Hate speech online: why does it do so much damage? (short version)

Daniel Skyle © 2016

This is an article in our series on hate speech online, and on the possible solutions for it. This article is a first, and shorter, version, as an introduction. It will also include the definitions of hate crime from the Swedish police, and help on how to most easily report it to them. You can also find a Swedish version of this article on this blog.

For you who want to read more, you will find articles here that say (longer version). In those, we look at the subjects more in depth, and offer more angles of analysis. The topics we put up here on EdgeWise will have a shorter introduction like this one, and then a longer one offering more analysis and in-depth information.

Hate speech online seems to spread more and more in the world right now. Compared to a country´s entire population, a vanishingly small amount of it actually use hate speech online, but they always try to be louder to make it look like there are more of them.

Behind hate speech online is usually also a very conscious political ambition, and interestingly enough many of those using hate speech are unaware of how carefully they have been manipulated to do it, and for which individual´s purposes.

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

                                                                                                                           – James Baldwin


How hate speech online can reach a larger audience via the internet

Hate is of course an old poison in the world: the major change that has happened is that the internet and social media turned up. The internet we are used to right now is very young – it saw its rise begin barely twenty years ago.

Those spreading hate online also consciously use platforms like websites and social media, for example Facebook and Twitter, but they have now also begun to get shut out from those and we see the beginning of these groups being forced to create their own, unique, forums. They also carefully manipulate the search results on different search engines, such as Google.

Earlier in human history hate has rarely been able to be spread very far unless it was in the guise of a military campaign. This began to change to reach a bigger stage once we got newspapers and mass media. Today, a person can vomit bile from their own life onto other people through writing comments visible in a closed, racist Facebook group, or more openly, visible in a whole country, or over the whole world.

Many of those who are attacked by hate online (and in real life) can get deep emotional wounds that last for a long time.

It is up to each and every person to take responsibility for their actions. Everything you write online is your responsibility: you choose yourself if you write something that is negative towards another person, or something that is positive.

In Sweden, hate speech is a crime, and both hateful comments online and actual hate crimes online risks injuring the person on the other side of that screen deeply, a wound that might affect their life very badly, to the point where they might even harm themselves or, in worst case, commit suicide.

Hate looks like everybody else until it smiles.”

                                                                                   – Tahereh Mafi

What is hate speech online?

Hate speech online is an attack on another person. It can be phrased in different ways. Some ways of attacking other people are crimes, what is called hate crime. This article is partially meant to help refugees to Sweden who might not need the information to be in English, so below is the official definition of hate crime from the Swedish police authority.

Description of hate crime

Hate crime covers the crimes hate speech and unlwaful discrimination. It can also include other acts where the motive of the perpetrator is to diminish a person, harm them, or attack them, based on:

  • race,

  • colour,

  • nationality or ethnic origin,

  • faith,

  • sexual orientation,

  • or other similar circumstance.

You do not have to fit into one of these groups to become a victim of hate crime. It is enough that the person attacking thinks that you are, for example, that he or she thinks that you are homosexual.”

If you read Swedish, you can find the full text on hate crime here: https://polisen.se/Lagar-och-regler/Om-olika-brott/Fakta-om-hatbrott/

If you read English, we recommend this site from the UK, which contains good information both on hate crime, why it´s so important to report it, and how badly it affects both the individual and society: http://report-it.org.uk/what_is_hate_crime

Always report hate crime and hate speech online

Currently, Sweden is lagging behind many other European countries in dealing with hate speech online, but there is more and more focus on it, both at government level and in the police force. An important part of the work in the Swedish police are the Democracy- and Hate Crime Units, as well as other units that are now focusing more on hate speech online, including on social media platforms such as Facebook.

If someone attacks you with hate speech online, or hate crimes otherwise, it´s very important to report it.

This kind of attack can be both confusing and frightening, and if it´s online, very invasive in our digital world. But it is important that you gather the information that you have – screengrabs are a very important that you take – and report it.

Sometimes the police can´t solve the problem, but it´s very important to always report it. If you do report it, it´s visible in the statistics, really showing how big a problem might be, and if it´s a person who has done the same thing before, repeated reports will prove a pattern, making it more likely that the person will end up in court and get a sentence for their crimes.

If you are in Sweden, you can make a report and get support from the police Democracy- and Hate Crime Units (Demokrati- och Hatbrrottsgruppen Polisen). They are based in Malmoe, Stockholm, and Gothenburg, and you can reach them at 114 14. Ask for the group nearest to where you live.

You can read more about them here, in Swedish: http://www.svenskpolis.se/Artikelarkiv/Artiklar-2014/November-2014/Sa-jobbar-hatbrottsgruppen/

If it´s an emergency situation, and you are in Sweden, call 112 and report it there now.


Why is online hate speech so damaging?

Many of those attacked by hate speech online felt that one reason it can affect them so much, is that it attempts to be directed at their identity.

For example, if someone tells you that, ”I think that when you talk on the phone you talk way too loudly. Please talk in a lower voice” it´s quite a difference between that and someone saying, ”When you talk that loudly on the phone it shows that you are worthless.”

The first one is a comment on behaviour; the second, phrased as an attempt to judge who the person is, an attempt to judge their very existence. If you being to say negative things about a person based on their sex, sexual orientation, faith, nationality or race, then we are not talking about hate speech anymore, but actual hate crime.

The Swedish police continues their text pointing out that this of course concerns other kinds of crime too, as hate speech online is just one version of it, and it can be anything (continued from the link above, this author´s translation):

Hate crimes can give increased sentencing

The individual sentenced for a hate crime can get increased sentencing if he or she is sentenced for the crime. A person who has done graffiti or assaulted someone can thus get a harsher sentence if the act is considered to be a hate crime.

Threats and harassment are the most common

Unlawful discrimination and hate speech are hate crimes in and by themselves, but any crime can be judged a hate crime if it is based on the assailant having a negative attitude to one of the groups listed above. Hate crimes can therefore be anything from graffiti to murder. According to the Crime Prevention Council of Sweden, the most common hate crimes are harassment and threat.”


How does hate speech online affect society? A short look at the Broken Windows Theory

The Broken Windows Theory is a theory used in sociology. It was first formulated in the 1980´s, and has since been used in both police work and academic research.

The basic idea is very obvious: if someone breaks a window in a neighbourhood and you don´t repair it, people there will slowly begin to see it as less and less important to take responsibility for their actions in the area.

If you don´t repair that first problem, it will probably continue to spread to another broken window, then maybe garbage thrown in the gutter, bad behaviour against others, graffitti, maybe drug dealing, crime, etc. You can liken it to a virus which once it has one patient will begin to infect others, unless it is limited and stopped.

If someone attacks with hate speech online it will spread: it hurts the person it´s directed towards and affects their life, then their family, and those the family have contact with. If you allow hate speech online to continue, the risk is also that it becomes more accepted to do so by the small group who are breaking windows online. Over time, they will also support each other in making the behaviour worse, and increasingly forget that what they are doing actually is a crime.

If this happens, members of that group might then begin to say negative things also in their everyday life, or commit hate crimes by physically assaulting refugees, homosexuals, people of different nationalities etc.

The Broken Windows Theory applies both online and in real life. In both places, that first broken window/hateful comment risks creating more if you allow them to, and if you don´t repair the window and stop those who broke it from doing it again.

One solution which has been successful online in Sweden is the Facebook group #jagärhär, (#iamhere) which rapidly has grown large. They do a very good job of going in on different Comment sections and helping to repair the window directly.

You can read more about them here, in Swedish: http://www.aftonbladet.se/svenskahjaltar/article23967515.ab

Or join the group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/548170525365320. As of this article being written, the group has 43 000 members and a waiting list of several thousand waiting to be approved. Their hashtag is #jagärhär, which when written in Comment sections containing racism, tags other members to help give clearer and better information in place.


Solutions to hate speech online

No-one knows exactly what solves hate speech online, or how you can help heal those people who do it. Part of the veryy core of it is in our own actions. It is we ourselves who should take responsibility for our actions, both in our everyday life and when we are out on the internet.

Are you being attacked by hate speech? If you are in Sweden, you can call 114 14 and ask for the Hate- and Democracy Crime Units, or call 112 if it´s an emergency. The Swedish police has a further guide to help you with hate crimes, which you can find here: https://polisen.se/Utsatt-for-brott/Olika-typer-av-brott/Utsatt-for-hatbrott

A good thing to always ask yourself online is this: are you Liking and Commenting to diminish human rights, or to improve them?

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

                                                                                                               – Martin Luther King


Daniel Skyle © 2016. Daniel Skyle is a journalist, author and lecturer. He lectures and writes about source analysis, and researches hate speech online and the solutions to it. You can read more on Facebook at Språkbroar: https://www.facebook.com/sprakbroar. He can be contacted for lectures at information at sprakbroar dot se.