Dancing in Shackles: Pursuing Free Speech Amid Restrictions on Hate Speech


As an important part of human rights protection, freedom of speech has been clarified as one of the basic human rights by many international human rights conventions. Freedom of speech refers to an individual’s freedom to express opinions, thoughts and beliefs. The importance of freedom of speech is that it helps promote the spread of knowledge, promotes innovation and the exchange of ideas, and thereby promotes social progress. The protection of freedom of speech reflects the democratic process and rule of law of a country or region to a certain extent. However, due to differences in history and culture, there are certain differences in the protection of freedom of speech between countries. But in general, freedom is never absolute and may be limited by legal, moral and social constraints. Even as one of the basic human rights, freedom of speech has never lacked various restrictions. The Internet has provided a breeding ground and a way for hate speech to spread. The resulting racial discrimination, social conflicts and other problems have also emerged in endlessly. This phenomenon must be regulated. How to protect freedom of speech within a reasonable scope, that is, protect freedom of speech without harming other rights of individuals, reasonably balance the restriction of hate speech and the protection of freedom of speech, and establish a peaceful and safe online environment so that every individual participating in the Internet can Free expression under restricted circumstances is like dancing in shackles with restrictions. It is an issue worth thinking about and discussing.

The historical evolution of hate speech

The term hate speech has a long history, and it is regarded as a kind of irrational, inciting and violent speech. It can incite emotions, trigger conflicts, cause social unrest, and harm citizens’ rights(Bian & Chen, 2021).

Since the mid-20th century, issues such as racial discrimination, immigration discrimination, gender discrimination, and religious hatred caused by World War II have become increasingly prominent. Countries are beginning to realize that they need to pay more attention to and control hate speech. The state began to participate in the formulation of rules and the implementation of regulatory actions. During World War II, Hitler and the Nazi regime used hate speech to incite hatred against minorities such as Jews, thereby clearing the way for them to implement genocidal policies.

In South Africa, the apartheid policy has existed for a long time. This discriminatory policy and speech have intensified the antagonism and division in South African society. The discriminated groups have lived in exclusion for a long time, and the long-term oppression and unfair treatment have further intensified social conflicts.

In 1994, the Rwandan genocide occurred, one of the worst genocides caused by hate speech in the twentieth century. Between 800,000 and 1 million people were killed and millions more were displaced. There have always been tense ethnic relations in Rwanda’s social process. This antagonistic relationship is reflected in all aspects of Rwandan politics, economy and society. Political propaganda and media reports are filled with racist hate speech, which fuels antagonism, encourages violence, and provides a theoretical basis for massacres. The real carnage begins not with the first bullet, but with these damn rhetoric. The Rwanda incident has sounded a wake-up call to the international community and fully demonstrated the harmfulness of hate speech. It urges countries to strengthen the control of hate speech to prevent such incidents from happening again.

In May 2016, the European Commission announced that it would cooperate with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft to control illegal hate speech on the Internet. The latter collectively signed a code of conduct and promised to “block and delete within 24 hours after receiving reports.” Related Hate Speech”. Previously, online giants such as Facebook did not include hate speech within the scope of supervision and delete it in a timely manner. France is therefore prepared to take measures to hold him accountable. Six months after the signing of the guidelines on December 4, 2016, the European Commission is still not satisfied with the supervision of Facebook and others, requiring the latter to crack down on hate speech, otherwise it will formulate laws to enforce it.

Today, with the development of information technology, the Internet has provided a more cost-effective and efficient way to spread hate speech, and the Internet has further become an amplifier of the harm of hate speech. Various phenomena have shown that the relationship between the protection of free speech and the control of hate speech needs to be further clarified. The United States has a tolerant attitude towards the control of hate speech for two main reasons: first, because freedom of speech enjoys a high value in the United States; second, it is difficult to control the boundaries of hate speech. If freedom of speech also covers the freedom of hate speech, then the United States’ tolerant policy seems reasonable. If hate speech is excluded from freedom of speech, how can incompatible parties strike a balance? In addition, the Internet disseminates information more efficiently and quickly than traditional media. Should the control of online hate speech be more tolerant or take tougher measures? This list of issues deserves further discussion.

Definition of hate speech

In fact, as one of the reasons why the United States adopts a tolerant policy, the boundaries of hate speech are difficult to draw clear. Although I quote this definition: 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, nationalist, or sexual orientation ‘ (Xie, 2018). However, it is still difficult to implement it in practice, that is, whether to be responsible for the incitement of hate speech or to wait for the speech to cause substantial harm and then be responsible for its harmfulness. Different countries and international organizations have different opinions. It is hoped that a more authoritative and accurate definition will be given, but it will also lead to differences, making judicial practice among the international community full of uncertainty and unpredictability.

The definition of hate speech is subjective. Due to different cultural and historical backgrounds, different people have different views on what hate speech is. The same speech may be considered hate speech in different contexts, or it may be considered legitimate speech.

The effectiveness of hate speech often depends on the context of the speech. The same words may have different effects in different contexts. Therefore, understanding the context of speech is critical to accurately defining hate speech.

Different regions and countries regulate hate speech differently. Some countries are more protective of freedom of speech, and some countries have stricter controls on hate speech. Secondly, different regions and countries have different legal definitions of hate speech, and political factors sometimes play a role in the identification process of hate speech.

But generally speaking, it has the appearance of hatred, and the content adopts expression methods such as insulting, slandering, or creating a hostile environment; the purpose is also to declare or incite hatred; the target is individual or based on common characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc. And the specific group with identification; speech is expressed. Some scholars decompose hate speech into various components such as mode of expression, target, intention, and harmful consequences, including purpose, object, behavior, and expression.

Propagation mechanism

In the era of traditional media, such as newspapers, television, radio, etc., although they have a certain influence, their spread speed is relatively slow. It usually takes some editing, review, and production time before content can be published. And although traditional media also have interactive methods such as letters from readers and messages on TV programs, user participation is relatively low. In most cases, media content is produced by editors and reporters, and users cannot directly participate in the generation and dissemination of content. Secondly, the content published in traditional media is usually produced by editors and reporters, so the published content usually needs to pass certain censorship, so overly extreme remarks are usually not presented, and the source of the remarks is more traceable, making it difficult to publish anonymous remarks. Finally, hate speech in the traditional media era has a shorter life cycle. The continuous updates and iterations of subsequent news and current affairs make previous speeches gradually lose their influence.

However, with the rapid development of technology, new media seems to have become an amplifier of hate speech(Chang, 2019). Content creators use social media platforms, online forums, blogs and other channels to quickly spread hate speech around the world. A message can be read, forwarded and commented on by countless people in a short period of time, and it spreads very quickly. And everyone on the Internet is both a viewer and a content creator, and everyone can comment and forward, which greatly increases the speed and scope of the spread of hate speech. Secondly, publishers can publish hate speech relatively anonymously on the Internet, which makes supervision more difficult and also makes publishers’ behavior more bold and unrestricted. Finally, content on the Internet has a long life cycle and can still be retrieved for a long time. At the same time, there will be a large number of copies and forwards, making it difficult to eliminate the impact in a short time.

Case study

Next, we will use the case of Facebook to explore the boundaries between online hate speech regulation and free speech.

The international community is divided on how to regulate hate speech. The characteristics of the Internet allow hate speech to spread across borders, and countries have different stances on hate speech. The concept of hate speech is broadened to cover more, but being too broad renders the concept meaningless. Clearly defining the scope of hate speech promotes harmonization of international rules, but cultural differences across countries can also make this concept difficult to accept(He & Jiang, 2018).

The lack of international rules and the differences in domestic laws of various countries make it difficult to manage cross-border networks. The differences in the legal provisions on hate speech in different countries reflect the differences in values between different countries, that is, the balance between freedom and dignity. Liberals advocate freedom of speech, but lack justification, and hate speech may infringe on the rights of others and needs to be restricted. Regulate freedom of speech through laws to maintain social stability and harmony. Promote the joint efforts of the international community and tolerance and integration among different cultures to achieve a balance between freedom and dignity.

Facebook’s definition of hate speech has always been a controversial topic. Although Facebook operates globally, its handling of hate speech and related activities is influenced by local information and conditions. The company has a corporate culture of “global meets local”, with global goals and policies influenced by specific countries and regions. This dynamic can be seen in its response to the issue of hate speech in Myanmar in 2018 (Sinpeng, 2021).

This model enables management and operations in different regions to better adapt to the local cultural background. Let’s not talk about its effectiveness for the moment. I think this is an operation and management method worthy of praise.

In addition, Facebook is actively looking for local partners. Trusted partners are politically unaffiliated, non-profit civil society organizations that have a trusted public image in their country of origin and do not accept any financial support or support from the government. No affiliation whatsoever. They have direct lines of communication with Facebook’s marketing experts and public policy staff, allowing them to report harmful developments in social media communications. Trusted partners have become important players in identifying the evolution of hate speech; for example, in flagging emerging hate groups or new trends in offending content (Sinpeng, 2021).


We need to face up to history, formalize hatred, and actively face various problems. At the same time, the control of online hate speech also requires unity and cooperation from all countries and regions. Freedom is never absolute. Any form of freedom must be subject to a certain degree of restriction in order for the entire society to operate effectively and maintain the stability of order. Free expression of speech is the legitimate exercise of personal rights and the demonstration of one’s values. It can alleviate social conflicts and promote the improvement of social democracy. Because of this, different speeches need to be given different levels of protection depending on the circumstances. But there is no absolute freedom. Excessive freedom will bring harm. We need to play the role of communicators and creators in the new media era and dance within limited freedom.


Bian, Q., & Chen, D. (2021, September 1). “Fragile” intelligence and a “torn” world – the definition, regulation and algorithm dilemma of “hate speech” on major Western social media. Login.cnki.net. http://login.cnki.net/KCMS/detail/detail.aspx?dbcode=CJFD&dbname=CJFDLAST2021&filename=ZTPL202109006&uniplatform=OVERSEA&v=8cBQ_9T0ml5eOukh4xElQYd7cHhyLCQVt7KLrdTBc5xNFs5hSXgnIO6QEoxmweEK

Chang, J. (2019, October 1). How the Internet became an amplifier of hate. Login.cnki.net. http://login.cnki.net/KCMS/detail/detail.aspx?dbcode=CJFD&dbname=CJFDLAST2019&filename=QNJZ201910061&uniplatform=OVERSEA&v=Ax6n1DUWCVmRhDvy1rjOzweMpaoIoUNT_Nq8U3DTB-Z00j4BDbSNmtz4UjAHaLs4

He, Z., & Jiang, C. (2018, March 12). Regulation to Hate Speech on the Internet and Boundary of Free Expression – CNKI. Login.cnki.net. http://login.cnki.net/KCMS/detail/detail.aspx?dbcode=CJFD&dbname=CJFDLAST2018&filename=GSZF201803003&uniplatform=OVERSEA&v=I9VoWLYOsf5oesuw8VoIgVMpKE3KyhYrA2t4ZsCT1Bh8MrYxBE-8a6nMLOuO1-qn

Sinpeng, A. (2021). Facebook: Regulating Hate Speech in the Asia Pacific. https://r2pasiapacific.org/files/7099/2021_Facebook_hate_speech_Asia_report.pdf

Xie, L. (2018, October 11). Research on freedom of speech—from the perspective of hate speech. Login.cnki.net. http://login.cnki.net/KCMS/detail/detail.aspx?dbcode=CJFD&dbname=CJFDLAST2018&filename=FBZX201829116&uniplatform=OVERSEA&v=MbYmlqpg6FBLXZQ1sHDd40nC5Xi5GPqvpNAIrOnjg8_-kq6QI-orfsHLzeGg9BVj

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