As readers of this article, including myself as the writer, we have all likely encountered hate speech, sometimes without even realizing it. The way each of us perceives hate speech can vary, and its impact on individuals may also differ. This recognition leads us to acknowledge that both you and I have been victims of hate speech at one point or another. The challenge arises in whether we can classify what we’ve experienced as ‘hate,’ or if it was simply ‘speech’ that caused discomfort. Regardless of its nature, severity, or impact, hate speech is harmful and acts as a barrier to the well-being of our society.
What is hate speech?
What constitutes hate speech? According to the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, it is defined as ‘any form of communication in speech, writing, or behavior that attacks or employs derogatory or discriminatory language towards an individual or group based on their characteristics, such as religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender, or other identity factors.’ The strategy emphasizes that there’s no universally agreed-upon definition of hate speech within international human rights law. Furthermore, it clarifies that hate speech can take various forms of expression, including images, cartoons, memes, objects, gestures, symbols, and can be disseminated both offline and online.
Digital age as a challenge
In contrast to the past, today’s society is deeply entrenched in the digital realm. Consequently, social media has emerged as a prominent platform for communication. However, not all forms of communication on these platforms promote healthy discourse. Due to their wide-reaching usage, accessibility, and constant availability, even radicalized individuals, terrorists, and separatists have harnessed these platforms to further their agendas. While some employ social media to express genuine emotions, foster unity, and engage in constructive debate, others employ it to manipulate, mock, belittle, or denigrate individuals and specific groups.
As noted by Research Outreach, ‘The digital age has facilitated the sharing of online speech and content, often anonymously and without considering the consequences. While online publishing is instant, the mechanisms designed to regulate speech are frequently cumbersome and slow. In traditional media, editorial oversight from someone other than the author has historically served as an effective check on hate speech—a safeguard that doesn’t apply to self-published content on social media platforms.’ Additionally, as highlighted by Thorleifsson and O Düker, ‘Online environments have proven to be fertile ground for violent extremism, enabling socialization, recruitment, and accelerated radicalization. These digital spaces are often referred to as “virtual communities” or “radical milieus,” where information dissemination and involvement are actively encouraged. Even lone actors find connections within these virtual communities, sharing their worldviews and interpretations.
Impact of hate speech on human security
Before delving into what is hate speech and its impact on human security, it is pivotal to discuss briefly what human security is. Undoubtedly, society has changed and evolved and due to that reason concerns and priorities have also taken a change. Unlike in past, where military security is about the military forces and protection from intervention, at present security, includes notions which deal with human existences, such as human rights, food, water, energy, cyber and politics. As per the (Human Security Handbook, 2016), In 2012, the adoption of General Assembly resolution 66/290 marked a significant moment in the promotion of human security. The resolution outlined Basic Rights which means that people have the right to live in freedom and dignity, without getting subjected to poverty or despair. These rights apply to all, particularly vulnerable groups, ensuring freedom from fear and want and equal opportunities for all. The approach is as follows people-centric, context-specific, and prevention-focused. In addition, it is important to merit attention to Interconnectedness, where Human security recognizes the interconnected nature of peace, development, and human rights, encompassing civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Another point is, it is Distinct from the Responsibility to Protect and is Non-Coercive. Another important element is, National Ownership, as Human security is based on national ownership, acknowledging the diversity of conditions across countries.
Therefore, hate speech violates human rights since it impacts the dignity and rights of human beings. The impact of hate is disastrous. The word “hate” itself is derogatory since it is prejudicial, angry and also condescending. The words “hate speech” go a step beyond. Some hate speech can be made at an instance, some can be more systematic, coordinated and pre-planned. Hate speech’s impact is multi-faceted and it is hard to rank it since hate speech is psychological. Firstly, it is crucial to note that hate speech affects the mentality of the person. According to, (Pluta et al, 2023) “the widespread ubiquity of hate speech affects people’s attitudes and behaviour. Exposure to hate speech can lead to prejudice, dehumanization, and lack of empathy towards members of outgroups”. According to (SELMA partners,2019) “more specifically, victims of online hate speech may show low self-esteem, sleeping disorders, increased anxiety and feelings of fear and insecurity”.
The said hate speech does not stop from inflicting pain on the mind only, it goes beyond. The reason is, that hate speech can be against a specific ethnicity, race, gender or religious community, which will result in division resulting in the erosion of social cohesion. In addition, the violence incurred on the mind of the individuals transcends to physical violence where hatred will result in riots and bloodshed.
An example of hate speech based on race is the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, which involved ethnic discrimination. According to the United Nations, decades of hate speech exacerbated ethnic tensions in Rwanda. This was achieved by spreading unfounded rumors and dehumanizing ethnic Tutsi citizens. The hate propaganda was disseminated through the infamous Radio Libre des Mille Collines, which incited the Hutu majority to commit violence against their fellow Tutsi citizens. Another example can be found in the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The role of hatred and disinformation campaigns in inciting and legitimating war crimes during the Bosnian war (1992–1995) has been established. In Serbian majority areas, constant nationalist propaganda was disseminated through party-controlled media. This demonized the Bosnian Muslim population and other groups, portraying them as violent fundamentalist enemies plotting against the Serbs.
Another example involves hate speech directed at gender. One prominent instance is Gamergate, an online harassment campaign that occurred in 2014–15, targeting women in the video game industry. This campaign was mainly attributed to white male right-wing gamers who opposed the increasing influence of women and feminism in the industry. Notably, Gamergate acted as a recruitment tool for the emerging alt-right movement and played a role in propagating the online “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which later gave rise to the broader QAnon conspiracy movement. Another instance of hate speech related to culture and ethnicity is the Christchurch Mosque Shootings. Just before his deadly attack on Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, the perpetrator posted a 74-page manifesto on 8chan titled “The Great Replacement.” This manifesto referred to a conspiracy narrative outlined by Renaud Camus in his book ‘Le Grand Replacement.’ In the manifesto, the attacker justified mass murder as necessary to defend Europe against what he saw as an ongoing “cultural and ethnic genocide” caused by multiculturalism and mass immigration. In his post, he urged others to spread his message, create memes, and engage in online activities. This serves as a stark example of how virtual platforms can be exploited to promote hate speech.
Internationally as well as domestically there are laws against hate speech. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), in Article 19(1) states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference”. 19(2) mentions about “freedom of expression”. In addition, this can be “either orally, in writing or print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”. However, these rights can be curtailed as provided by law and are necessary, (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others, (b) For the protection of national security or of public order or public health or morals. Article 20 states that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in Article 4 mentions that “States Parties condemn all propaganda and all organizations which are based on ideas or theories of superiority of one race or group of persons of one colour or ethnic origin, or which attempt to justify or promote racial hatred and discrimination in any form, and undertake to adopt immediate and positive measures designed to eradicate all incitement to, or acts of, such discrimination and, to this end, with due regard to the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” In Sri Lanka, there are four laws against hate speech. Namely, the International Covenant On Civil and Political Rights Act 56 of 2007, The Penal Code Ordinance No. 2 of 1883, The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 Of 1979 and regulations under it as well as the Police Ordinance (No. 16 of 1865).
There are social media regulations as well. For example, Transparency Center, states that on Facebook, “We’re committed to making Facebook a safe place. We remove content that could contribute to a risk of harm to the physical security of persons. Content that threatens people has the potential to intimidate, exclude or silence others and isn’t allowed on Facebook.” An example of a global imitative is, the United Nations Population Fund. It is a (UNFPA) “global movement to address gendered hate speech online. It co-convenes the Advisory Group to the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse, and issued the UNFPA Guidance on Safe and Ethical Technology for Gender-Based Violence and Harmful Practices.”. An example of another global initiative is, Social Media 4 Peace, which was “Initiated in January 2021 in three pilot countries, with the support of the European Union, this UNESCO project aims to strengthen the resilience of societies to potentially harmful content spread online – in particular hate speech inciting violence – while protecting freedom of expression and promoting peace through digital technologies, notably social media.”
In spite of all the measures in place, the prevalence of hate speech in our daily lives continues to escalate, and this is a genuine tragedy. Therefore, it is imperative that we do not merely react to hate speech but take proactive steps to prevent it from occurring. Addressing hate speech in the 21st century requires a multifaceted approach that involves all stakeholders and paradigms. To enhance the effectiveness of hate speech prevention, several additional measures can be employed. For instance, governments worldwide should prioritize media literacy, enabling individuals to critically evaluate information. Furthermore, it is essential to promote counter-narratives to counteract hate speech campaigns. Additionally, educational initiatives should be strengthened to instill good practices and nurture empathetic individuals.