Signal Boost: Hate Speech and Social Media

Hate speech is by no means new. But thanks to the expansive use of digital technologies, it has become an increasingly dangerous phenomenon. Across the globe, it has fueled polarization, radicalization and violence. Addressing hate speech has become part of the broader work in conflict prevention and peacebuilding as well as conflict management and resolution.

Hate speech has long been recognized as a precursor to atrocity crimes, including genocide, from Rwanda to Bosnia to Cambodia, as Secretary-General António Guterres recalled at the launch of the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech in 2019. The role Radio Télévision Libre Mille Collines played in fueling the mass killings in Rwanda in 1994, for example, is well documented. But digital technology and social media have exponentially boosted the destructive power of hate speech. In Myanmar, a campaign of hate speech that included language dehumanizing the Rohingya, has been linked to the commission of grave human rights violations in the country in 2017.

Taking their cue from the Secretary-General — who stressed at the launch of the strategy that hate speech is a menace to democratic values, social stability and peace to be confronted at every turn — the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and Peace Operations (DPO) developed a joint roadmap to monitor and analyze hate speech trends and their implications in conflict or crisis settings, harness internal and external expertise, and engage with the private sector, particularly technology companies. DPPA and DPO also aim to boost their support to field presences, particularly considering that many Special Political Missions and peacekeeping operations lack adequate capacities to respond to this complex and far-reaching phenomenon. Field missions as well as many Peace and Development Advisors (PDAs) in Resident Coordinators’ Offices (RCOs) are at the forefront of implementing activities with national and international partners to counter hate speech.

“Given the prominence of social media today, it’s clear we must find ways to better understand and engage with social media companies,” Alexandra Fong, Chief of Policy and Guidance in DPPA’s Policy and Mediation Division, said.

In the case of Myanmar, an independent international fact-finding mission discussed with Facebook how to curtail the spread of hate speech and deter incitement to violence in the country. Facebook, which had been identified as the biggest platform for hate speech in Myanmar, went on to remove the pages of several individuals and organizations, including that of the Commander-in-Chief, and shut down the official pages of the Arakan Army, the Kachin Independence Army, the Myanmar Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, which were identified as “dangerous organizations”, in an effort to “reduce the likelihood that Facebook will be used to facilitate offline harm”.

UN presences around the globe have been working with social media companies in innovative ways to help address hate speech. Here’s a snapshot of that work in Iraq and Libya:

Pro-active engagement with social media companies in the context of a sensitive peace process

United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL)

The peace process in Libya has, at various stages, been negatively impacted by propaganda operations. In recent years, such operations have relied extensively on social media, particularly Facebook. UNSMIL assessed that to address this challenge traditional communication strategies would not be enough. In this regard, the Mission opened a direct line of communication and collaboration with Facebook, the most used social media platform in Libya, with around 5.5 million active accounts and pages for a population of 7 million people. “The more we move forward with the peace process, the more we would see misleading campaigns and hatred narratives on social media,” said Jean El Alam, UNSMIL Spokesperson.

The immediate focus was to work with Facebook to swiftly address hate speech campaigns, especially against women participating in the peace process and negotiations. UNSMIL’s Public Information Office, together with the Human Rights Service in the Mission, and Facebook held workshops that brought together decision-makers in media outlets, bloggers, social media influencers, civil society representatives and other activists. The main objective was to introduce them to Facebook’s community standards and to human rights guidelines in relation to hate speech and freedom of speech. Participants in the UNSMIL workshops agreed on a unified Code of Conduct.

“After the first series of workshops, more than 100 Libyan media personnel, bloggers, academics, political figures, writers and opinion leaders, issued public statements denouncing the use of hate speech, incitement and mis- and disinformation,” El Alam said.

Online hate speech and incitement against civil society activists: Advocacy for content removal and digital security and digital rights training

Human Rights Office of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI)

Following the launch of the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, UNAMI developed its own Plan of Action and commenced its implementation in early 2020. UNAMI’s Human Rights Office joined the Trusted Partnership Agreement with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to engage with social media companies, which offers a platform to refer any hate speech content or incitement to violence for removal.

In the context of the demonstrations in Iraq in 2020, protesters and activists using social media frequently received threats and were confronted with hate-speech content. UNAMI carried out advocacy to encourage efforts to remove harmful content.

In 2021, UNAMI’s Human Rights Office commenced the implementation of a digital security and digital rights project aimed at providing protection for human rights activists from online threats. UNAMI has so far provided digital security training to more than 175 civil society activists.

The United Nations Strategy defines hate speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identity factor”. The Plan of Action aims to address the root causes of hate speech and to help Member States respond to its impact on societies.

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