Hate Speech

Now that the whole world is connected by the Internet, personal opinions and comments have a greater impact than ever before. Unlike in traditional media, online hate speech can be produced and distributed easily at low cost and anonymously while having the potential to reach a global and diverse audience in real time. The relative permanence of online content is also problematic when hateful discourse can resurface and regain popularity over time.

Hate speech refers to an offensive discourse targeting a group or an individual based on inherent characteristics such as race, religion, or gender, and that may threaten social peace. Hate speech incites violence and undermines social cohesion and tolerance. The devastating effect of hatred is sadly nothing new. In fact, there are historical precedents showing that hate speech is a precursor of genocide such as the Holocaust.

However, its scale and impact are nowadays amplified by new technologies of communication, to the point that hate speech has become one of the most frequent methods for spreading divisive rhetoric and ideologies on a global scale and threatening peace.

In particular, during the pandemic, problems such as racial conflict, generational conflict, gender conflict, and discrimination against the underprivileged became more serious due to the global economic downturn and the gap between the rich and the poor. For this reason, the international community and human rights organizations are worried that discrimination, conflict, and hate are more critical than the virus.

The proliferation of hateful content online coupled with easily shareable disinformation that digital communication enables has raised unprecedented challenges for our societies as governments struggle to enforce national legislation in the virtual world’s scale and speed.

“Social media provides a global megaphone for hate.”

– António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, 2021

Freedom of Expression vs. Restrictions on Hate Speech

Meanwhile, the growing weaponization of social media in order to disseminate hateful and divisive narratives has exacerbated the stigmatization of vulnerable communities and exposed the fragility of our democracies worldwide. However, government’s responsibility and role in regard to restriction of hate speech is raising concerns about the limitation of freedom of speech and censorship in return.

Freedom of opinion and expression is, indeed, a cornerstone of human rights and a pillar of free and democratic societies, as it supports other fundamental rights, such as the right to freedom of religion, to peaceful assembly, and to participate in public affairs. It is undeniable that digital media including social media have contributed to sustaining the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas. Therefore, legislative efforts to regulate hate speech are raising concerns that it could contribute to human rights violation that suppresses freedom of expression.

Under International Human Rights Law, there is no universal definition of hate speech as the concept is still widely disputed especially in regard to its relation to freedom of opinion and expression, non-discrimination and equality.

With the aim to provide an unified framework for the UN system to address the issue globally, the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech defines hate speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are.” (In other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identity factor)

Despite these challenges, the UN and many others are exploring further ways of countering hate speech through initiatives that promote greater media and information literacy of online users while ensuring the protection of the right to freedom of expression.

Addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech. It means keeping hate speech from escalating into something more dangerous, particularly incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, which is prohibited under international law.

-António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, May 2019

Efforts to Overcome Hate Speech

The United Nations has a long history of mobilizing the world against hatred of all kinds to defend human rights and advance the rule of law. The impact of hate speech cuts across numerous existing United Nations areas of focus, from human rights protection and prevention of atrocity crimes to sustaining peace, achieving gender equality, and supporting children and youth.

Because fighting hate, discrimination, racism and inequality is at the core of United Nations principles and work, the Organization is working to confront hate speech at every turn. This principle is enshrined in the United Nations Charter, in the international human rights framework, and in the global efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

In response to the alarming trends of growing xenophobia, racism and intolerance, violent misogyny, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred around the world, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech on June 18, 2019. This first UN system-wide initiative designed to tackle hate speech provides an essential framework for how the Organization can support and complement States’ efforts. The strategy emphasizes the need to counter hate holistically and with full respect for freedom of opinion and expression, while working in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, including civil society organizations, media outlets, tech companies, and social media platforms.