Hate speech on social media.
Hardly anybody would march up to a crowd in person and announce their hate for all members of a certain ethnic group, race or religion just out of the blue. However, this is sometimes an everyday occurrence online, where the anonymity of an online profile affords users the confidence to make bold statements on social media.
One would think that in this day and age, we live in relative harmony at least in our real lives. While people may still have their differences, they have mostly learned to keep it civil in the community and at the workplace. Most countries have laws protecting minority groups from discrimination, and there are numerous organizations that champion freedom, tolerance and diversity. However, with the prevalence of hate speech in the online world, one may question if people really are living in harmony these days or if they have simply taken their quarrels elsewhere.
Social media is a golden platform for connecting people and allowing them to network, share news and air their personal opinions. Unfortunately, it is often also filled with negativity, one of which is hate speech. To share one’s personal views on social media is to open oneself up to a barrage of online attacks, sometimes fighting fire with fire. Many arguments over hate speech escalate into “flame wars”, where most commenters may not even remember what they were originally debating about, but rather resort to personal attacks and sometimes even threats. If words could kill, the participants would probably be dead many times over. Whether hate speech targets a single person or a group of people, it is undeniably destructive and violent.
What constitutes hate speech? There is no definite set of rules that can reliably identify hate speech for what it is. At its core, hate speech tends to attack people for having certain characteristics, such as their race, skin color, ethnic group, religion, gender or sexual orientation – essentially harassing, intimidating or calling for violence against people for who they are. Some hate speech comments may be general – for example, “I hate all members of a certain race”. Others may be targeted at a single person or generalizing all members of a group that the person belongs to. Hate speech can occur in varying severity, from voicing one’s opinion about a certain group or person to threatening them with violence, including statements about wanting to kill them.
There are also other forms of hate speech, such as the posting of violent images or images with such a connotation. For instance, some anti-Semitic groups post images of the Holocaust, including gas chambers, Nazi symbols or Adolf Hitler. Anti-black groups may post gory images from the Jim Crow era of African American victims. Even if no “speech” is technically used in such posts, the message is quite clear and is commonly regarded as hate speech.
The wealth of information on the Internet may have played its part in inciting hate speech. Many individuals still harbor prejudiced feelings towards members of certain demographic groups. For instance, racism, misogyny or homophobia very likely still lurk in the hearts of many, even if it is not visible in their daily lives. The Internet is home to critics, toxicity and “triggers” that can goad the inclined to violence. Additionally, word spreads quickly on social media, allowing people the ability to spread their ideas, threats and violent actions quickly – most of which tend to go viral once the online population fans the flames.
Some sociologists believe that the way social media platforms work is not helping to curb the spread of hate speech either. Social media platforms make money off advertising. These depend on maximizing the user’s browsing time so that more advertisements will be fed to them. Since it is in the social media platforms’ best interests to keep users on the page for as long as possible, algorithms are used to direct users to pages and media they would likely want to browse. This makes it easy for a user to chance upon violent or extremist views, which can then lead them to more similar posts.
Unfortunately, it often turns out that the more time people spend around these kinds of negative sentiments on social media, the more inclined they may be to air their honest views. In fact, the open policy of the Internet encourages people to post and respond freely, especially on social media pages and comments sections which are not moderated. Rarely is hate speech incited on its own. Usually, media coverage of an ongoing hot topic tends to provoke responses which are critical and condescending, which then provoke more responses and culminate in a chain reaction of hate speech. The media may also tend to paint some easy targets in a more negative light, resulting in stronger feelings from the public and thus stronger responses.
Under the policy of freedom of speech, hate speech is not illegal. In fact, hate speech is constitutionally protected in the United States under the First Amendment, as long as it does not contain a threat of violence. Most social media platforms and online forums are privately owned, allowing the owners to restrict the content allowed on their platform as per their own terms of service. However, while forums may be more strictly policed, social media tends to be looser in terms of what it defines as hate speech, since it deals with much higher volumes of content and is essentially each user’s own personal “space”.
Even platforms with the strictest policies on hate speech usually have to moderate it manually due to the many forms hate speech can take on. Systems can be trained to recognize word patterns, but it is more difficult to discern the context or intentions of those words. With the vast number of posts on popular social media platforms, it is usually up to individual users to report offensive posts and optionally block the offending user.
Some may say that hate speech is harmless as long as it remains a verbal assault on the Internet. After all, the Internet is not meant for those with thin skin. Since hate speech is technically protected under freedom of speech, why should people not be allowed to air their personal opinions publicly?
It appears that the prevalence of hate speech can easily provoke people to violence. In recent years, there have been a number of hate crimes that have come about as a result of hate speech on social media. In June 2015, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African American worshippers at a church in Charleston, thereafter describing his act in vivid detail and without remorse in a video which he posted on social media. It was believed that Roof had “self-radicalized” online through material containing violent white supremacist beliefs on the Internet, leading him to think that an appropriate course of action would be to resort to violence.
The Charleston church shooting is only one of many cases where perpetrators consumed online media that led them to develop extreme beliefs, leading to violent courses of action. While people are certainly entitled to their personal opinions, we should not underestimate the potential of social media in dividing mankind.