Understanding and Confronting Hate Speech in Social Media

America loves its social media. Of the 2.34 billion non-unique users’ worldwide, 195.73 million of those users are in the United States. In fact, ¾ of Americans are on social media, an enormous number in a country of 324 million people. This means the potential volume of hate is equally enormous. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) keeps track of hate groups through the monitoring of hate group publications and websites, law enforcement numbers, field reports, and news reports. Through this vigilant monitoring, the SPLC keeps a watch on 1,600 hate groups in the United States. Colorado has 16 monitored hate groups, and four of them reside in Colorado Springs, including the Ku Klos Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Hate speech is real, and it’s here. People need to understand its dynamics in order to better deal with it on social media.

By definition, social media activity occurs when people create online profiles of themselves or communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, videos, images, and other content. The top three social media applications ranked by popularity are Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. Teens and young adults frequent Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram. Add YouTube, and it should be no surprise to anyone that pre-teens, teens, and adults are susceptible to whatever content that crosses their preferred medium.

Since the inception of the World Wide Web in 1991, the meteoric rise of social media has revolutionized the use of computers. In a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can join a cyber community gathering place for every whim and fancy known to man, from autopsies to yarn bombing, from collecting toasters to conspiracies. The vastness of the human experience is reflected on the Internet.

But the human endeavor doesn’t limit itself to just the fun, quaint, bizarre or unusual; human ugliness also haunts the Internet. Even early on, before the rise of high-volume social platforms, hate groups created websites. Those easily found websites were detected and action taken by the service providers. Hate groups began to wise up. With the Internet’s wide-scale approachability and accessibility, hate groups went from the shadowy underside of website activity into the mainstream. With slick graphics and non-threating words, these groups lured people in with slick media savvy. As the Internet grew and social media sites matured, hate groups established a noticeable presence on social media. The same platforms that host social media sites for the benefit of peaceable people are now the same platforms for sharing hate across the globe. Hate is a part of the cyber landscape, a worldwide infection that doesn’t recognize borders or treaties.

For purposes of this discussion, we’ll focus on American hate groups within the boundaries of the U.S. The SPLC calls “the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi movement, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, antigovernment militias, Christian Identity adherents and others” the most prolific and active of the hate groups in North America. We can also add the radical right, or “alt-right,” as a group the SPLC monitors for hate speech. Prior to the Internet and social media, these groups relied on word of mouth, soliciting on the street, and people seeking them out. Now, hate speech has infiltrated local, national, and global groups through social media. The 2016 presidential election and it’s outcomes magnified hate speech in the United States. In some cases, what were once called fringe groups (of hate) are now the accepted backers of political candidates. The use of the Internet enables extreme beliefs to grab the attention of millions of disenfranchised citizens. Consequently, communication among like-minded bigots is easy and inexpensive.

Now with social media staking a claim on the Internet begins the arduous task of defining what hate speech is. The First Amendment to the Constitution contains 45 words, but it does not define hate speech.The interpretations of the First Amendment creates a gray area that has yet to define hate speech once and for all; only actual Federal Court decisions create guidelines to help define it. A good example of the courts defining an element of free speech is with the Federal Court decision Schenck v. the United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919). It states that the freedom of speech does not include the right “[t]o incite actions that would harm others” (e.g., “shout[ing] ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”).

The American Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of groups promoting and protecting Civil Rights, helps put hate speech in context: “When speech contains a direct, credible threat against an identifiable individual, organization, or institution, it crosses the line to criminal conduct. Hate speech containing criminal threats is not protected by the First Amendment.” Creating a good start point of reference for the individual to work from starts with the fact that most hate speech is protected under the First Amendment. Therefore, a true threat is defined as “a threat of imminent harm to an identifiable victim.”

It’s also useful to know the policies of the particular social media platform used. The majority of social platforms have policies in place to “police” their sites, but these platforms are criticized for the lack of speed in which they respond to complaints. The language of Facebook’s policy on hate speech is a good example of the dilemma for the definition of hate speech on the Internet: “Facebook does not permit hate speech but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech.” There is no way to have firm definitions and laws concerning hate speech on the Internet. The awareness of the problem is half of the battle; the other half is protecting social media from it on the Internet.

So, what can you do when you encounter hate speech while using social media or, more importantly, are a target of it? Whether or not you engage people or sites that espouse hate speech is entirely your decision. The number one protection against it is not to engage people or sites that espouse what you consider hate speech. No stronger form of protection exists than non-engagement, period. If you are active in political or social causes, then the chances of encountering speech you find offensive increases. Engaging those on social media who subscribe to opposing viewpoints can lead to hostile responses. When these hostile responses occur, it’s up to you to either block them or contend with the hate. Remember, you’re in a cyber community open to public opinions. If you’re not familiar enough with the security settings of your chosen social platform, you should learn them immediately. Then, adjust those settings accordingly and manage how you are seen. You can determine if you’ll be discovered by anyone or only by your contacts. You’re your very own best line of defense in countering the hate on social media.

Hate is protected under the First Amendment, up to the point of inciting violence against and individual or group. If you’re an individual or in a group who uses social media to talk with other members of your group and your group monitors its members well, there is very little to worry about in social media. If your group is open and actively seeks out people or organizations to engage with that espouse hate by confronting or arguing with hate groups, expect blowback. The same holds true for organizations pursuing social justice and for people who situate themselves as high-profile spokespersons. There appear to be no studies conducted on the changing of a person’s hate belief by discussion, let alone confrontation. Human experience shows us that it’s unlikely that confrontation or the discussion of positions would be of value in attempting to resolve issues of hate or hate speech.

While a lone person confronting hate has little chance of success when engaging individuals or organizations, there are still ways to combat hate involving large, organized groups of like-minded people. As I mentioned earlier, the SPLC and Anti-Defamation League monitor hate groups and their rhetoric. When necessary, they’ll legally pursues action in the court system to halt hate speech. That doesn’t stop individuals. Individual social media accounts, legal or forged, are the most effective way to harass individuals or groups with hate speech. In some instances , individuals of an organization, media personalities, or professional groups as a whole get targeted with death threats. There are two recourses that have a reasonable success rate. Individuals or groups experiencing a high level of incoming hate speech, either directly or through a comment page, can contact their social media platform support who may launch an investigation of the individual. If the individual has violated the Social Media platform’s protocols, then the person will be banned from that platform. The second is to contact a group dedicated to the discovery and removal of hate speech from the Internet, like the SPLC, ADL and social media platform used.

Thus, to review a few manageable strategies, the first line of defense is to block the person doing the harassing. Knowledge of the chosen social media’s rules, regulations, and options for this conduct is one’s best defense, and it also applies to groups who have targeted individuals or groups opposed to their philosophies. The attacks may continue even if the social media platform acts upon the targeting. At this point, federal authorities should be contacted. For good measure, contacting one of the groups who monitor hate will assist as best they can. As the culture of the Internet matures and regulates itself, so will the process of dealing with hate speech. It is the individual operator of their social media platform who can make the difference battling hate.


Jerry Vigil, Colorado Native, is a writer, Latinx artist, educator, dad, and “Dean of the Dead.” He is known for his “Day of the Dead” (El Dia de Los Muertos) themed artwork. Jerry has had artwork showcased in the ASU publication Triumph of Our Communities: Four Decades of Mexican American Art, named #23 in Colorado’s 100 Creatives. He has also co-authored a craft book and had artwork in various museums along the front range. Jerry is a current art student at Pikes Peak Community College and is tearing down walls in Colorado Springs. His website is www.vigilstudios.net, and you can find him on Facebook at JerryVigil Studio.