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Hate speech: A growing, international threat

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United Nations UNiting Against Hate, episode 5

Hate speech is having a demonstrable effect on society: one of the many similarities between the January attacks on Brazil’s government buildings, and the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, is that each occurred after certain groups repeatedly directed dangerous rhetoric and false claims against others.

Concerns over the growing phenomenon have prompted independent human rights experts to call on major social media platforms to change their business models and become more accountable in the battle against rising hate speech online.

Recently, the case of divisive social media influencer Andrew Tate captured widespread media attention, following his detention in Romania, as part of an investigation into allegations of human trafficking and rape, which he denies.

Tate was previously banned from various prominent social media platforms, including TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube for expressing misogynistic views and hate speech.

In the new UN Podcasts series UNiting Against Hate, producer Katy Dartford speaks to prominent activists whose work has made them the subjects of online attacks, disinformation, and threats.

Hate speech and deadly violence in South Sudan

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In South Sudan, internet access is limited to a small elite, but activists such as Edmund Yakani, one of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders, are nevertheless targeted by online hate speech.

In this episode of the UNiting Against Hate podcast, Mr. Yakani explains how hate speech, both in-country and from the diaspora, is contributing to further violence in the world’s newest internationally recognized country: 60 per cent of deadly violence in the country, he says, is triggered by hate speech.

Mr. Yakani says that has often been the victim of online attacks, in which his image, or statement has made, have been distorted. “Some describe me as a type of an animal, a cockroach, monkey or snake, or just call me a murderer.”

“This narrative has huge implications. It destroys my social fabric, my relationships with others, and it generates mistrust and a lack of confidence in people towards me.”

Hate speech is having a destabilizing influence on his country, worries Mr. Yakani, making violence the primary tool for resolving disputes. The answer, in his opinion, is more investment in effective responses, which include targeted sanctions on those responsible, improved legislation, and education.

Despite the many risks to his own security, Mr Yakani continues to strive to ensure accountability, justice and respect for human rights. “Anybody who is standing and demanding accountability, transparency, and fighting against corruption, or demanding democratic transformation, is always a target of hate speech.”

© UNICEF/Dhiraj Singh Children in a Mumbai slum. Dalits are often the most disadvantaged members of Indian society

‘Coming out’ as Dalit

When in 2015  Yashica Dutt, publicly described herself as Dalit – a group of people who, according to those who subscribe to the Indian caste system, sit at the bottom of the pyramid – she became another victim of hate speech.

“I was very vocal. I was talking about what caste looks like and how we need to identify and acknowledge that it exists and no longer erase it. And obviously that narrative bothered a lot of people, so I have been a part of many troll attacks”.

The journalist and award-winning author of the memoir “Coming out as Dalit” says that caste exists within Indian societies, whether in the country itself, or the Indian diaspora. The rise of social media has, she says, led to racism, hate, and verbal assaults making an unwelcome comeback.

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Her Tumblr blog, “Documents of Dalit discrimination”, is an effort to create a safe space to talk about the trauma of what it comes to be a lower-caste person, but she says she now faces hate speech every day on Twitter and Facebook.

“If I give a talk or have a panel discussion, there are always a few trolls,” she says. “I’m told that I’m being paid by a mysterious agency, rather than because I’m truly sick of the discrimination that I face and that people around me face.”

Hate speech “truly does have a heinous form online because you can mobilise armies of trolls to swarm on your account and make sure that you never use your voice again. And it’s quite scary,” she says.

According to Ms Dutt one prominent right-wing account incited its million or so followers to hurl abuses, slurs, and make threat of physical or sexual assault, and even death.

“I had to go offline for a long time. Even though I live in New York, a lot of the threats comes from India. And now we have the rise of fundamentalist Hindu communities in the US as well. It was scary, and over time I’ve learnt how to cope with it.”

“Consciously or subconsciously, this affects how we use our voice. Ultimately, you think if I tweet this in this particular way, what is going to be the consequence?”

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‘I buried all my hopes’

Another female writer and journalist who has experienced the life-threatening effects of hate speech is writer and journalist Martina Mlinarević.

For years, Ms Mlinarević, who is also the ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Czech Republic, wrote about aspects of corruption in her country. For this she faced threats and insults online, but the level of abuse reached a new level, when a photo of her mastectomy scar was published in a magazine, a first for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“I had to move with a small child to another city due to threats and cyberbullying. The toughest and saddest part for me was fleeing my home town, where I lived for 37 years.”

Ms Mlinarević explains how, in 2020, when she came to Prague, a doll created to resemble her was burned at a traditional carnival. “It was a kind of persecution campaign to punish me not only for the exposure of the scar on my breast, but also for daring to comment on politics and to promote gender issues and all other problems.”

All these attacks were unpunished at that time, and they escalated into misogynistic, intimidating threats to her safety and family. “For me that was the point when I buried all my hopes regarding the area where I came from”.

Despite her experiences, Ms. Mlinarević remains optimistic for the future. “I’m trying to work with young people as much as I can, trying to empower their voice, girls’ and women’s voices, and trying to teach them to stand up for themselves, and for others. Let’s hope the future will bring something better for all of our children.”

You can subscribe to our UN Podcasts series, UNiting Against Hate, here.

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