Image is illustrative. By Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

What is hate speech?

Hate speech on the internet is a growing problem, as indicated in reports by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), which has been examining the situation of online hate speech since the 1990s (Bakalis, C., 2015). Hate speech aims to undermine the dignity of a human being belonging to a particular social group. Furthermore, it tries to legitimise attacks on members of that group and thus contributes to creating an unsafe environment for people belonging to such groups, as well as to their supporters and the rest of society.

According to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, hate speech covers all forms of expression that spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance. The Council of Europe’s No Hate Speech Movement (Keen, E., , Georgesc, M., 2013-2017) viewed hate speech even more widely, covering antigypsyism, christianphobia, islamophobia, misogyny, sexism and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Therefore, to put it more broadly, hate speech means public expressions that spread, incite, promote or justify hatred, discrimination or hostility towards a specific group. It contributes to a climate of intolerance and hostility, which in turn makes attacks more probable against those given groups.

Individual countries in Europe and elsewhere have a variety of legal definitions of hate speech that usually are narrower and may include conditions that make them rather useless in practical terms. For example, in Estonia, incitement of hatred is punishable only if it results in danger to the life, health or property of a person. However, this is clearly very difficult to prove in hate speech situations and so almost no one has ever been prosecuted for hate speech in Estonia. In this article, though, the above broader definition will be used, as the aim is not to look at hate speech from the perspective of what is punishable and what is not, but rather to look at ways in which hate speech can be tackled in order to create safer and kinder online environments.


Hate speech and freedom of speech

The issue of hate speech is always discussed alongside freedom of speech, one of the many human rights. Therefore, all activities tackling hate speech have to be critically analysed as to if and to what extent they may influence someone’s freedom of speech and whether this is justifiable in certain situations in order to guarantee someone else’s dignity and their freedom from harm. 

Professionals working with young people can provide them with tools on how to express themselves freely but with respect towards others, to help them recognise hate speech and to give them knowledge on what can be done. Critical thinking as regards media, information and sources of information is crucial, as creating hostility and negativity towards some groups of people in society can serve the purposes of fascist and extremist initiatives, which may or may not have political affiliations. Also, such content may be used for achieving the political goals of some politicians or political parties. In recent years, there have been several examples from media and social media platforms, such as those during the elections in the United States and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom.


Online hate speech

With social media spreading more than ever, the problem of online hate speech is growing too, since social media provides a very visible platform for both the spontaneous and organised distribution of expressions that incite or promote hatred. Radicalisation tends to take place on shared online platforms with communities, although these platforms themselves are known to be neutral (e.g. Facebook).

Also, an increase in the number of hate sites (problematic social networks websites, forums, blogs, Twitter, etc) was reported by the Simon Wiesenthal annual Digital Terror & Hate Report in 2011. Another survey showed that 78% of respondents stated that they had encountered hate speech online on a regular basis. The three most recurrent targets of hate speech were LGBT people (70%), Muslims (60%) and women (Council of Europe, 2012). 

Some of the targeted groups in each country reflect the particular cultural mix in those countries (Bakalis, C., 2015). For example, such targeted groups include immigrants and black people in France, Turks, Moroccans and black people in the Netherlands, Russians in Latvia, Roma and Romanians in Italy, and Russians and Germans in Poland.

Another trend is the increasing number of cases where the media itself is the source of cyberhate, including biased traditional media and disinformation campaigns. There have been instances where the media targets vulnerable groups and influence, to a great extent, the attitudes and perceptions of the public on certain issues (the most well-known example is Brexit). In such cases, it is important to analyse the motives behind such attempts to influence public opinion and learn to see through the manipulations. 

A separate issue arises from the comments sections of online newspapers that often contain racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic remarks, which again contribute to a hostile environment and are insufficiently moderated. 


Tackling hate speech

Most European countries have established some sort of reporting mechanisms and support for victims of hate speech, provided by national authorities and NGOs. Such mechanisms are often online, making them quite accessible for everyone. However, since different countries have varied cultural, political and legal norms, there are significant differences in approaches. Some countries take the problem seriously and are trying to provide protection against hate speech, while others give the issue little attention. Also, under-reporting appears to be a problem, although both national authorities and NGOs tend to emphasise how important it is to report hate speech. Where legal protection is limited, as shown in the above example regarding Estonia, the rate of reporting is even lower because no particular results or protections are in place.

Social media platforms have started to provide tips to users on how they can protect themselves against hate speech. Also, they provide tools for reporting hate speech and cyber bullying to administrators or moderators on social media platforms. Since 2016, the EU Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech has been effective in making IT companies have rules and community standards that prohibit hate speech and put in place systems and teams to review content that is reported to violate these standards. On average, IT companies remove 72% of the instances of illegal hate speech notified to them. Therefore, it is very important to explain what kind of content includes hate speech and to teach young people how they can report such content on different social media platforms.

Such an approach of creating rules and community standards is also advisable for environments outside of social media, be it schools or any other environment where young people come together. Youth workers need to be able to support young people and recognise and tackle hate speech when they encounter it. Therefore, it is important that youth workers themselves are well-informed of these issues. There are a variety of trainings and resources available, and one possible manual for starting with self-analyses and ways in which a professional youth worker can intervene and help is Outside In Training Platform.

There are many activities in Bookmarks. A manual for combating hate speech online through human rights education that can be used to help young people recognise prejudice, behaviour and speech that incites hatred and encourage them to react in case they come across such behaviours. The manual also helps to analyse the differences between freedom of speech and expression and hate speech, making it a very handy resource. Also, the selection of videos created for the No Hate Speech Youth Campaign are helpful.

It is definitely useful to learn how to spot fake news. For this, there are several online guidelines, tools and games, e.g. 4 Tips for Spotting a Fake News Story, media literacy skills game Factitious and sites for checking fake news and facts, like FactCheck and Snopes.

Teaching young people to recognise prejudice and hate speech helps them to protect themselves and their peers against hostility and violence. It also helps to create safe environments for young people where they can be accepted and valued as they are and thus develop freely and without fear. However, it is important to keep in mind that freedom of speech is also an important freedom, and freedom of speech and expression should also be covered when discussing hate speech.


Helen Talalaev
Helen Talalaev

As a freelance teacher I have taught mostly human rights, hate speech and hate crime and how to tackle them and how to create safe spaces for the youth. Most of the courses have been for youth workers and teachers directly working with the youth.