The Boundaries of Free Speech: Preventing the Spread of Hate Speech

Freedom of speech in the Internet age

In today’s Internet era, people enjoy unprecedented freedom of speech. The popularity of the Internet allows people to express their views and opinions on various social media platforms around the world. However, as the Internet develops, free speech also faces new challenges and complexities. A variety of information is published and disseminated on common social media platforms, blogs and forums in our lives, and the openness of the Internet allows diversified information to bring huge challenges to the management of social media and platforms, such as information authenticity and credibility, is the information a false rumour? Does the message spread hatred or discrimination? Does the information harm society?

There is also a lot of false information and hate speech on the Internet, so it is very important to maintain peace and freedom of speech on the Internet. Maintaining free speech on the Internet is not just the responsibility of platforms or management agencies. Everyone has the responsibility to maintain peace on the Internet. Each of us needs to ensure freedom of speech while preventing the spread of false speech and stopping hate speech, to strengthen public information literacy education and the construction of online ethics.

The existence of false information and hate speech on the Internet has forced us to re-examine the boundaries of freedom of speech. Language freedom and rights are not unlimited. If you want to protect a harmonious online environment, you must first be able to correctly identify information to resist false speech and hate speech.

Distinguish between free speech and hate speech

If we want to resist hate speech and safeguard freedom of speech, we should first know what freedom of speech is? What is hate speech?

Freedom of speech, a basic human right, refers to the legal political right of citizens to express their opinions and ideas according to their wishes. These expressions of opinions are not subject to prior censorship and restrictions by anyone, and there is no need to worry about subsequent retaliation by the government or others.

Hate speech is an act that expresses or incites hatred toward people based on some aspect of their identity. Hate speech is speech, writing, behaviour, text or commentary, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language towards a person or a group based on identity. Hate speech calls out real or perceived “identity factors” of an individual or a group, including: “religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender,” but also characteristics such as language, economic or social origin, disability, health status, or sexual orientation, among many others. (United Nations, 2024)

The above definitions of free speech and hate speech help us understand the difference between the two. Free speech means that individuals are free to express their views and opinions within the scope of the law, but it also means that we are not allowed to harm, discriminate or attack others. We can comment on things or express opinions in speech, but hate speech means that the speech contains attacks or discrimination against specific groups or individuals, even some unsurprising hostility is not allowed. From this point of view, if the speech intensifies confrontation, incites hatred, or spreads discrimination and hateful ideas, then this is a very serious hate speech. Therefore, the hostile and provocative tone we encounter in various designed media platforms, or language that stimulates verbal collisions, prompts group divisions, or incites group opposition is hate speech. Certain types of speech may constitute a crime under the laws of different jurisdictions.

The harm caused by hate speech

Have you witnessed hate speech or experienced a hate speech attack? Research suggests that up to 7 in 10 young people have experienced online abuse at some point.1 The term ‘cyberbullying’ is often treated as a distinct phenomenon, but it is an extension of bullying, which is an age-old problem. Bullying taps into societal undertones of prejudice and discrimination and often impacts people with protected characteristics of race, religion, sexuality, gender identity and disability the most. (United Nations, 2016). Hate speech is a very bad form of online violence, which has serious harm to both society and individuals. There are targeted abuses, slanders, and privacy violations on the Internet. These behaviours demean the personality and reputation of others, even invade privacy and cause others to “socially die” or even become mentally disturbed and commit suicide. Such harm disrupts network order and Internet harmony and has endangered public safety (United Nations, 2016). Hate speech is a very bad form of online violence, which has serious harm to both society and individuals. There are targeted abuses, slanders, and privacy violations on the Internet. These behaviours demean the personality and reputation of others, even invade privacy and cause others to “socially die” or even become mentally disturbed and commit suicide. Such harm disrupts network order and Internet harmony and has endangered public safety.

Hate speech and online harm
Photos of Zheng Linghua

In July 2022, a tragedy caused by hate speech and online violence occurred in China. A young 23-year-old girl Zheng Linghua died because she could not bear the online violence. What happened was that after she received the postgraduate admission notice from East China Normal University, she uploaded relevant photos and videos to social media platforms of visiting her grandfather with the admission notice, and then she became the target of malicious online violence. People online reposted her photos with false and insulting captions, with some calling her a “club girl” and a “devil.” After she suffered a personal attack, she used her account to publish a lawyer’s letter asking various online platforms to immediately delete relevant content. But in February 2023, her close friends confirmed that she had passed away.

During the period of online violence against her, countless people spontaneously attacked and insulted her verbally, and some were encouraged to attack her personally, which caused great harm to her mentally and psychologically. After her death, those who had engaged in hate speech and online violence against her were still lurking on various social media platforms on the Internet, waiting for their next victim.

A careful analysis of what led to this tragic incident shows that the anonymity and virtualization of the Internet allow people to express their emotions and opinions unscrupulously without having to bear the consequences of physical society. Such anonymity is more likely to encourage people to make offensive remarks. , and the popularity of social media spreads information quickly. According to the psychological analysis of cyberviolence in the Research on the phenomenon of cyberviolence from the perspective of social psychology (2023), these cyberviolators believe that they are just refuting a point of view. , they are expressing their own “views” and “justice”, thereby ignoring that the victim is a living person who is suffering. Some people enjoy attacking others and attacking others spontaneously. Other factors include social conflicts, individual psychological factors, social culture, education level, etc.

How to deal with hate speech and online harm?

Various design media platforms have taken many measures to deal with the issue of hate speech, among which the review and filtering of published content is the most basic. Each platform uses technical means to filter hate speech and illegal content, even to delete and block harmful content. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube use automated detection tools based on various methods available today, and as a result are increasingly reporting flagged and/or removed content. However, many existing tools today are monolingual and often limited to English, so more research is needed on the performance of multilingual detection methods. Secondly, these platforms have established complaint mechanisms to help build a good online environment. Through users’ reports and complaints, the system can more accurately search for the creators of hate speech and punish them. Finally, these platforms will work with government departments to jointly formulate and implement relevant policies and regulations to address the problem of hate speech.

Twitter has been criticized on several occasions for its procedures related to hate speech. While its policy on “hateful conduct” tells users they may not attack or threaten others “based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious beliefs, age, disability or serious illness,” critics point out , the guidance is inconsistent and ineffective and does not protect groups from harassment. (Twitter 2019; Matsakis 2018). Twitter has adopted a new policy that prohibits and defines “dehumanizing speech.” The policy also explains where it applies, including discriminatory speech based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, etc. Additionally, Twitter has added a feature that blocks potentially sensitive graphic material and sends users a warning, allowing them to choose to view or block the content. While these measures are effective to a certain extent, the underlying methods still need further improvement. Reddit implemented similar features in 2015, but these still require careful evaluation by human moderators.

For us as individuals, how should we respond effectively to hate speech? First of all, when we determine that the published content is malicious hate speech, we should promptly feedback and report it to the platform to prevent the re-dissemination and proliferation of these remarks. Secondly, we should strengthen our awareness of self-protection and network security, avoid leaking personal information on social media platforms, and protect personal privacy. When encountering malicious opinions, we must face them rationally, avoid using offensive arguments, and respect others to promote a good online environment. If we suffer from online violence and malicious comments, we can choose to block or block them to avoid continued attacks, even if we report malicious users to the platform. If hate speech has caused certain harm to our body and mind, seek psychological counselling in time to help you eliminate psychological pressure. When being polluted, slandered or harassed, we should seek legal assistance on time to safeguard our rights and interests.


In this blog post, we explore the relationship between hate speech and free speech, as well as the harm hate speech causes us and strategies for dealing with it. We first recognize the importance of free speech, but also recognize that it is not absolute, especially when speech evolves into hate speech, which can cause serious harm to individuals and society. We conducted an in-depth analysis of the possible effects of hate speech on mental health, social division, and destruction of harmony, emphasizing its harmfulness to individuals and society as a whole. In response to this problem, we have proposed a response strategy, including strengthening laws and regulations, strengthening social media platform management, strengthening user education, and strengthening social publicity and advocacy. Individuals should remain calm, not be swayed by emotions, adopt positive and effective ways to deal with hate speech, and at the same time actively promote a peaceful and rational online communication atmosphere, and work together to create a civilized, healthy and safe online environment. Through this blog post, we hope to arouse more people’s attention to hate speech and jointly contribute to building a harmonious society and a healthy online environment.

However, hate speech is still a serious problem on today’s Internet social platforms. Due to the openness and anonymity of the platform, it is easier for some people to spread hate speech, and such speech often spreads quickly and is difficult to control. This may not only lead to harm to specific groups but may also exacerbate social divisions and a climate of hatred. In general, freedom of speech is an important principle in a democratic society, but in the Internet age, we also need to recognize the boundaries of freedom of speech and actively prevent and resist the existence of hate speech. Only through the joint efforts of the whole society can we build an inclusive and harmonious cyberspace.

Reference List

Addressing hate speech on social media: Contemporary challenges (no date) UNESCO. Available at: 

Countering hate speech on social media: a contemporary challenge (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 11 April 2024). 

Fighting hate speech with free speech (2015) Technical difficulties. Available at: (Accessed: 11 April 2024). 

Hate speech versus freedom of speech (2019) Hate Speech. Available at: 

Jeffrey W. Howard (2019) Free Speech and Hate Speech, ANNUAL REVIEW OF POLITICAL SCIENCE. Available at: 

María Antonia Paz, Julio Montero-Díaz, and Alicia Moreno-Delgado (2020) Hate Speech: A Systematized Review, Sage Journals Home. Available at: 

Paz, M.A., Delgado, A.M. and Díaz, J.M. (2020) Hate Speech: A Systematized Review, Sage Journals Home. Available at: 

Ullmann, S. and Tomalin, M. (2019) Quarantining online hate speech: Technical and ethical perspectives – ethics and information technology, SpringerLink. Available at: (Accessed: 11 April 2024). 

What is hate speech? (no date) United Nations. Available at: (Accessed: 11 April 2024). 

Yong, C. (2011) Does freedom of speech include hate speech? – res publica, SpringerLink. Available at: (Accessed: 11 April 2024). 

Zhou, Y. (2023) Research on the phenomenon of cyber violence from the perspective of social psychology, Hans. Available at: 郑灵华 (2023) Wikipedia. Available at: (Accessed: 11 April 2024).

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