What hate speech is, and isn’t

Hate speech isn’t online “trolling” or bullying. Important distinctions must be made about an online culture that also includes debate, harassment and even radicalization.

Kristian A. Bjørkelo

Photo: Shutterstock. Copyrighted.

Photo: Shutterstock. Copyrighted.

For better or for worse, electronic communication and social media are expanding our social and cultural spheres in ways that would have unthinkable just a few decades ago. The World Wide Web allows the fast spread of ideas and virtual cultural artefacts, connects people over vast distances and offers instant communication. All this makes it easier to join democratic debates and processes and often makes them more inviting and manageable. You don’t have to be in the physical vicinity of whatever institution you want to influence. You don’t have to be in the same room with the people you want to debate.

The non-spatial and nonphysical space of the Web also allows for online identity play. It offers the chance to construct and reconstruct oneself as one pleases. You can even choose virtual anonymity, although no one is actually totally anonymous online.

I am a fan of all of this. The Web can be used for good and it is being used for good. It is a forum for new and unusual ideas, gives voice to the few and the disenfranchised and allows for freer and more unhindered access to ideas and knowledge. I embrace all of this with a passion. I spend half my day online, hanging out with people from all over the world. I never know where I am going to end up, or what I am going to learn.

There is, however, a downside. Anonymity and identity play also allow one to feel released from social mores, our norms, to feel that anything goes because, “It isn’t real. It’s only online”. You can say anything you want, but remarks you see as funny and harmless may be very hurtful to an unintended target. Furthermore, the Web is not just a venue for bringing people together, but can also be used to inflict misery on people and become a tool used by those who oppose democracy and an open society. I follow many extremist groups in social media and many of them are both very active and very good at what they do. They use the Web for propaganda, to show the alleged ills of democratic society and to promote their own agenda. The use of Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube is important, since these social media platforms can become the lenses through which an audience sees the world. In this realm, you find sexy Tumblr-blogs by fascists and YouTube-channels filled with violent propaganda, as well as philosophy and political theory seeking to legitimize extremist standpoints. This is as much a part of the Web as all those positive aspects. To consider all this, we first have to figure out what such disruptive influences are and what forms they actually take. As a cultural scientist working on online culture, I would like to explain some of the nuances of this virtual world to those not immersed in it.

We Norwegians hear a lot about online “trolls” and “trolling” when we discuss radicalization, extremism and ignorant or hateful comments. The word “troll” is part of Norwegian folklore and conjures up images of huge monsters lurking in our steep mountains and our dark forests. In fact, trolls are often portrayed as being partly made from wood and the lore claims they turn into stone when hit by sunlight. Local legends point out landscape features that are said to be the stony remains of trolls caught outside at sunrise.

An online troll, a cyber troll, on the other hand, is an entirely different creature. These trolls are, by their very nature, a disruptive social element. Their aim is “to troll” a discussion, a website or social situation and some even see their trolling as a social art form, possibly one of the first social art forms born of the digital age. A true online troll will disrupt any situation, just for the heck of it, or – in Internet jargon – “for the lulz”, meaning for a good laugh.

Etymologically speaking, the cyberspace word “trolling” is a combination of the troll monster of fairytales and of the two fishing techniques of trawling (using large nets to scoop up as much as possible) and trolling (fishing with a line of baited hooks). Both fishing terms give us important clues about what cyber trolling entails. You “troll” by misrepresenting your own views, or those of your victim. A troll will twist every word, misinterpret everything you say and put words in your mouth. A troll will do anything to piss you off. A troll does not want to convince you of anything, it just wants to push your buttons, frustrate you and make you angry. This is very different from hate speech, even if trolling might involve elements of both bullying and hate speech.

Trolling becomes bullying when the troll won’t let go, when the troll becomes vindictive and starts harassing the victim. Bullying can be politically motivated, but it doesn’t have to be. The harassment of female writers and feminists online is often political, such as in attacks by the men’s rights activists (MRA) movement, an angry, reactionary group of men who feel disenfranchised and threatened by feminism and frustrated by the fact that not every woman wants to sleep with them.

However, the bullying and harassment that children as subjected to online appears to have many of the same roots as bullying and harassment between children in real life. Some would call it “kids acting out”, but it is spiteful and malicious. Bullying is no longer just happens on the playground or on the way home from school; it follows young people into their homes and their bedrooms, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on Instagram, on Facebook. Bullies use whatever means are at their disposal. You can, of course, restrict bullies’ access, you can limit the harm they do, you can prevent smart phones from being brought into gym class, the locker room, or wherever. But bullying is flexible and bullies are creative, always finding find new ways to harass their victims, whether through new technology, new arenas or other means. In short, technology is not the problem; it is simply a tool. The solutions are social and cultural and, at times, political.

The Fappening and The Snappening
In the autumn of 2014, users of the controversial Internet imageboard forum ‘4chan’ made headlines again, releasing images of nude female celebrities retrieved from hacked phones and cloud servers, mostly Apple’s iCloud. It was called ‘The Fappening’, from ‘fapping’, which is Web slang for masturbation.

They did this “for the lulz”, for the heck of it. In most cases their activities can be considered trolling. Even when they hack and attack individuals, they do so to provoke reactions. Sometimes, as with the Fappening, they clearly cross the line to both bullying and harassment. And while the Fappening got headlines, tracking down wayward nude pictures and their owners, is pretty standard behaviour in this anonymous forum. They consider it great fun.

The “Snappening”, inspired by the Fappening, soon followed. The Snappening was largely the work of Norwegian 4chan users and began as the simple sharing of nude photos they got from friends or girlfriends on Snapchat. Apparently, this escalated into hacking Snapchat accounts and mining them for nude photos, preferably of girls, regardless of their age. Again, we see how more or less innocent trolling turns into harassment.

A current topic of discussion online is #GamerGate. The hashtag was started by the culturally conservative American actor Adam Baldwin (known, in part, for his roll as mercenary Jayne Cobb on the cancelled hit TV show Firefly). The hashtag has been a focal point for frustration and anger in the online gaming community. It is a very contentious issue that is not easily boiled down to a paragraph or two. Ostensibly, #GamerGate is about ethics in game journalism, after an ex-boyfriend publically accused a game developer of sleeping with journalists to get good reviews. It quickly escalated and involves a lot of controversial issues. In particular, the gamers supporting #GamerGate have turned their sights on feminists, feminist critiques of games and academics. The vitriol and hatred directed towards their “enemies” has been shocking and can only be explained by the movement has been partly co-opted by “cultural warriors” of a more radical bent than Baldwin, including representatives of the aforementioned MRA movement. The latter also explains why feminists have suffered the brunt of the attacks.

#GamerGate became mainstream news when feminist critics and opponents received death threats and were forced to flee their homes. Public appearances have also been cancelled after bomb threats and threats of massacres, although – in all fairness – members of the #GamerGate movement claim to have been key in exposing those behind these threats, adding to the complexity of the issue.

At this point, we are no longer just addressing harassment. We have crossed the threshold into the realm of hate speech.

Hate speech
When political harassment targets specific groups or starts encouraging violence against individuals and groups, it becomes hate speech. Hate speech is the expression of hatred toward individuals and groups on the grounds of politics, religion, race, national origin, sexual orientation and the like. Hate speech diminishes the target’s humanity and reduces the victim’s human worth.

Internet has changed the scale and reach of such hateful comments. For example, if I say something nasty about my Asian neighbour, is it actually a big deal? My neighbour’s feelings will probably be hurt and I’d likely have to apologize, but have I done any real damage? The problem, of course, is the systematic dehumanizing of a group of individuals, leading to those engaging in hate speech and the ideas it expresses to value the subjects less and less. As the threshold for dehumanizing statements is lowered, the threshold for actually acting on these sentiments is also lowered. If you call someone an animal, or a parasite, long enough, you might eventually end up treating them as if they were precisely that. When enough people listen to and internalize hate speech, it can have tragic consequences, as history has proven far too often. This is the power of words; the power of propaganda.

One example in recent history is Rwanda, where members of the Hutu majority slaughtered Tutsis and moderate Hutus after years of social tension compounded by hate speech in government-sponsored radio and other media. The Tutsis were routinely referred to as subhuman and as cockroaches. Once the situation escalated, it became “okay” to kill those traitorous “cockroaches”. Similarly, the atrocities that turned neighbour against neighbour in Yugoslavia did not come out of the blue, but, rather, were the result of malicious propaganda and hate speech. People were taught to fear and hate their neighbours. Of course, we all know how the Nazis fuelled existing anti-Semitism in Germany and in occupied and allied countries, enabling mass violence, deportations, killings and genocide. In short, there are good reasons that many countries have some sort of legal restraints on such propaganda. There are also good reasons to take online hate speech seriously.

Another aspect of negative social behaviour in digital space is, of course, extremism and radicalization. As I have mentioned, extremist groups use social media and electronic communication to promote their causes, to disseminate hate speech and to recruit. Extremist groups often specifically target young people, particularly those seeking a purpose in life. If the potential young recruits have been ostracized in some way, so much the better for the extremists. If your message is that the establishment is the enemy, there is no more receptive target for such propaganda than someone who feels excluded by that establishment.

In Norway, we have seen a surge in numbers of radical Islamists in and around the capital of Oslo in recent years. These groups have recruited disenfranchised youth at mosques, as well as from criminal groups made up of so-called “second-generation immigrants”, the descendants of families with non-Norwegian origins. These radical Islamists have fostered belief in a strict Salafist interpretation of Islam, an interpretation that is in sharp contrast to the criminal lifestyles some of their central activists once embraced. These young people have taken their new religious quest online, where they engage in discussions on Facebook and various web forums. They seek to convince other young Muslims that their interpretation of the Koran is the only true and possible understanding of their religion. They look to their fellow Salafi and to Islamist extremists around the world and echo their propaganda, through with a strong, online presence, including videos.

Generally, however, Norwegian Islamists are consumers of foreign online propaganda. The Web is full of texts, discussions and videos aimed at strengthening their resolve and shoring up their belief in the righteousness of their cause. For a long time, most of these videos focused on recruitment as mujahedeen fighters (in Afghanistan and Pakistan) and on religious scholarship. More recently, the self-declared Islamic State has had some success with violent recruitment videos showing off their victories and their harsh treatments of prisoners. For an unseasoned viewer, it is sometimes difficult to understand how these horrible videos can serve as recruitment tools. Their target audience, however, has been groomed with earlier propaganda.

Mass recruitment of foreign fighters for the Islamic State certainly also happens through offline networks. However, it would not have been possible without the Web; online radicalization definitely plays a role.

Conclusion: Understanding the Web
I always feel guilty when I discuss these issues because I have to focus so much on the negative. In reality, I love the Web and I love the opportunities it gives us to influence each other and to engage each other in meaningful discussion and play. However, to understand the Web, we have to delve into both the positive and the negative. This does not only teach us something about the Internet, it also teaches us a lot about what it means to be human in our modern world. Being social is being social, whether online or offline and our online activities are expressions of human nature, for better and for worse.

At the same time, we have to understand the kind of communication the freedom of the Web allows. Hiding behind computer screens, anonymity and funny online names, we feel free from our physical and social self. Ironically, the anonymity of the Internet allows us to drop our masks and to be truthful and more playful about who and what we. One side of this is identity play, reconstruction of our identity, enhancing or hiding aspects of ourselves, even adding new traits. Want to be a different gender? Online, you can. You can also become troll, you can be a “tough guy” and harass someone, you can say everything you have ever believed and everything you never believed. You can channel your anger in any way you want. You can rant and rave in ways you would never dare to or be allowed to on the street or in a newspaper.

Understanding the phenomenon of online hatred, bullying, harassment and extremism means learning the difference between playful trolling, vindictive harassment and venomous hate speech. We have to learn to recognize the signifiers indicating, for example, playfulness. In other words, those seeking to probe such phenomena also need to learn the vernacular of the Internet, memes as a social phenomenon and the different genres of electronic expression. It will take a lot of work.


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Kristian A. Bjørkelo

About Kristian A. Bjørkelo

Kristian A. Bjørkelo is a Norwegian folklorist. He writes on Internet culture, Internet folklore and on extremism, and has edited a book about blogging, Gi meg en scene! Norsk blogghistorie (Humanist forlag, 2013).
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One Response to What hate speech is, and isn’t

  1. Tobias Reidarsen April 21, 2016 at 3:43 pm #

    “[…] the men’s rights activists (MRA) movement, an angry, reactionary group of men who feel disenfranchised and threatened by feminism and frustrated by the fact that not every woman wants to sleep with them.”, Det er ikke sant.

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