From “Super Predator” to Innocent Prey: The Ecosystem of Hate Speech


When I first watched the documentary 13th (DuVernay, 2016), I was struck by the term “superpredators”. It confused me how a single description could so powerfully label individuals as criminals, while embed nonnegligible racism. This documentary unveils how poor minorities have been demonized for political purposes, spotlighting the longstanding history of hate speech against African Americans. Specifically, their being “overrepresented” as criminals has seeped into popular culture, affecting this community deeply. Although John J. DiIulio Jr., the inventor of this term, has apologized and tried to renounce the theory, but the damage has been done. It branded a generation of young men of colour as less than human, justifying harsher juvenile justice measures targeted at these minorities. I suppose to some extent they are not so much the “Superpredators” but the other side — innocent prey haunted by hate speech. The deliberately fabricated context not only fuels fear in other races but also distorts the way they see themselves, planting seeds of suspicion and fear within their own community. The impact extends beyond direct victims, potentially igniting a cycle of violence (Widom, 1989), a criminological term that could evolve into a repeating ecosystem of hate speech, showcasing the critical need for regulation from offline to online.

Hillary Clinton's 1996 reference to ‪"‎superpredators‬" shown in the documentary
Hillary Clinton’s 1996 reference to ‪”‎superpredators‬” shown in the documentary

The first step of the cycle: group libel and its perils

The term “superpredator” is a comprehensive example of how hate speech is characterized by targetedness and provocative. Coined by John J. DiIulio Jr. (1995), who attributed this to “moral poverty”, it implanted the animal imagery of “placing zero value on the lives of their victims, reflexively dehumanizing as just so much worthless ‘white trash’” in people’s minds. Despite not being borne out in the actual crime statistics of the time, which indicated a decline in juvenile crime rates according to the statistics, this term tragically succeeded in becoming the representation of young black individuals. It suspended public empathy for black youth and transformed it into a powerful tool for political propaganda.

In “The Harm In The Hate Speech“, Waldron pointed out that hate speech has a more appropriate explanation — group libel, not merely expressing a divisive opinion or emotional stance, but actively inciting hatred (2012, p.39). Through an avalanche of media, a distorted narrative suggesting black individuals as societal threats was propagated and even encouraged. Everyone disseminating this hate speech was fully aware of their intentions, engaging in a campaign that aimed to reshape societal perceptions through hate speech, particularly targeting those who would live under its shadow and be influenced by its ramifications. It represents not just verbal defamation but a published, enduring form of expression through words or images, yielding far-reaching effects and making recovery from its damage more challenging than from verbal slander. Unlike verbal communications, the entrenched vocabulary of racial prejudice becomes an overt, lasting symbol of national disdain, embedding itself within the societal fabric. The persistence of such libel signifies the enhanced harm hate speech inflicts.

Moreover, hate speech is acutely group-specific (Flew, 2021, p.92). It ignores the fundamental principle that all humans regardless of colour or appearance should be considered equal and deserving of rights and dignity. The negative portrayal of a group impacts every member, as individual reputations are inextricably connected with the collective image. This bond means that an individual’s opportunities, employment prospects, and societal respect can be contingent upon the group’s perceived standing, despite the individual’s willingness or not. When group representation is tarnished, the repercussions affect every member, suggesting that if defamation of an individual is punishable, libel targeting a group that has a symbiotic relationship to one’s societal status and respect should also be unlawful. I strongly object to the argument that libel, when aimed at a broad group, is too general to cause harm. Group libel, even without singling out individuals, still constitutes an incitement to hatred that can disrupt public order. The larger the defamed group, the broader the scope of those affected by the implied innuendo, exacerbating the harm inflicted. Thus, to effectively protect the reputation of every individual, a society must first safeguard the reputation of the groups of which these individuals belong as the foundational principle.

Catharine MacKinnon:

“We argued that group libel . . . promotes the disadvantage of unequal groups; . . . that stereotyping and stigmatization of historically disadvantaged groups through group hate propaganda shape their social image and reputation, which controls their access to opportunities more powerfully than their individual abilities ever do (1996, p.99).”

In an ironic twist of fate, those once branded as “superpredators” by government spokespeople and the media have found themselves as the unwitting prey in a societal hunt. This demonization has led to the ensnarement of countless youths in a punitive system vastly disproportionate to their alleged crimes. Despite subsequent studies revealing these harsh legal responses did nothing to curb crime rates (Equal Justice Initiative, 2014), numerous individuals were trapped in an unjust cycle due to non-retroactive Supreme Court decisions. This reversal, where the supposed predators are actually the prey, mirrors that hate speech disrupts societal peace and incites inter-ethnic conflict. It erodes the societal order and shatters the publicly recognized consciousness of equality. The potential outcomes of this oversight are not merely theoretical but have been historically realized, as evidenced by the catastrophic genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. It reminds us of the profound consequences hate speech and its resulting policies can unleash, compelling us to reexamine and reform our societal and legal frameworks.

What’s next: victim’s psychological state and the closure of the cycle of violence

In the documentary, Malkia Cyril (2016) discusses the pervasive use of the term “superpredator” across various media, including TV, radio, and newspapers. The message they received was one of being less than human as if the term was their name, leading to self-doubts about whether criminality was a gene passed down within their community. What’s more, even some black communities began to support policies that declared their children guilty with a sense of insecurity spreading surrounded them. Such hate speech has profoundly damaged mental health and altered the way Black individuals view themselves and their place in the world. This could be worse if the digital age existed back then. As hate speech migrated online in the development of media and platforms, it has adopted new characteristics that exacerbate its impact (Brown, 2017, p.299). For instance, it is hard to deny that anonymity emboldens hate speakers by shielding them from direct accountability, while also empowering victims to fight back courageously. Furthermore, the non-visible feature of online interactions removes the psychological barrier of empathy and self-restraint. The absence of deterrence from others in person could be as another opened valve for the flooding of a reservoir of hatred.

Graphical representation of the moderation of EMP on the association between online hate speech victimization and perpetration. EMP, empathy.
Graphical representation of the moderation of EMP on the association between online hate speech victimization and perpetration. EMP, empathy.

These elements contribute to the cycle of violence, where hate speech prompts retaliatory actions, like scenarios where victims of hate speech are unable to cope with their victimization and may adopt wrongful techniques to reduce negative reactions such as engaging in perpetrating acts themselves. Studies (Wachs et al., 2022) provide further explanation, confirming a positive correlation between online hate speech (OHS) victimization and perpetration, with adolescents reacting to victimization with reactive aggression and revenge. Wachs et al. (2022, p.227) found that two distinct psychological states emerge in the response process. The first one starts with the realization that crime is acceptable, leading victims to also engage in OHS actions. The other one harbours a desire for revenge, possibly committing crimes related to occupational health and safety. The development of these states is often due to victims feeling of being overlooked and vulnerable in an environment where OHS is reckoned as a daily occurrence, compounded by the platform’s neglect and society’s lack of attention. The cycle of violence, as it unfolds, sees victims of OHS becoming perpetrators themselves resulting in an increase in the number of victims. It not only generates more victims but also transforms some into new sources of OHS, driven by similar mental struggles, which completes the hate speech ecosystem and perpetuates online hostility and aggression.

Step out: countering hate speech and breaking the cycle

This cycle metaphorically repackages the shivering victim as the aggressive predator, standing beside the disdainful humans of those who propagate hate speech. However, some attempt to muddle the definition of free speech, using it as an excuse to oppose the legislation and regulation of hate speech. Freedom of speech and thought are misappropriated as shields to obscure the true nature of incitement to hatred. Emphasizing hatred as merely divergent opinions often ignites debates around civil liberties against the suppression of free expression. Nevertheless, punishing incitement to hatred is not about controlling people’s thoughts or punishing their attitudes but addressing the harmful production — the messages disseminated. Addressing hate speech is akin to managing environmental pollution that individual expressions may seem minor, but when amalgamated, they produce toxic societal effects. The boundlessness of the internet facilitates the rapid assembly of hate speech networks, transcending physical limitations more efficiently than traditional means. Even just potential hatred group members start to desire to be accepted by others, they can find or integrate into their community quickly and acutely. Electronic communication enables them to forge extensive networks based on any harmful consensus (Solomos and Schuster, 2002: 45–46, as cited in Brown, 2017, p.301), which amplifies the urgency of legal response to moderate hate speech and online harm so that punishment can serve as both psychological warnings and behavioural constraints. Not only potential hate speech perpetrators in real life, but also the broader community of users of the Internet space need to know hate speech will have tangible consequences.

Collaboration between platforms and governments can refine algorithms to enforce social norms. Organizations like Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) are also committed to reshaping the digital landscapes. With the digital era bringing limitations to anonymity through platformization and datafication, advanced techniques will be able to trace and seize any other forms of evidence and discover the true identity of circulation of OHS. Other complementary like credit systems and careful governance for influential accounts can contribute to monitoring and flagging users prone to spreading hate aiming at both making punishment to minimize the harm they may cause and warning other users. Celebrities and influencers, due to their publicity, bear greater responsibility for their online behaviour. Their influence does not grant them greater freedom of speech, instead, it necessitates a higher level of scrutiny. When they engage in harmful speech, they should face stringent consequences, setting a precedent for others. Hillary Clinton’s apology for using “superpredators” illustrates an acknowledgment of hate speech’s impact, so what is the reason not to block this term?

"superpredators" on newspaper

Hate speech, in its essence, not only diminishes the dignity and foundational civil identity of targeted groups but also destabilizes the shipshape structure of society against the harmonious life we all strive for. By putting ourselves in the victim’s perspective, do we feel safe to live in a being-tarnished society? Is this the ideal societal life we envision? Moreover, the fact that the hate speech ecosystem is happening every day in every corner of the internet conveys a suggestive message—that one day, the group we belong to might also shift from being protected by society to being demeaned and excluded.

It is through our collective efforts whether through policy, education, or daily interactions that we can begin to dismantle the cycle of violence and hate, paving the way for a society where every individual can live without the fear of being marginalized, vilified, or silenced. A good society will responsibly ensure its citizens are protected. It is also a global effort based on the trust, respect, and justice among citizens as Waldron (2012, p.99) concluded that “any citizen who relies upon the law is, in the last analysis, relying indirectly on the voluntary cooperation of his or her fellow citizens”. In other words, before we decide to speak out against hate speech or not, it is crucial to understand what hate speech truly is, its purpose, its impact, and whether the victims are truly “superpredators” or just innocent prey.➴


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