How COVID-19 triggered a pandemic of hate
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, online hate has mushroomed by a jaw-dropping 20 percent. This was the finding of a report into the issue in the UK, but the problem is mirrored elsewhere. It appears that the viral pandemic triggered a pandemic of hate.
The report was based on a review of 263 million online conversations over 974 days. The hate largely centered on race, religion, gender and sexuality. There was a 28 percent increase in ethnicity-based and racist hate speech in the UK and US.
Much of this wave of hate was directed toward the Asian population in both countries, increasing by an alarming 1,662 percent compared with 2019. Social media posts included endless references to COVID-19 as the “China virus” or “kung flu.”
Online hate manifests itself in a host of ways. These include violent threats, slurs, nicknames, tropes and hateful imagery or symbols such as swastikas. It often erupts in bursts following trigger events. Brexit in Britain inspired a rise, as typically now do general elections in many countries. In the US, the killing of George Floyd led to an orgy of hate and vitriol typically directed against the Black Lives Matter movement.
Online anonymity allows racists, misogynists and other extremists to hide their identities. The hatemongers are cowards, extremist blowhards who enjoy not having to justify their venomous worldviews. This is why they often target women both on and offline. An opinion poll found that, in the UK, 72 percent of those who had suffered from online abuse said it came from anonymous accounts.
Many are pushing for online media companies to hold personal information on account holders and make it available to legal authorities if requested. Another option, one that would almost certainly be preferable, is a verification process. Users could decide to be verified and, therefore, to filter out those who choose not to be verified, allowing whistleblowers and others who need to protect their anonymity to continue to use social media.
Sadly, online abuse does not remain online. Evidence shows that online hate leads to offline violence. Of course, online crimes do not leave physical scars, yet how does one assess the emotional trauma, which can be far more damaging than physical aggression?
Social media has a major impact on war-torn countries, civil conflicts above all. The level of hate is extraordinary, not helped by the cyber armies deployed by many sides. In Afghanistan, Facebook was able to take down just 1 percent of hate speech, according to its own findings.
The Taliban are officially banned as a terrorist group, but Taliban supporters have had no difficulty pushing out their hate.
What about the Arabic-speaking world? Here, the big tech algorithms appear to be even less effective. According to an internal Facebook report, only 6 percent of Arabic hate content was detected on Instagram before being published compared with 40 percent on Facebook.
Daesh extremists were adept at using Arabic slang to bypass the algorithms. The social media giant almost certainly has too few Arabic, Pashto and Dari speakers, to the extent that complaining in certain local languages is impossible.
Online anonymity allows racists, misogynists and other extremists to hide their identities.
Why has this happened? Before the pandemic, the report found that levels of online hate were high, but stable. So why did it shoot up in 2020? Will it decline when the pandemic is over?
In part, the spike might be explained by the fact we have all been online more during the pandemic. Across the globe, people stuck at home had more time to indulge their bigotry. In the UK, British adults spent 8 percent more time online in 2020 compared with the previous year. Perhaps also at times of great distress, people want a scapegoat, a group to target and blame. But this does not suffice as an explanation.
Political leadership, or lack of it, on this issue has played a key role. Too many populists and dictators have sought to fan the flames of hate. They do this directly, often in their own words, but are backed by cyber armies and bots stoking the tensions.
As ever, given the complexity, simple solutions will not fix the problem. Further research is vital. Recorded numbers in themselves are misleading. Many crimes do not get reported. People are intimidated. Some victims just do not see the point — they have no faith that the authorities or tech companies will do anything. For some, hate crime has become so normalized that they do not bother. Authorities, therefore, have to create a climate of confidence that will allow victims to come forward.
Legally, the situation is far from clear. The terms “hate crime” and “hate speech” are not even legally defined in most jurisdictions. This makes it tough to prosecute as it stands. Then there is the question of whether the major social media sites are platforms or publishers.
The other debate circles around the inherent tension between hate crime and the right to free speech. This is particularly the case in the US, where freedom of speech is a sacred constitutional right. The genesis of the internet was feted as a triumph for those who had no voice — a way of opening up debate to everyone.
But the internet has been a terrific vehicle for hate merchants, criminals, extremists and pornographers. In Germany, the 2017 Network Enforcement Act elicited a tirade of fury from free speech campaigners. Germany, after the Second World War and the experience of Nazism, introduced the toughest hate speech laws arguably anywhere in the world. The UK government is pushing through its own online safety bill that will probably include criminal sanctions for both users and tech firm executives.
The social media giants have to do more. Their efforts so far are unconvincing. If they do not step up to the mark, many governments are more than willing to compel them. Right now, trust in their efforts is collapsing.
The cesspool of hate has pushed many people off these sites. No country, society or people is immune from this. It is a major cleanup operation that is long overdue. Above all, we need to work out how we can engage with greater civility and thought online.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech