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Hate speech in times of crisis: new study published by the Council of Europe anti-discrimination, diversity and inclusion committee

In order to be prepared to tackle hate speech in times of crisis, legal frameworks should be amended, law enforcement measures reinforced, collaboration between media, national human rights institutions and equality bodies strengthened, and support to those targeted by hate speech prioritised. These are among key recommendations provided to Council of Europe member states by a new study commissioned and published today by the Steering Committee on Anti-Discrimination, Diversity and Inclusion (CDADI).

The study analyses hate speech that occurred in Europe during crises in recent years, including the Covid-19 pandemic and the full-scale military aggression of Russia against Ukraine since February 2022, and related responses from the state authorities and other actors. It outlines challenges and lessons learnt from such responses and gives recommendations on addressing crises.

Crises can exacerbate hate speech that is targeted at specific individuals and groups who are deemed responsible for them, and crises can also be aggravated by hate speech. Hate speech in times of crisis may build on existing discriminatory or hate narratives, but also trigger and multiply new narratives.

Based on the data collected from social media by a specialised software platform and on the questionnaires and interviews with stakeholders from seven focus countries – Albania, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Romania, the Slovak Republic, and the United Kingdom – the study highlights two case examples of online hate speech.

The Covid-19 pandemic accompanied by the “infodemic” (excessive amounts of information on the health crisis, including false and misleading information), has seen a huge increase of hate speech against individuals and groups (such as Chinese and people of Asian descent, migrants and refugees, national minorities); revamped antisemitism (via conspiracy theories) and intertwined hateful narratives. Roma and Travellers in several European countries have also been particularly affected: one case example from Romania illustrates this.

The second case  covers online hate speech related to the full-scale military aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, that has fostered violent, dehumanising rhetoric and hate speech in individual countries and across Europe, opposing the Russian Federation and “The West” and disseminating hatred against Ukraine, Ukrainian nationals, and refugees from Ukraine through disinformation campaigns. Nationalistic hate speech has been used to trigger and fuel the conflict. Its circulation also represents a challenge to the media sector and to internet intermediaries, which are asked to disentangle hateful narratives and provide the public with objective information about the Russian Federation’s aggression.

The study also underlines that migrants and refugees remain one of the major targets of hate speech in times of crisis across the continent. Terrorist attacks in various places in Europe have fuelled xenophobic feelings. Hatred against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) persons – and in particular against transgender people – is reinforced through crises, which calls for effective institutional interventions. Major crises often also fuel antisemitic hate speech.

Challenges in addressing hate speech during crises are numerous: distinguishing free speech from hate speech, accessing data on online hate speech, removing online hate speech quickly, dedicating enough resources for quick reaction, and investing in a timely manner in enhanced education and training, to name a few.

Important steps have already been taken – by various actors and at various levels – such as the implementation of legal measures to combat hate speech, coordinated campaigns online and offline by law enforcement and networks of stakeholders, education and counter-speech initiatives and some actions in support of those targeted by hate speech.

However, much remains to be done to increase the preparedness for preventing and combating hate speech in times of crisis. It should be recognised that it can be difficult to amend legal frameworks, to establish efficient procedures to combat hate speech or make quick substantial policy or practical changes in times of crisis, the authors of the report stress. Therefore, it is essential to take steps to prepare good conditions of social cohesion and solid response mechanisms to hate speech in ordinary times to ensure a greater level of resilience to discriminatory and hateful speech and enable quick and efficient intervention in times of crisis.

The study builds on Recommendation CM/Rec(2022)16 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on combating hate speech adopted in May 2022.


Study on preventing and combating hate speech in times of crisis

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