Many countries around the world recognize June as Pride Month—a time to celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people, while reflecting on the community’s history. But this year it’s not just sunshine and rainbows. In cyberspace, the discourse about LGBTQ people and their rights is increasingly crowded with hate speech. On any given day, my own Twitter feed is sprinkled with posts arguing that LGBTQ people are “grooming” children, claiming same-sex couples shouldn’t be represented in Disney movies, or attacking the validity and humanity of transgender people. While I find these messages deeply distressing, I’m forced to ask myself, “Is this hate speech?”

In this blog, I’m going to use the example of LGBTQ hate speech to lay out what hate speech is, link it to the international development context, and explore what social media platforms and other stakeholders are doing to combat hate speech.

rami-al-zayat-w33-zg-dNL4-unsplash-6021b0.jpg Image: Unsplash.

What is Hate Speech?

In 2021, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) published a Social Media Safety Index reviewing the product safety of Meta (formerly Facebook), Twitter, YouTube (a subsidiary of Google), Instagram (a subsidiary of Meta), and TikTok. The report’s findings suggest that these platforms are “effectively unsafe” for LGBTQ users, primarily due to hate speech and harassment these users face. But what is “hate speech”?

While there is no one international legal definition for “hate speech,” the United Nations (UN) and other international organizations recognize hate speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, that attacks or uses… discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group… based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender, or other identity factor.” Anti-LGBTQ hate speech is just one type and targets of such speech are most often highly marginalized and vulnerable populations, a distinction that varies across geographies and contexts. Though the UN General Assembly voiced global concerns over the rise of hate speech in July 2021, many countries do not legally prohibit hate speech, instead choosing to prohibit incitement to discrimination or violence based on protected classes. As outlined by the Global Handbook on Hate Speech Laws, 118 countries have incorporated laws on hate speech and place emphasis on the consequences of speech rather than the speech itself in an attempt to preserve “free speech.” In the United States, for example, “hate speech” is a legally protected form of speech.

Hate Speech and International Development

Now, you might be reading this thinking, “But Nancy, I work in lower- and middle-income countries, why should I care about the United States’ stance on free speech and hate speech?” To which I would say, “Well, does anyone in the communities your project works in use Facebook? Twitter? YouTube?” Because if that answer is yes, then whether these large, U.S.-based social media companies moderate hate speech, or the U.S. government regulates these companies, matters for your project. Whether it’s supporting civil society groups in increasing the political engagement of LGBTQ people in Eastern Europe or sponsoring studies of the causes of emigration among LGBTQ people in Latin America, LGBTQ people exist in all countries and are often the beneficiaries of development aid and our programs. And, as we know from so many recent case studies, anti-LGBTQ hate speech and rhetoric in cyberspace is on the rise and has a massive potential to inspire violent extremists internationally.

Combatting Hate Speech

The “hate speech” vs. “free speech” debate is incredibly nuanced and context-specific. I can’t pretend to have all the answers, but I can offer insights into what social media platforms and other key stakeholders are doing to combat anti-LGBTQ hate speech.

Social Media Platforms: Most platforms have some form of content moderation policy including:

  • Defining hate speech or “hateful conduct” and establishing community guidelines that do not allow for hate speech (TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube); or defining hate speech on a three-tier system and removing content in violation based on severity (Facebook);
  • Moderation in 70 different languages, covering many non-English speaking users (Facebook);
  • Flags for users about to post something considered mean or offensive prompting them to reconsider or review the Tweet (Twitter);
  • Not explicitly defining hate speech, but outlining behaviors that align to common definitions of hate speech and prohibiting these behaviors (Instagram).

As illustrated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), methods of combatting hate speech include machine learning, natural language processing, sentiment analysis, and deep learning that teaches algorithms on how to identify hate speech. Additionally, platforms have moved away from reactionary approaches that remove content after it has been posted, toward flagging and removing posts before users have seen them. Unfortunately, these are not foolproof methods. One challenge concerns “cryptofascism,” a practice among online extremists of using coded language specifically designed to avoid these algorithms. Additionally, part of the challenge in combatting hate speech is that hateful content often does not originate on these platforms, but rather on fringe sites, such as Telegram and 4Chan, that have poor content moderation policies. Even if the content is removed from the larger platforms, it remains and can resurface from the fringe sites.

Other Key Stakeholders: Below are a few policies from international bodies and U.S. agencies addressing hate speech:

  • The European Commission has a Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online with IT companies and social media platforms.
  • The European Union (EU) uses the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to govern privacy and security in the EU and is largely considered one of the world’s most robust policies impacting social media companies. In April, it also introduced the Digital Services Act which aims to combat mis and disinformation.
  • The UN employs a variety of articles and strategies concerning freedom of expression and hate speech, including the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech.
  • The Biden-Harris Administration published the Interagency Report on the Implementation of the Presidential Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons Around the World (2022), which includes directives for agencies to support local governance structures and institutions who are combatting hate crimes against LGBTQ persons.

This is of course a nonexhaustive list and does not include local and community organizations around the world working to combat hate speech. It does show, however, that social media companies and international bodies are taking hate speech and its consequences seriously. And whether it’s anti-LGBTQ hate speech or another form, we owe it to the communities we work with to do the same.