Impact and prevention

Targets of hate

Minority groups

National, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities are a recurring target of hate speech, including online. According to the Special Rapporteur on Minority issues’ thematic report on hate speech, social media and minorities, “where disaggregated data is available on hate speech in social media or on hate crimes, approximately 70 per cent or more of those targeted tend to belong to minorities”. Members of minority groups are particularly disadvantaged as they are also more likely to be affected by restrictions and removal measures of social media content moderation systems, in addition to being the main targets of hate speech.

Recent incidents of hate speech, including racist slurs and - for the most serious cases - incitement to violence or genocide, reflected a truly global and worrisome trend targeting minority groups as diverse as the Igbo people in northern Nigeria, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Roma and the Sinti in Europe, or People of African descent among many others.

In addition, this trend has been further exacerbated by extremists groups and populist figures worldwide as the Covid-19 pandemic is weaponized to promote anti-minority narratives, disinformation and conspiracy theories scapegoating Jews, Muslims, Christian minorities, people of Asian descent especially those perceived as Chinese, and many more communities for the spread of the virus.

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Migrants and refugees

The scale of international migration has substantially increased in the past 20 years and the recent “migrants / refugees crisis” has prompted millions of people worldwide to escape poverty, conflicts, violence and persecution. In 2020, the United Nations estimated that about 281 million people were living outside their country of origin.

Traditionnaly, migrants and refugees tend to be particularly vulnerable to racism, discrimination and related intolerance. However, the trend of hate rhetoric and incitement against migrants and refugees worsened with the recent increase in the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants across various regions of the world – from Africa to the Middle East and South-Asia, and Europe to the Americas - where a large number of newcomers has put a strain on governments and taken over the public debate.

Increasingly, migrants and refugees are portrayed as unable to adapt to the local customs and life, and routinely associated with fears of violence and terrorism, while their positive contribution to societies is ignored. In a context where host populations feel confronted with challenges related to the arrival of newcomers with diverse backgrounds, cultures and religions, stereotyping and polarisation started to characterize domestic debate, dominate media coverage and shape national politics, while harsher measures targeting migrant and refugee communities are put in place. As extremist groups and politicians, but also news agencies, fuel hate speech against migrants and refugees to serve their own populist agenda, acts of intimidation and violence have spiked and disinformation has intensified, especially in times of pandemic.

The impact has already proven disastrous as migrants across the world face discrimination and economic hardship and thousands of refugees and asylum seekers live in dire conditions, or have been pushed back or deported to dangerous environments.

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Women and girls

Women and girls often suffer from complex and intersectional discrimination, which renders them vulnerable to hate propaganda. The Special Rapporteur on promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression reported that gender-based hate speech and disinformation are used extensively offline but also online to silence women as “in the digital age, the spate of online violence, hate speech and disinformation often compel women to self-censor, limit what they post or leave platforms.

Such online gender-based violence includes both hateful speech and hostile behaviour, often sexist or misogynistic, such as digital threats or incitement to physical or sexual violence. The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences has identified many forms of online hate affecting particularly women such as “sextortion” (non-consensual distribution of intimate content), doxing (publication of private information), trolling (producing content for the purpose of annoying, provoking or inciting violence against women), online bullying and harassment, online stalking (repeated harassment perpetrated by means of mobile phones or messaging applications), online sexual harassment and “revenge porn” (non-consensual online dissemination of intimate images).

Furthermore, women are more likely to be targeted online on the basis of their intersectional identities, most often facing racist hate speech. Women with public profiles - such as human rights defenders, politicians, journalists, video gamers, athletes and bloggers - or women belonging to national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, women and girls with disabilities, displaced and LGBTI individuals, as well as other at-risk groups are particularly targeted.

The harm caused by gender-based hate speech  and disinformation is real. Not only is it - at an individual level - affecting the mental and physical health of the women targeted, causing them professional and reputational damage, and in extreme cases, escalating to physical violence and even murder, but online attacks against women often lead to self-censorship, and therefore, limit women’s freedom of expression, their full participation in public life and affect democracy and the whole of society.

Furthermore, gender-based hate speech - as with all forms of gender-based violence -  increases in emergencies and in conflict settings and can lead to the incitement of conflict-related sexual violence and atrocity crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes).

Sadly, this phenomenon has only worsened during the pandemic. According to UN Women - the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women - online abuse against women has intensified, alongside a rise in offline domestic violence.

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Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and people who do not conform to gender stereotypes in general are routinely exposed to discrimination, stigma, hatred and abuse on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or their gender identity. In many cases, the sole the perception of their homosexuality or transgender identity is enough to put them at risk of abuse.

The specific challenges faced by LGBTQI+ people tend to be even more grievous as many countries criminalize non-conforming sexual orientation and gender identity - whether on grounds of morals, religion, traditional values and/or child protection - fostering and normalising intolerance, stigmatization and even violence as a result. Furthermore, LGBTQI+ individuals holding intersecting marginalised identities (for instance as members also of a minority group, migrants, refugees, or people with a disability) tend to face even more frequent and concerted attacks.

The rhetorics of exclusion targeting the LGBTQI+ community generally exploit deep-rooted stigma and prejudice, raising fear and moral concern that the mere existence of LGBTQI+ people may endanger the whole community, and therefore perpetuating the risk of discrimination and violence against them. As noted by the Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, these narratives - bearing the hallmarks of hate speech - have managed to capture and weaponise the popular imagination. Alarmingly, a significant proportion of hate narratives and vilification of LGBTQI+ people are created or amplified by influential figures such as political leaders, government officials, the media, or religious leaders.

Last but not least, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a context conducive to increased persecution as hate speech that explicitly or implicitly incites violence against LGBTQI+ people has been on the rise, including discourse by prominent political or religious leaders blaming the pandemic on the existence of LGBTQI+ members of the community, whether offline or on social media.

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Vocational targets

As highlighted in the latest World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development report (UNESCO, 2019), the “prevalent use of rhetoric that is hostile to the media as well as the discrediting of newsworthy and accurate journalistic reportage” - labelled as “fake news” - is a worrying trend. The dissemination of such narratives has not only contributed to undermine collective trust in the media and news reporters, but it has in some countries also “helped foment in parts of the population a sense of resentment”, deteriorating the work environments of journalists and media workers. When weaponized by political leaders, such narratives may not only contribute to the spread of disinformation but also curtail freedom of expression by threatening and muzzling journalists. Moreover, anti-media discourse appears “to have sometimes served as a justification for perpetrators of attacks against journalists”, raising concerns regarding the public vilification of and attacks on media workers.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, where disinfodemic runs rampant with consequences that may be fatal for those left unable to access reliable information and implement scientifically- grounded preventive measures, journalists but also many professionals such as medical and health care workers, human rights defenders, whistle-blowers, and peace-building workers are also being subjected to hate speech and attacks as a result of their work in addressing or reporting on the pandemic; and professionals who expose disinformation may find themselves targets of hate and disinformation-fuelled attacks in return.

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There should be no room for misogyny and violence in journalism. social media platforms and governments must protect women journalists from online violence.

While both men and women journalists may be exposed to hate speech and threats to their safety in the course of their career, women journalists are additionally targeted online as well as offline not only for the content of their work but for daring to have a voice and for existing in the public sphere as women.

The growing trend of online violence experienced by female journalists covers often brutal, misogynistic online harassment and abuse that frequently involve threats of physical and/or sexual violence; digital privacy and security breaches that exacerbate offline safety risks facing women journalists and their sources; and are often coupled with disinformation campaigns leveraging misogyny and other forms of hate speech.

A 2021 global survey reveals that 73% of female journalist respondents claimed to have experienced a form of online violence, frequently citing threats of physical (25%) and sexual violence (18%), while 20% stated that they had been attacked or abused offline in connection with hate they had experienced online. Black and indigenous women journalists were targeted more often than white women.

Whether online or offline, hatred towards women journalists is obviously reflective of broader issues of sexism in society. However, gendered hate speech and violence, even in the virtual world can have dire consequences, leading to self-censorship as female journalists drop investigative work, avoid reporting on certain topics, or abandon their profession altogether. The failure to address and reprehend online hate can also be fatal in most serious cases, as is demonstrated by physical attacks on and murders of women journalists that were preceded by online hate campaigns and threats.

“We can draw a direct line between hate speech and antisemitic,, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian violence. And we see it mirrored in acts of misogyny against women, and violence against refugees, migrants, and minorities, including people of Asian descent who were outrageously blamed for COVID‑19.”

— United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, October 2021