Update > Hate Speech

Hate Speech


According to the United Nations, hate speech is “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identity factor.”[1]

Hate speech can incite violence and discrimination against those targeted.

Legislative frameworks can play a role in combatting hate speech. Multiple countries such as Canada, France, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have passed legislation against hate speech, and Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Singapore have either revised or drafted dedicated "harmony" bills aimed at securing social, racial or religious harmony.

Many other countries regulate hate speech with existing laws that regulate for example defamation, unlawful threats, or incitement to violence.

But legislation can also be used for purposes it was not originally or publicly intended to be used. In many European countries, social and human rights activists have been charged and sentenced for “hate speech” when they have been campaigning for just causes.[2] In other countries, such as Kenya and Rwanda, hate speech laws have been used to sentence politicians from the opposition for criticizing the government.[3]

In Myanmar, as of 2022, new sections in the telecommunication law and especially a penal code provision 505A have been used to arrest and punish those who speak out against the Junta. The Telecommunications Law provides criminal penalties for ‘extorting, defaming, disturbing or threatening to any person by using any telecommunications network’. This provision has been one of the primary tools used by government authorities to target journalists, activists and others expressing critical opinions online, using "hate speech" as an excuse to suppress critical voices.

Politics and hate speech

Politics can be a breeding ground for hate speech, as politicians may use divisive language to appeal to their base and gain support. Hateful messages are often linked to fake news and propaganda, and because they rise emotions, they can spread very quickly.

According to Professor of Philosophy Seumas Miller from the University of Oxford[4], politically motivated hate speech incites hatred against a target group and is performed in order to serve some political purpose. For example, a right-wing politician may seek to get elected by vilifying immigrants belonging to a minority ethnic group. Politically motivated hate speech often features abusive language, and manifestly incites hatred against the target group.

Politically motivated hate speech is potentially harmful to individuals and groups who are the object of its attack because it is likely to be false. But it can be also harmful because it is likely to sow discord in societies.

Hate speech is often used as part of political propaganda: communication in the service of a political ideology, Miller says. Modern propaganda relies on falsehoods, half-truths and hate speech.

Politicians can be, and many times are, victims and perpetrators of hate speech. Hate speech and inflammatory comments by politicians have caused political violence and even domestic terrorism in many countries, from Ethiopia to the United States. According to research, hate speech by politicians deepens political polarization and that this, in turn, produces conditions under which domestic terrorism increases.[5]

Hate speech can lead to severe real-world harm. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge movement of Pol Pot led an intense propaganda campaign to mobilize rural parts of the population and seize power. Hateful discourse systematically dubbed intellectuals, opponents and city dwellers, but also Cambodia’s ethnic and religious minorities as the “enemies” of the Cambodian people. It is estimated that 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime, from 1975 to 1979.

Social media and hate speech

Social media is the main platform for hate speech all over the world, and there have been repeated calls for companies to regulate hateful content better.[6]  Some efforts have been made by companies for regulations of hate speech, but they remain limited and globally unequal [7].

In many countries where people speak languages that are not widely spoken in Europe, such as English, German, French or Spanish, social media platforms like Facebook or Telegram have had a lot of difficulties in regulating hate speech, misinformation, and other harmful content.

In Myanmar, hate speech from both junta supporters and pro-democratic activists is rampant in many platforms, the main avenues being Facebook and Telegram.[8] [9]There, however, have been also recorded instances of systematic hate speech campaigns also on Twitter/X in Myanmar[10].

In Myanmar, Facebook and Telegram have tried regulating racial slurs and other offensive slurs, but Facebook does not have enough Burmese-speaking content moderators, and many users just opt to avoid certain banned words and replace them with slang expressions. Therefore, a lot of harmful content remains undetected.

It had been demonstrated for example in Ethiopia that among those holding dangerous views, participation in online networks and exposure to hateful content can lead to actual violence. Online networks can also be centers for coordinating violent actions.[11] In Myanmar, U.N. human rights investigators and news giant Reuters’ investigative team have claimed that the use of Facebook had played a key role in spreading hate speech that fueled violence.[12],[13],[14]

More hate towards women

In research conducted in Myanmar in 2021 and 2022, it was shown that women have used social media powerfully as a means of expressing their political views. Women face more hate speech than men globally, and in Myanmar.[15]

In the study, it was found that the overwhelming majority of abusive posts were authored by male-presenting profiles supportive of Myanmar’s military coup and targeted women who opposed the coup. The main form of abuse is doxing, which means publishing identifiable information about individuals. In almost all cases the abusers wanted the women to be arrested or their belongings confiscated. Sometimes this has also happened after the hate attacks.

Language that sexualizes women is also typically used to shame and humiliate women to silence them. Sexualized disinformation is used to undermine politically active women.

This abuse and attacks are having a silencing effect and causing women to retreat from public life.


[1] UN: Understanding hate speech, https://www.un.org/en/hate-speech/understanding-hate-speech/what-is-hate-speech

[2] The Intercept: In Europe, Hate Speech Laws are Often Used to Suppress and Punish Left-Wing Viewpoints, https://theintercept.com/2017/08/29/in-europe-hate-speech-laws-are-often-used-to-suppress-and-punish-left-wing-viewpoints/

[3] Scheffler, Andrea (2015), The Inherent Danger of Hate Speech Legislation, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/africa-media/12462.pdf

[4] Miller, S. (2020). Freedom of Political Communication, Propaganda and the Role of Epistemic Institutions in Cyberspace. In: Christen, M., Gordijn, B., Loi, M. (eds) The Ethics of Cybersecurity. The International Library of Ethics, Law and Technology, vol 21. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-29053-5_11

[5] James A. Piazza (2020) Politician hate speech and domestic terrorism, International Interactions, 46:3, 431-453, DOI: 10.1080/03050629.2020.1739033

[6] UN: ‘Urgent need’ for more accountability from social media giants to curb hate speech: UN experts, https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/01/1132232

[8] Global Witness: Exposing social media platforms’ failures to protect their users, https://www.globalwitness.org/en/blog/exposing-social-media-platforms-failures-to-protect-their-users/

[10] https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/myanmar-facebook-hate#article-hatebook

[12] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/rohingya-refugees-sue-facebook-150-billion-over-myanmar-violence-2021-12-07/

[13] https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/myanmar-facebook-hate#article-hatebook

[14] UN: Hate speech and real harm, https://www.un.org/en/hate-speech/understanding-hate-speech/hate-speech-and-real-harm

[15] Myanmar Witness (2023), Digital Battlegrounds: Politically Motivated Abuse of Myanmar Women Online.