On The Frontline: The rise of hate speech and racism on social media

On The Frontline: The rise of hate speech and racism on social media

Luiz Valério P. Trindade

Whilst social media platforms have become an increasingly ubiquitous presence in people’s lives across the globe within the past fifteen years, hate speech, racism and varied forms of bigotry have also been on the rise within the same timeframe. In addition, a recently-released Policy Brief addressing the enactment of online racism in Brazil reveals that 81 percent of the victims are Black women. Therefore, this growing phenomenon demands some reflection concerning its dynamic and social impacts.

Major social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram (all of them established between 2004 and 2010) have become increasingly successful enterprises and natural elements in people’s lives across the globe. Recent figures reveal their impressive number of active monthly users, ranging from 328 million on Twitter up to two billion in the case of Facebook. Nevertheless, the exponential growth-rate experienced by these digital technologies within the past fifteen years have also contributed to the surge of hate speech in many countries. Strong evidence of this claim is that several prominent social actors in different countries have publicly demanded that the corporations behind these social media platforms do more to tackle this growing phenomenon. Examples include: a) leaders of influential Brazilian NGOs, b) the Mayor of London in the UK, c) human rights organisations in Myanmar, d) Germany Prime Minister, e) French authorities and f) Italian legislators.

Furthermore, running a word frequency analysis across 506 editions of five international newspapers and magazines (Time, Veja, Carta Capital, The Guardian and The Week), it is possible to identify that, combined, hate speech has been cited 632 times from 1993 to 2018. This analysis reveals that hate speech has become increasingly subject of news coverage across different social contexts markedly from 2012 onwards when Facebook reached one billion active monthly users. Since then, the other major social media platforms have also reached an impressive number of active users and the news coverage of hate speech has increased considerably across the five publications analysed. In fact, 92.6 percent of the citations of hate speech in the selected publication is concentrated in the timeframe 2012-2018, whilst the remaining 7.4 percent is diluted from 1993 to 2011.

The relevance of this finding is that his picture suggests the emergence of a sort of new ‘world order’ within the past fifteen years where hate speech has become part of the current digital landscape. Second, it also reveals that recent major political events may have contributed towards the exacerbation of public discourses and extremist political views culminating in the dissemination of hate speech on social media platforms. Examples of these major political events include: a) the Brazilian presidential elections in 2014, when the result triggered strong political divisions in the country; b) the US presidential elections in 2016 that, relatively similar to Brazil, also brought to the surface strong political divisionism; c) the 2016 UK referendum to decide whether to leave or remain as a member of the European Union, where the leave-side has won; and d) the crisis of North African migrants in 2018 sailing across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe through Italy.

As with regard to racism, based on a study addressing the construction and dissemination of racist discourses against Black Brazilians on social media, the mentioned Policy Brief reveals some important evidence for reflection. Among the key findings of this document, three, in particular, call for our attention: 1) upwardly-mobile Black Brazilian women, aged 20-35 years, are 81 percent of the victims of racist discourses on social media, 2) in two-thirds of the cases analysed, the offenders had no previous relationship with the victims (either online or offline), and 3) hateful social media posts tend to keep attracting new users for the same derogatory conversation for up to three years, which can potentially increase the harm to the victim.

This picture reveals that in the online realm, users tend to feel at ease and empowered to unleash racialized ideologies and construct and disseminate their particular narrative about the nature of ‘the other’ (oftentimes strongly stereotyped). Within that, as ‘the other’ moves upward in the social ladder (as has been the case of Black Brazilian women, for instance), they are considered ‘trespassers’ of social spaces associated with white male privilege. Consequently, the verbal abuses on social media aim first at undermining their achievements, and second, at re-establishing their imagined ‘natural’ social and racial hierarchy concerning distinct ascribed positions and social roles to the racial groups.

Another important element in this context is the fact that in two-thirds of the cases, the offenders had no previous relationship with the victims. This suggests that social media platforms enable users to disregard any social distance that might exist between themselves and the targets of their verbal abuse. Therefore, they can potentially direct their hateful discourses unrestrictedly towards several people in the online environment.

Furthermore, rather than fading away soon after its publication, racist discourses posted on social media keep attracting new users for the same derogatory conversation for up to three years. The implication of this phenomenon is the continuous reinforcement of the stereotyped narrative for a long time, such as an endless echo in cyberspace.

In conclusion, this scenario raises some important questions for civil society such as, for instance, what type of social relations are being enacted on social media platforms and how this digital technology is shaping them offline. The United Nations Human Rights Council warns that the dissemination of hateful discourses in the online environment can lead people towards their naturalisation and acceptance as something normal. In other words, if hate speech becomes the ‘new normal’, we can gradually witness online intolerance eventually becoming tolerable and an enduring component of the social landscape. Second, how primary and secondary schools can step in and prepare pupils to break this cycle from an early age and avoid the perpetuation of hateful discourses being enacted in the cyberspace in their adulthood. Finally, the large corporations behind the major social media platforms should not refrain from their share of responsibility for tackling this growing phenomenon, given that the digital technology has been empowering the proponents of hateful discourses and greatly amplifying their voice


Luiz Valério P. Trindade is a PhD in Sociology, University of Southampton. His main areas of scholarship and research lie in the sociology of race and ethnicity, the study of racism and anti-racism, social representation of ethnic minorities on means of communication, critical discourse analysis, hate speech and social media.

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