Module 1: What is hate speech?

In this module we talk about what hate speech is and we go through the definitions that are out there.

  • Resources

    Resources mentioned or used in this module:

    • Framework Decision on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law 2008/913/JHA (EU legislation on hate speech) - Full text

  • Transcript

    Welcome to the first module where we will be discussing what hate speech is. First, we will look at the definitions and how they relate to each other. Then we'll move on to look at the elements of hate speech, what are the parts of the definitions that overlap. We will also look at the wider context of hate speech and have a quick overview of what other online phenomenal surround hate speech, and eventually, we'll conclude this module, we're looking at freedom of expression, how we can balance rights and potential harms.

    The reason why we need to start with definitions is because hate speech seems like a self-explanatory term. While in reality, it's not like pouring that you'd recognize it immediately when you see it. It's much more complex than that. Also, legislation differ from country to country. There's huge difference between how freedom of expression and hate speech is treated in the US versus in Germany. In order to be able to counteract hate speech, we need to understand first what we're dealing with, and we need to be able to recognize it.

    Let's first look at terms and definitions. What is often assumed about hate speech is that if I simply dislike something or hate something that it constitutes as hate speech. That is not true. You can say you hate Justin Bieber, and it's not hate speech at all. It's a very confusing term. People tend to think that it has one universal definition, but it's far from reality. Hate speech as of now lacks a single universal definition. Even international bodies use different definitions, although the elements that are overlapping in those definitions we'll be looking at that.

    Instead of imagining hate speech as one single point, it's better to look at it as a spectrum. Where you're on one side, you have stricter definitions, legal definitions, and on the other side, you have broader, more conceptual definitions that better capture the harm. Legal definitions naturally need to be stricter. The ones that is more important for European context is based on the EU framework decision from 2008, which defines hate speech as public incitement to hatred or violence. It also includes gross trivialization and denial of genocide and related or similar war crimes.

    There's three reasons why this definition and legislation is important for us. First of all, it's binding, so it needs to be implemented in every member state. It also made hate speech punishable by criminal law. It also helps to remove hate speech if it's illegal from social media platforms. It forms the basis of the European Commission's Code of Conduct on illegal hate speech, where there are regular exercises with a half variety of NGOs to monitor whether social media companies remove hate speech or not. They should be removing it within 24 hours.

    Here is the practical tip. Keep in mind this definition and whenever you come across a hate speech comment or a piece of hateful content that is illegal, you can report it to social media companies and it should be removed within 24 hours. In general, it's less ambiguous if the illegal piece of hate speech is incitement to violence, social media companies and also police tend to prefer innocence for removal incitement to violence because it's clearer than incitement to hatred. This definition is there. The legislation is there so you can rely on that.

    Another important tip for you is to do a bit of research of your local legislation. You know now what the framework decision from 2008 says. You also need to check what local legislation is like in your country. You can do just quick google research and note down the number of the paragraph or the name of the paragraph that refers to hate speech. Whenever you need to report may that be to the police or social media companies, whatever you need to make your case it's going to have more weight if it has the exact number and name in there.

    On the other side of the spectrum, there are the more broader definitions that tend to capture to harm better compared to stricter legal definitions. Such definitions are needed because almost we can say most of hate speech is not illegal, but it's still harmful. NGOs and victims supports services, they tend to prefer the broader definitions that capture to harm and put the victim into the center.

    One of these broader definitions is the Facing Facts definition, where we understand hate speech to be any communication that is potentially harmful in a given context, towards a person or a group of people based on one or more of their characteristics. As you can see this definition is intentionally quite broad and aims to put the victim into the center. The palm can be defined those who are actually targeted by hate speech.

    In the following, we're going to have a look at the main elements of the definition we just looked at. Also, look at the broader context of hate speech. First, we're going to zoom in and dissect these definitions. Then we're going to zoom out to see the bigger picture. By the end of the module, you'll have the full picture and we able to recognize what hate speech is.

    If you recall the Facing Fact definition that we just looked at, it has four main elements. It has any form of communication, it has the potential harm, it has characteristics of a group or of persons. It also emphasizes context. We're going to look at each of them one by one. Any communication refers to the fact that hate speech doesn't necessarily have to be a comment. It's not necessarily text-based. It can be an image. It can be a video, a snap, GIF, or a GIF. Whichever pronunciation you prefer. These days, the list is endless. Hate speech doesn't always text-based.

    It's especially true for female journalists who are often targeted with altered images of them, depicting them in a situation where physical harm is there too. It's really important to underline you don't just look for texts when it comes to hate speech. Be open to pictures and other forms of it. If you imagine hate speech as a poisonous liquid, any communication is the container of it.

    The second part of that element, potential harm refers to the fact that it's almost impossible, but very hard for sure to determine the harm of hate speech as an outsider and to measure it objectively. That's pretty impossible. It's because hate speech in itself and the harm itself is quite subjective. It always connects to the characteristics of the person that we'll talk about just in the following. That is part of the identity and it cannot be measured on an objective scale. You cannot really put a number on it. The potential harm depends on personal sensitivities and triggers as well which we will be discussing also under safety.

    The third element of hate speech is the characteristics. These are the ones that are usually connected to the identity. The closer they are to your identity, the usually the more hurtful it is. That is a generalization that can be safely said. Characteristics can be based on your religion or ethnic origin, your gender, your profession. Journalists are targeted for their profession, but usually, when it comes to hate speech targeted them, It also has another element in it.

    The final element is context. Context is everything. Without context, we might not understand the meaning. We risk losing the essence of what is being said. Also if we just want to avoid context we might use code language, which haters actually do. This is what makes chasing them quite complicated because they use code language that is hard to track for the audience that it's not intended that. Context. How does context work for hate speech? If there is an image of a bomb in itself, that's not hate speech, that's an image of a bomb.

    If an image of a bomb is shared on there a post that says, "Let's get these people out of this country," or, "We should find a solution for those people," and it's shared underneath there, then it constitutes as hate speech because there is the implicit threat of physical harm in it. These are the four main elements of the definition. There are many other factors that influence whether something or not is hate speech and how hurtful and harmful it is.

    It can be whatever the person who's sharing a piece of hateful content has five followers or 500 or 500,000 followers. Whether that person is a public person or a Person of authority or not. Hate speech is also influenced by language, inevitably, the language [unintelligible 00:09:05] We spoke about code language before, but also whether outsiders. How many people understand that piece of hateful content? There is a lot of factors which makes it clear why hate speech is hard to define and also why it doesn't exist in isolation. It's not a sharply clearly defined term.

    For that reason, we're now going to move on and have a look at the context of hate speech and how it relates to other online phenomena. Hate speech doesn't exist in isolation, as we just discussed. It is embedded and it overlaps with a lot of online toxic behaviors and phenomena such as bullying, harassment. Hate speech also is embedded into fake news and misinformation in general and constitutes an important part of radicalization. Whenever there is a need or an intention to create division and to attack people hate speech is there. Which is the very reason why it requires our attention and why we need to be able to recognize it and be aware of how it works because it's so much represented in our online worlds.

    Now we know what hate speech is, and we know that it's bad, we need to take action. How can we fight hate speech and still balance it with freedom of expression? Can we actually balance the two? Freedom of expression is an essential right and it has benefited both individuals and democracies. We formulate our ideas and our thoughts through freedom of expression and through the exchange with other people. Our identities are based on that and freedom of expression has been helping societies and democracies to evolve and to improve throughout the centuries. It's undeniably important for you to be able to do your job and for us society to benefit from you doing your job. Freedom of expression needs to be preserved and maintained.

    When free speech is used for criminal acts and when it's used to exclude others from public spaces, it is no longer limited. What is often forgotten when we are talking about freedom of expression is that our rights our human rights come with responsibilities and that they are also not without limits. I can extend my arm just right in front of your nose but I don't have the right to hit your nose. When freedom of expression is used for criminal acts for extortion or to exclude others, it's not protected anymore. Article 17 of the European Convention of Human Rights prohibits any act aimed at the destruction of any rights in the convention that may include extreme cases of hate speech. Basically, there is no right to call for the destruction or the attack or the killing of other people.

    What is often forgotten in the discussion is that hate speech also reduces free speech. When there is hate speech online it leads to the withdrawal of many voices as victims tend to go offline and seize their online activities either temporarily or long term. We lose the diversity of the voices and hate speech reduces the exchange and the diversity of the exchanges online. The fight against hate speech is often equated to censorship. One of the counteractions is reporting to social media then having content removed after its publication so it's not censorship per se but it's also not the only counteraction that we can take. Counteraction for hate speech ranges from counter speech, counter campaigns all the way to advocacy and education to an online course like this one. There's much more that we can do to fight hate speech. We all need to be part of it you as journalists and civil society organizations, social media companies, government, legislators. The list is not endless but quite long.

    What we also need to talk about is the fact that hate speech leads to less free speech. Journalists, NGO workers, activists who've been targeted by hate speech all admit that they think twice before publishing something. They even might reconsider following a news piece because of a possible attack. That's understandable, but it's a very scary prospect. When people are silenced, when people are actually-- victims are internalizing their haters' goals by silencing themselves that's when free speech is actually harmed and damaged. We need to be very careful about that. There are ways to counteract that and there ways to prevent that we will be discussing in the following modules.

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