By Thomas Klikauer and Meg Young
Cyberbullying and Internet hate speech continues unabated. If anything, it has gotten worse, perhaps turbo-charged by the Coronavirus pandemic forcing people to sit at home in social isolation. Recently, UK anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label has completed a study on hate speech which focuses on transphobia, racism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny, and violent threats against a wide range of identities.
Ditch the Label is dedicated to promoting equality and provides support to young people who have been negatively affected by bullying and prejudice. It is an award-winning charity and its work spans across the UK, the USA and Mexico. It is dedicated to empowering people aged 12–25 to overcome bullying.
Since the Coronavirus pandemic, it has not been uncommon for many to recognize a rise in racism and hate speech. From the US’ movement Black Lives Matter to protests, to #stopasianhate, to celebrity involvement, and even the highly influential Council on Foreign Relations, a global recognition of hate speech and attacks about transphobia and homophobia has been recognized as being a reality. And this is not just on the Internet.
To ascertain this, Ditch The Label used Brandwatch to look at a whopping 263,000,000 online conversations on hate speech posted in a range of online forums. Its task was to illuminate how hate speech has changed since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2019. Ditch The Label examined social media sites, forums, and blogs to scrutinize how hate speech and racism have taken a foothold between 2019 and mid-2021. The report found that there has been a highly disturbing upsurge in Internet-based hate speeches during the months of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Worse, between 2019 and mid-2021, on average, there was a new post about race or hate speech every 1.7 seconds. Perhaps not too unconnected to Donald Trump’s China-Virus speeches, at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic stimulated ethnicity-based hate speech rose sharply. Simultaneously, anti-Asian hate became significantly more common and widespread.
Overall, there was a 28% increase in ethnicity-based and racist hate speech in the UK and US. Just since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, online violent threats in the UK increased by 10%. This upsurge matched significant political events such as the Black Lives Matter movement and its protests during the summer of 2020, as well as violent attacks against people in Asian communities.
Worse, anti-Asian hate speech increased by an unprecedented 1,662% in 2020 compared to 2019. And yes, that is indeed one-thousand and six-hundred and sixty-two percent. The staggering number of 1,662% illustrates how quickly race-based hate speech can grow. Compared to that, hate speech about gender or gender identity has increased by 14% since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. In other words, even a seemingly unrelated issue – gender – has experienced an up-search in hate speech.
Unlike gender, homophobia has fared worse. Homophobia made up 85% of online conversations relating to hate speech about sexual orientation. All three – anti-Asian hate speech, gender-related hate speech, and homophobia – can quickly turn into violence. Online posts about violent threats saw a rather serious – 22% – increase following the start of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Much of this got worse with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement during the summer of 2020. This indicates a potentially dangerous impact on society what online hate speech can have on real attacks. In short, the path from online violence to “real world” violence is often rather short.
During the 974 days in 2019 to 2021 in which Ditch The Label examined online hate speech, men were two times more likely to post messages about the issue of cancel culture – today’s version of ostracism, in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles. This can be online and in social media as the Ditch The Label study shows. But it can also be in person. Yet, those subjected to this sort of ostracism and shunning are said to have been canceled, hence cancel culture.
Most importantly, in the US as well as in the UK, occurrences of reported hate crimes correlated rather strongly with online hate speech. In other words, observing hate speech on the Internet might indicate a soon-to-be expected transition from hate speech to hate crimes.
The FBI, for example, no longer limits its view of hate crime to perpetrators acting on the basis of a bias against the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin, it also includes crimes committed against those based on biases of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender.
Yet, the study indicates that there is a troubling link between such hate crimes and what is happening on the Internet. This relates to three forms of Internet-based hate speech: these are violent threats, slurs, and hateful images. These can roughly be divided into 61.6% slurs, 7.6% that show hateful images, and 30.8% of messages that issue violent threats. Yet, there is no marked difference between the UK and the USA with regard to these numbers.
One of the most common methods of online hate speech is the use of slurs and insults. Some victims of hate speech posted messages on the Internet about the circumstances in which they were called hateful names or slurs. Others testified on how unsafe and deeply hurt they felt following those incidents. Meanwhile, perpetrators of hate speech often prefer the anonymity of the Internet when attacking others using racist, sexist, and homophobic terms.
Following the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, new slurs, especially targeting the Asian community, began circulating on the Internet. Some mutated into violent threats. Violent threats remain the second most common practice of online hate speech.
Violent threats, plans for violent attacks, and discussions of violent threats are most likely to occur on Internet forums (e.g. Reddit, 4chan, etc.). Finally, there are also images and symbols of hate used on the Internet. These saw the largest increase (up by 28%) in sheer volume since the Coronavirus pandemic began.
One of the truly disturbing findings is the fact that between 2019 and mid-2021, on average there was a new post about race or ethnicity-based hate speech every 1.7 seconds on the Internet. Among the 263 million messages of hate speech – one is sent every 1.7 seconds – and, these are rather shocking examples of what people had to endure:
· The first time I was called a n***** I was 9 years old. I still remember that day.
· I feel compelled to share my experience after the discussions about the NHS and racism. I had a patient call me a racial slur on my first day of working at the nurses’ desk. Not a single staff member acknowledged that it happened so I just left. If you are shocked by racism being alive and well today, you aren’t paying attention.
· So many kids called me ‘towel head’ in school and bullied me for being Persian. I hated every minute of going to school with them.
· I wouldn’t hire a Jew even if they made me, so shut up you Jew b*tch!
· The white race defeated you s**** because you were weak. We enslaved n*****s because they were dumb. We won land from the Indians because they were sissies. It’s why I pay people to cut my damn lawn.
· Tell me how it feels being a part of the ugliest and least desirable race in this world, you n***
As mentioned above, hate speech against Asians increased significantly with the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. Even though the World Health Organization warned, Don’t attach locations or ethnicity to the disease, Donald Trump carried on regardless.
In part as engineered by Donald Trump, Anti-Asian hate speech increased by a whopping 2,770% in 2020 compared to 2019 – the year the Coronavirus pandemic impacted and Donald Trump cranked up his racist rhetoric.
Anti-Asian hate speeches peaked with the announcement that there is a global COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. References to the virus as China virus and kung flu are connected to an increase of hate speech against Asian people. Incidents of violence, threats, and attacks on Asians, Asian-Americans, and British-Asians increased over the summer of 2020, which brought a focus on Asian hate and the #StopAsianHate hashtag.
Following the murder of six Asian women and two others in March of 2021 in Atlanta, a renewed online rally of support for the Asian-American community regarding the hate crimes and hate speech was born. Celebrities such as Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim (e.g. US Congress testimony), and George Takei (Mr Sulu on Starship Enterprise) all called for increased awareness, support, and an end to the violent rhetoric and attacks on Asian communities.
Celebrities like these and many others drove many of the spikes in hate speech. Yet, there are two groups: some used hate speech themselves while others were the victims of hate speech. People often used the Coronavirus pandemic to drum up online messages about anti-Asian racism. Much of these hate speeches were driven by celebrities, politicians, leaders, and so-called influencers.
Interestingly, the use of slurs and violent language against different groups that came from political leaders and influencers tended to prompt a spike in the use of similar words or phrases by others.
An example of this was the use of terms to describe COVID-19 that began at the beginning of the pandemic. The week that Trump started referring to the Coronavirus pandemic as the China Virus, there were 151,716 mentions of the term online that week alone, up from 1,024 references to the term the week prior.
Since Donald Trump’s first-time usage of the term China Virus to describe the Coronavirus pandemic, there have now been over 1.2 million posts using the phrase. Fortunately, there also were instances where celebrities came forward as victims of hate speech, whether online or in person.
Some tried to shine a light on the topic of online harassment and misogyny, homophobia, and racism. In other instances, people rallied behind celebrities who had publicly been the victim of hate speech at the hands of other celebrities or politicians.
In the end, 263 million messages of hate speech remain a staggering number. Worse, there is another online hate speech posted every 1.7 seconds on the Internet. Yet, there are also two very clear links: the first link is between online hate speech and violent action. In short, racist violence follows online hate speech.
The second link is between what celebrities and politicians like Donald Trump say and the number of hate speech messages posted on the Internet. In other words, right-wing populist politicians drive online hate speech. The study shows a clear link between what politicians like Donald Trump say, what is posted on the Internet, and real world hate crimes.
Thomas Klikauer teaches at the Sydney Graduate School of Management at Western Sydney University, Australia. He has over 600 publications including a book on the AfD.
Meg Young is a professional number cruncher and Pomeranian lover who enjoys good books, foreign films and music.
Originally published in BuzzFlash