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8 hate speech myths debunked


1. Hate speech doesn’t exist.

Just by saying it doesn’t exist, hate speech, incitement to violence and hatred, does not cease to exist. Some people prefer not to label it, but it does not change the law or the framework of this field, both of which acknowledges existence of hate speech.

This argument in general is the easiest and simplest way to try to discredit the fight against hate speech. Unfortunately, and as with many other problems in life, not naming it and not admitting it exists does not stop it from happening and impacting our lives and societies.

Naming it helps to develop recognition of the problem, which leads to strategies to deal with it.


2. I know what hate speech is.

Everyone thinks so, as it sounds like a self-explanatory term, but hate speech is a very complex term that lacks a single universally accepted definition. People often shy away from grasping its complexity even though hate speech is far from being black and white.

Whether something is deemed hate speech often depends on a variety of factors; context, audience, speaker, language nuances etc., which is the very reason why it is difficult to define it.

We, in the Facing Facts Partnership, understand hate speech to be any communication which is potentially harmful in a given context to an individual or group based on one or more of their characteristics. It may be illegal or legal according to local laws.  We recognize the fundamental right to free speech and encourage positive and proportionate responses that balance free speech with the right to be protected from targeted abuse.


3. Hate speech can be easily defined and recognized.

To the contrary. It’s not like porn (you recognize it when you see it – without a need for definition), but a complex issue with a lot of determining factors and without a single universally accepted definition.

There are two approaches: from a legal perspective or from a conceptual one. The legal definition needs to be as strict as possible to avoid limiting freedom of expression. An example of this is the definition used by the European Commission, that defines hate speech as public incitement to violence or hatred.

Broader definitions go beyond the law so they can focus more on the victim and the harm. The Facing Facts definition understands hate speech to be any communication which is potentially harmful in a given context to an individual or group based on one or more of their characteristics.


 4. I am not allowed to hate anymore.

You are free to hate whatever or whoever you want to hate. No one is disputing your right to hate, although it probably won’t make you feel any better. But if you choose to hate a group of people publicly, you might face consequences, just as you would if you did the same standing in the street.

To put it simply, you can hate, but not publicly – and yes, social media platforms are deemed public. As long as you are only poisoning yourself with hatred, no one will bat an eye. When you spread hatred publicly, it becomes a problem, as public life – our shared spaces – are more regulated (think of consuming alcohol in public spaces in certain countries).


5. Fighting hate speech equals censorship.

This is a common myth, but the answer is: not necessarily. One way of tackling hate speech is reporting and removing content, but there is more to counter-action than that: monitoring, advocacy, counter-speech, etc., are all ways to counter hate speech.  You can learn about all forms of counter-actions in the Facing Facts Online course on hate speech.

Bottom line is: there is more to fighting hate speech than removal, so it is not equal to censorship.


6. Those fighting hate speech want to limit freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is undeniably one of the most important fundamental rights. However, it is not an absolute right, meaning it doesn’t apply in every situation the same way regardless of the circumstances.

Our rights are limited by other people’s rights, and this is true for free speech too. My arm can extend until just before your nose; but I don’t have the right to hit your nose. When freedom of expression is used to exclude others from the public space and when it’s being abused for criminal acts, it is not protected anymore. Rights come with responsibilities.


7. Hate speech is in the very nature of the internet.

It might be, but it shouldn’t. Just because something seems normal or it is the way it is, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s right or we need to accept it. Homosexuality was deemed an illness decades ago, but it doesn’t mean it was rightfully deemed as such.

Throughout human history we regulated working hours, child labour and plenty other areas of life for the betterment of society and it members. Since the internet and social media platforms are in their early stage, they often seem like the wild west, but it doesn’t mean they should remain so. This is the very reason we need education and training on hate speech and counter-action, but also on media literacy, digital citizenship, diversity skills –  so that people can learn to navigate better and behave respectfully in the online world too.


8. It’s the problem of social media companies, they should sort it out.

If we need to behave online, who is to set the rules of our behavior? Our offline existence is regulated by international standards and domestic laws, set by – in most of the cases – democratically elected officials. Our online existence, however, is regulated by terms and conditions that we agree to mostly without reading, set by companies.

Hate is a problem in society, that is reflected and amplified online. Social media companies need to take part in tackling this issue – and they do –  but it’s not entirely their responsibility and probably it shouldn’t be. We need all stakeholders, including governments, CSOs, decision makers, law enforcement agencies, educators and online activists to come together and take part in finding a solution. Like it or not, it’s on all of us.


Written by Julia Mozer, Hate Speech Advisor CEJI-A Jewish contribution to an inclusive Europe and its Facing Facts project.


This article originally appeared on the sCAN blog.

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