Zandile Moyo, Guest Contributor

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines violence as, “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” In the last 75 years, hate speech has been the catalyst for atrocious crimes against marginalized groups. The Holocaust started with hate speech against a minority. In the Cambodian Genocide, hateful discourse systematically designated intellectuals, opponents and city dwellers, ethnic and religious minorities as the “enemies” of the people. The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda was catalyzed by decades of hate speech that exacerbated ethnic tensions by spreading unfounded rumors and dehumanizing the Tutsi. More recently, in the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar, a campaign of hate and misinformation was conducted, loaded with derogatory and dehumanizing language.  

With technological advances, hate speech has evolved accordingly. Hate speech online has been linked to a global increase in violence toward minorities, including mass shootings, lynchings, and ethnic cleansing. In a study conducted by Environics Data (September 2022), it was found that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok are where people are most likely to witness or become victim to online hate speech. According to the same study, marginalized groups are more likely to experience hate speech. Tech-facilitated violence, including but not limited to abuse, harassment and violence conducted online or amplified/enabled by online tools, is a serious issue impacting the safety, health and freedom of women, girls, and gender-diverse people.   

Those whose life contains multiple intersections of oppression, face increased risks of being targeted by hate speech rooted in misogyny, sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. Social media platforms rely on a combination of artificial intelligence, user reporting, and staff known as content moderators to enforce their rules regarding appropriate content. But even with internal measures set in place, they are given broad latitude in establishing their own standards and methods of enforcement. 

Responses to online hate speech, whether experienced or observed, vary. The majority of those who have consistently been victims of hate speech report that they reached out to close friends and family for support. Some reported incidents directly to the platform, and some didn’t see the point in reporting even though they admit it would help.  

While online speech may seem like it exists in its own chasm, its effects are very real on real people. The most common forms of online hate experienced are sexist/misogynistic (42%), based on body type or physical characteristics (38%), racist (31%), or homophobic (26%). With such a high percentage of gender-based violence and with keeping equity, diversity, and inclusion in mind, it’s clear that systems-level changes are required to address and end this type of violence. Putting the responsibility on individual survivors to keep themselves safe is a form of victim-blaming and insufficient. Tech companies, policymakers and law enforcement need to commit to change on a larger and more collaborative scale. It requires social media platforms to value people over profit, governments to engage equality rights as much as freedom of expression, and individuals to practice ethical digital citizenship.  

Each year during the third week of October, Canadians bond with people in over 90 countries around the world to mark YWCA’s Week Without Violence™ (WWV), a week-long series of community events promoting diverse approaches to creating a violence-free world. More than 9,500 people in schools, workplaces and neighborhood organizations throughout Canada recognize this annual violence prevention initiative aimed at making violence a thing of the past. Centering Survivors is the theme of year’s Week Without Violence campaign, which takes place from October 17th -25th. We hope you join us in advocating for survivors and holding those with power accountable.