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Time to take action against hate speech

In every country around the world, hate speech threatens human rights and social stability, exacerbating conflict and tensions in all regions. In the context of COVID-19, hateful content...

Antonio Gutteres

In every country around the world, hate speech threatens human rights and social stability, exacerbating conflict and tensions in all regions. In the context of COVID-19, hateful content, disinformation and conspiracy theories have swept the globe, aggravating pre-existing biases, harmful stereotypes and discrimination, including xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQI+ hatred.

The first Global Ministers Conference and Multi-stakeholder Forum addressing hate speech through education, organized in September and October 2021, are major milestones convening education policy-makers, experts and civil society from around the world to seek consensus on addressing and countering hate speech and discrimination. These high-level efforts will only succeed with the active support of all of us, learners and teachers, social media users and content producers – societies and communities together taking a stand.

How does hate speech impact societies and individuals across the world?
In headline news from around the world, hate speech has a clear role enabling and amplifying conflict, polarisation and discrimination. From dehumanizing narratives about migrants and refugees, to repackaged racist and antisemitic tropes related to the COVID-19 pandemic, hate speech is integrally linked to incitement to violence and daily infringements on human rights, often targeting the most vulnerable people and groups.

Throughout history, hate speech has served to indoctrinate people and incite them to the worst of crimes. The Holocaust, the genocide against the Tutsi, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar are among the many examples where hate speech and propaganda systematically dehumanized people and prepared the ground for the most horrific of crimes. Today’s societies are still susceptible and, as the UNESCO Constitution states, it is incumbent on us all to build the defences of peace in the minds of people.

Why is freedom of expression central to the United Nations and UNESCO strategy to address hate speech?
Hate speech should not be addressed through restricting speech alone – enabling and encouraging positive speech is also vital. In some countries, laws purportedly targeting hate speech can be misused against vulnerable groups or opposition, at times resulting in harming the same groups that hate speech laws aim to protect, or fostering repressive environments in which hate speech thrives.

In 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech founded on the principles to fight hate, discrimination, racism and inequality. The Strategy’s commitments are not aimed at “preventing” speech, which could suggest restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression that would be problematic in practical terms and contrary to international human rights law, but are directed at addressing and countering hate speech.

UNESCO promotes the free flow of ideas by word and image and is committed to enabling a free, open and accessible internet space as part of promoting comprehensive freedom of expression online and offline. Hateful speech can take many forms, from verbal and written messages, to memes and images, and songs or other expressions. The keys to address hate speech include critical thinking and quality information, rather than overly criminalized or censorship approaches.

How can people stand together with vulnerable groups and people targeted by hate speech?
Everyone can take a stand against hate speech, dehumanisation and discrimination. Key components of countering online hate speech are the development of critical thinking skills and ethical use of social media as starting points of media and information literacy skills to combat hate speech online. These media and information literacy competencies can enhance people’s ability to identify and question hateful content online, understand its assumptions, biases and prejudices, and encourage arguments to confront it.

Addressing contemporary challenges to hate speech is complex, including tackling root causes and drivers, preventing it from translating into violence and dealing with its wider societal consequences. At the global level, alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights follows up the right to freedom of expression (Article 19) with a prohibition of any advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (Article 20).

Complementing these principles, the Rabat Plan of Action proposes a “six part threshold test” to justify restrictions on freedom of expression, considering the socio-political context, status of the speaker, intent to incite antagonism, speech content, extent of dissemination and likelihood of harm.

How does hate speech operate differently offline and online via social media?
UNESCO recognises that hate speech online is not intrinsically different from hate speech offline. However, it differs in the nature of the interactions, as well as in the use and spread of specific words, accusations and conspiracy theories that can evolve, peak and fade very quickly. Hateful messages can go viral in hours or even minutes.

Online hate speech can be produced and spread at low cost, experiencing vastly different levels of exposure depending on the popularity of the post and can be posted cross-nationally. Hate speech online can also be available for longer and go through waves of popularity, connect with new networks or reappear, as well as be anonymous.

There is a growing consensus that more transparency and accountability from Internet companies is needed in this regard. Existing initiatives to promote greater transparency have remained largely aspirational, with corporate transparency reports providing a lot of data, but having significant gaps and covering different issues and in different ways.

There are major disparities in the types, sizes, business models and engineering of internet platform companies that indicate a need for high-level principles that can be applied across this diversity. High-level transparency principles address UNESCO’s key policy concerns, including freedom of expression, safety of journalists, viability of news media, privacy and combating hate speech, and disinformation. In particular, the new digital era requires dialogue between companies, regulators, governments, civil society, academia and the technical community experts.

Why are education and media information and literacy so important to address hate speech?
Strengthening education systems to build learners’ resilience to and awareness of hate speech, as well as educating them on their online and offline responsibilities and rights, is at the heart of UNESCO’s educational initiatives. Global citizenship education aims to empower learners of all ages to assume active roles, both locally and globally, in building more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure societies.

These initiatives include explicitly addressing hateful narratives, through programmes such as education addressing antisemitism, as well as preventing violent extremism by providing support to youth so they can engage against hateful and dangerous ideologies, and by training and guiding educators so they can develop young people’s resilience to violent extremism and mitigate through education the drivers of the phenomena.

Hate speech is often linked to misinformation and disinformation including conspiracy theories. Media information and literacy enables people to acquire competencies to critically evaluate information and messages and contribute to healthy online ecosystems for the public good and help to tackle the rising disinfodemic online.