Imagine a girl called Nam.
Like so many other 15-year olds, she shared photos of herself on social media with a post about feeling lonely under lockdown. But to her dismay, in amongst the messages from her friends, she also read hateful comments about her skin colour from people she barely even knew. Strangers began pestering her via private messages.
The comments got to her and she began to feel anxious. Afraid of opening up to share her feelings, she shut herself out from the world around her.
Now imagine a boy called Shamail.
Shamail’s family had recently immigrated to a new country to live a better life. Their hopes of starting fresh, making new friends, and learning a new language came crashing down when their ethnicity came under attack on various online platforms.
Organized groups on social media had been sharing false information, memes, and fabricated videos about his people and they were gaining momentum online, making Shamail and his family feel increasingly unsafe in public spaces.
What Nam and Shamail experienced are existing fractures and prejudices that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The surge of discriminatory language including anti-immigrant sentiments, cyberbullying, and xenophobia has been evident across social media platforms, making hate speech an important consequence of the pandemic in the region.
Some of the memes and posts have triggered conspiracy theories, fueling false information and rumors about groups of people, increasing the divide in society, and potentially contributing to physical violence and persecution.
But what is hate speech, why is it so dangerous?
While there still is no single definition of hate speech across the world, United Nations says that hate speech uses discriminatory language and can corner the ‘other’ based on who they are.
Put simply, hate speech is a language that generates division and hatred against communities based on their identity. This means, based on religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender, or sexuality.
Hate speech can be conveyed not only through words and slurs, but also through memes, images, cartoons, art objects, gestures, and symbols.
The problem is that language and ways of communicating are evolving constantly. New memes or slurs crop up all the time, and the online world makes it easier than ever to spread hate and misinformation. On the other hand, voicing an opinion is a human right.
Across the world, social media companies, governments, and societies are debating how to strike an important balance between maintaining free speech, but also stopping the spread of hate speech. This is incredibly difficult to do.
Addressing online hate speech is important for communities to recover from the consequences of the pandemic. But it is important to make sure that any attempt to address hate speech does not exacerbate current problems or unintentionally silence dissent.
It is about keeping hate from escalating into something more dangerous, like incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence.
Striking a balance between hate speech and free speech requires a common understanding across all sectors, including tech companies, governments, civil society, and individuals.
Nevertheless, there are many different ways of tackling the problem.
We can try to better understand the patterns around the spread of hateful messages and its root causes in each community. With the support of the European Union, UNDP has been using a development approach to tackle this issue.
For example, in Sri Lanka, UNDP supports the use of technology and research tools to monitor and analyze the patterns of potentially dangerous online hate speech and to prevent its spread across social media platforms.
The learnings from this work have helped the peacebuilders in Sri Lanka to develop positive content and counter the hateful messages online.
In the Maldives, UNDP is developing a platform that collects, combines, and communicates information on hate speech. Based on the research and learnings from this project, UNDP has come up with a set of recommendations that offer solutions to increase public awareness, coordinate efforts to combat hate speech, and build the capacity of those working on countering hate speech.
While young people like Nam and Shamail navigate the struggles of being perceived as ‘different’ in their communities, the global development actors, governments, tech companies, and individuals need to join forces to address online hate speech and promote a more respectful and inclusive community for all.
Find out more about the ongoing initiatives of UNDP and partners in your region and spread the word to stop hate speech online.
Words: Mitra Modaressi, Margarita Cherkasova
Animations: Meel Tamphanon