media platforms, revolutionizing the way people communicate, share information, and connect with one another. They have created new areas for individuals to share their thoughts and ideas, providing opportunities for individuals to connect, share information, and engage with one another. (Edosomwan, 2011)

 Illustration: Danae Diaz at PVUK (Source: The Guardian)

Due to different viewpoints that users take in social media, it has given birth to hate speech within the online medium.

What is Hate Speech?

Source: University of Southern California

According to the United Nations, hate speech refers to “refers to offensive discourse targeting a group or an individual based on inherent characteristics such as race, religion or gender.” (UN, n.d.) The idea may be extended to words and actions that promote an environment of prejudice and intolerance on the grounds that they may encourage acts of violence, hostility, and targeted discrimination. (Powell, Scott, & Henry, 2020) Hate speech can be roughly identified by the degrading or dehumanizing purposes it serves, whether it is expressed through text, images, or sound. (Powell, Scott, & Henry, 2020)

Waldron 2012 states that hate speech consists of two messages: “first is letting members of outer group feel afraid and unwelcome, and second is letting the inner group members feel that their beliefs regarding hate are legal.” (Waldron, 2012)

The growth of internet has allowed freedom of speech and communication. However, the current generation of social media is frequently used to disseminate hate speech and violent messages.  (Andres Castano-Pulgarína, Suarez-Betancur, & Vega, 2019)

Examples of Hate Speech in the internet    

Robert G. Bowers’ post in Gab just moments before he massacred 11 congregants at synagogue in Pittsburgh (Source: The Guardian)

The prevalence of hate speech online has fueled horrifying real-world hate crimes. (Mathew, Dutt, Goyal, & Mukherjee, 2018) On October 27, 2018, Robert G. Bowers shot dead 11 congregants at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Before he began his shooting spree, Bowers had posted a message in the social media app Gab, which advertises itself as a ‘free speech platform’, where he wrote that he is going to attack the synagogue because of its association with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which he claimed that was aiding the migrant caravan from Central America. He also used anti-Jewish slurs in much of his posts within the site. (Turkewitz & Roose, 2018) (Amiri, 2018)

Alek Minassian’s post in Facebook before he commenced his vehicle ramming attack in Toronto on 2018, killing 11 people. (Source: CBC News)

In April 24, 2018, Alek Minassian used a rental van to ram pedestrians in streets in Toronto, Canada, killing 11 people in total. Before commencing his attack, Minassian posted cryptic Facebook post with heavy hateful undertones, where he stated the ‘incel rebellion has already begun’ and ‘we will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys, and praised Elliot Rodger ‘as the supreme gentleman’.  Incel, also known as involuntary celibate, are an online community consisting of men who are sexually frustrated and their frustration being channel into hatred towards women. The terms Chads and Stacys are used by them to refer ‘sexually prolific men’ (Chad) and women (Stacys). 4chan is an imageboard website known to be frequented by fringe movements’ followers. Elliot Rodger is the perpetrator of 2014 massacre in the city of Isla Vista in California, where he killed 6 people due to sexual frustration. (BBC, 2018) (Olheiser, 2018)

Online incel forums celebrating both Minassian and Rodger (Source: CBC News)

After the attack, numerous incel groups online celebrated Minassian and Rodger, and turned them both into heroes of their cause. (Broder Van Dyke, Sacks, & Lytvynenko, 2018) 

Screenshot of the Facebook livestream of Brendon Harrison Tarrant during his 2019 massacre in Christchurch, which killed 51 people (Source: CBS News)

In April 15, 2019, Brendon Harrison Tarrant shot and killed over 51 people at a mosque and Islamic centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. During the massacre, he livestreamed it through Facebook Live, played a notorious anti-Muslim and Serbian nationalist music while shooting the congregants. In the aftermath of the massacre, a police investigation of his social media found that he was active in numerous far-right and neo-Nazi groups, and shared posts espousing white nationalism. (McGowan, 2020)

Why is online hate prelevant?

iStock photo

Due to the increasing growth of online communications, the issue of hate speech has become a major and pressing concern for authorities and platforms. (Sinpeng, Martin, Gelber, & Shields, 2021)

In some countries especially the United States, online hate speech is considered as non-criminal speech and hence legally protected, which results in its spread online by individuals without fear of legal issues. Even when occurrences of online hate speech do not constitute criminal charges, they can serve as vital markers of intergroup tensions. Internet hate speech can foster an environment conducive to offline hate crime, resulting in a number of negative results such as radicalized violence, heightened prejudice and distrust, and, for targets, various forms of mental pain such as anxiety and terror. (Hawdon et al., 2017 as mentioned in Cahill, et al., 2022)  

Pie chart showing the statistics of a group of people regarding their response when dealing with hate speech (Source: Hate Speech Spreads Like Wildfire report)

Because hate speech is not a legal word that is not defined in international law, even in international human rights treaties such as the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights, this results in controlling hate speech under international human rights treaties a major challenge as there needs to be a proper determination in freedom of expression and other protected rights or interests, such as the rights to security, physical integrity, non-discrimination, etc.

A 2017 analysis conducted by Columbia Journalism Review states the internet as a technology enables us to fragment public discourse and polarise opinions. (Benkler, Faris, Roberts, & Zuckerman, 2017)

According to Laub 2019, social media giants seeking to gain revenue allow conspiracist and fringe sites in order to reach audiences in a wide scale, as the social media platforms’ business revenue depends upon on maximizing reading and viewing times of the links shared. Since this method is considered profitable for social media giants, it is in their interest to let people join such communities where they can spend much of their time. Laub 2021 further states that the users’ experiences are dictated by the online algorithm, which helps users to maximize their engagement within the social media platforms. Sometimes, as a result, the online algorithms tend to promote extreme content inadvertently. (Laub, 2019)

Social media platforms (Source:

To enforce their rules regarding proper material, social media companies use a combination of artificial intelligence, user reporting, and staff known as content moderators. Moderators, on the other hand, are burdened by the sheer volume of content and the stress of filtering through disturbing posts, and social media giants do not allocate resources equitably across the different markets they serve. Problems emerge when social media platforms’ artificial intelligence is adapted poorly to local languages of countries and companies have invested few in staff fluent in them. (Laub, 2019)

Online hate speech happens within anonymity as online anonymity allows the purveyors of hate speech to hide or disguise their identity which would make it difficult to make them accountable for their words and consequences for their words. (eSafety, n.d.)

Online anonymity (Noel Salvador/The Epitaph)

Brown 2018 states that the anonymity within the Internet may remove the “fear of being held accountable for cyber-hatred” and “the perception that conventional rules of behaviour do not apply”, which results in the sense of emancipation that may encourage people to act on their darkest impulses. It further states that the “distinguishing element of online hate speech is the possibility of a physical distance between speaker and audience, which means that the speaker may be non-visible or in some ways invisible to the audience and vice versa.” Because of the nature of the internet, the immediate consequences of speech are sometimes unknown to the perpetrator. If one cannot witness the emotional pain caused by one’s online hate speech, one is more prone to minimise its importance. Anyone may post almost instantly within online and the time lag between having a notion or sentiment and expressing it to a group of like-minded people on the Internet can be in matter of seconds. If online hate is widely accepted, it may be more difficult to build suitable countermeasures either by the victim or onlookers upon seeing online hate. (Brown, 2018)

Countermeasures against online hate and conclusion

(Source: EU Justice)

In order to counter the growing online hate, several steps have to be taken in order to prevent its growth. In order to deal with misinformation, check the origin of the content utilising search engines, fact-checking tools, and other credible sources to discover misleading and biased information, including hate speech propaganda. To defend people who are targets of hate speech, counter harmful content with good messages that promote tolerance, equality, and truth. (United Nations, n.d.)

Online moderators (Source:

One of the major steps that social media platforms should take when it comes to moderators is that they should be recognized as ‘critical gatekeepers’ of hate speech content, and support should be given to them when it comes to improved regulatory literacy and given training in mandatory hate speech and moderation training in major languages. There also should be support for social media platform’s continuous re-evaluation of hate speech definitions, so it can take action against speech that is harmful, while not impacting speech that is usually not regulated by private entities or government. There is a strong need for social media giants and governments to develop a hate speech monitoring project that could reach to an agreement on what defines hate speech, and on efforts that could be taken to counter hate speech online and further remedial efforts to deal with it.  (Sinpeng, Martin, Gelber, & Shields, 2021)

Prohibited speech, with the exception of the most serious types of provocation and the spread of beliefs of racial superiority, does not required to be criminalized. But if it is, countries must be able to demonstrate the need and proportionality of the crime and its punishment, as well as adhere to extra validity standards in criminal law, such as non-retroactivity and specificity. All laws restricting hate speech, whether online or offline, must describe the content of the prohibited speech precisely. (Dias, 2022)

The acute danger posed by displays of advocacy for hatred demands a cautious approach to their moderation. Thus, the publication and widespread distribution of expressions or images known to incite discrimination, hostility, or violence against individuals or groups on social media should be immediately halted, either by a human moderator or an automated system, until a more in-depth analysis of the content justifies its publication.  Both automated moderation systems and human moderators need to develop clear and specific standards to effectively moderate content. All stakeholders, including platforms, governmental agencies, trusted flaggers, recognized moderators and the judiciary, must be transparent. To that purpose, reporting procedures must be established. (Dias, 2022)

Defining hate speech online will most likely remain difficult for a long time, but a variety of engagements with it can still be developed on a multistakeholder basis. Dealing with requires collective solutions from multiple stakeholders. A finer knowledge of how each platform might permit or hinder the development or transmission of various types of messages may thus be a critical aspect in devising suitable responses to counter hate speech in online platforms. (Gagliardrone, Gal, Alves, & Martinez, 2015)


Amiri, F. (2018, October 29). Accused Pittsburgh gunman posted online about HIAS, an agency known for work with refugees. Retrieved from NBC :

Andres Castano-Pulgarína, S., Suarez-Betancur, N., & Vega, L. M. (2019). Internet, social media and online hate speech. Systematic review. Medelin: Elsivier.

BBC. (2018, April 24). Toronto van attack: What is an ‘incel’? Retrieved from BBC:

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Brown, A. (2018). What is so special about online (as comnpared to) offline hate speech. East Angila: Ethnicities Vol. 18.

Cahill, M., Migacheva, K., Taylor, J., Williams, M., Burnap, P., Javed, A., . . . Sutherland, A. (2022). Understanding Online Hate Speech as a Motivator and Predictor of Hate Crime. U.S. Department of Justice.

Dias, T. (2022). Tackling Online Hate Speech through Content Moderation: The Legal Framework under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. University of Oxford.

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McGowan, M. (2020, December 8). Christchurch shooter was active with Australian far-right groups online but escaped police attention. Retrieved from The Guardian:

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Waldron, J. (2012). The Harm in Hate Speech. Harvard University Press.

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