Mapping and Analysing Hate Speech Online: Opportunities and Challenges for Ethiopia

Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP), in collaboration with Addis Ababa University, has published a new report that offers a set of innovative conceptual and methodological tools to address the emergence and proliferation of hate speech online. This post was originally published on the PCMLP’s website and can be found here.

The issue of hate speech is complex – it serves as an illuminative lens for researchers and practitioners, governments and citizens, as well as perpetrators and victims, to consider some of the key paradigms that underpin models of statehood and democracy. The problem becomes all the more pressing and salient in deeply divided societies that are transitioning to democracy. In such contexts and in fragile environments, political entrepreneurs are able to politicise longstanding socio-economic inequalities that mobilise deeply entrenched feeling of injustice, domination and persecution towards certain demographic and social groups, with the ultimate objective of perpetrating systematic, targeted and widespread violence. Furthermore, as access to the internet changes the ways in which individuals and groups communicate, and produces new spaces for dialogue and exchange, it also brings with it risks and concerns over the ways in which these spaces may be instrumentalised for violent ends.

This working paper provides a framework through which hate speech which emerges and is disseminated online can be identified and analysed. The aims of this working paper are twofold.

Firstly, it is meant to provide an introductory guide for those interested in mapping and analysing hate speech, especially as communicated through online media and in divided societies. Section 1 offers an overview of the recent debates over the definition of hate speech, both from a scholarly and legal perspective. It briefly examines how different actors, from international bodies to national legislators and online companies, have sought to regulate and counteract hate speech, and stresses the importance of balancing competing principles to advance social inclusiveness as a “public good”. Section 2 surveys different methodological tools that can be adopted to map and analyse hate speech and the trade-offs between the ability of providing a contextually grounded analysis of instances of hate speech and the possibility of processing large volumes of data. It also offers concrete case studies of projects which have innovatively analysed hate speech both online and offline.

The second aim is to interrogate how a rigorous and academically informed analysis of hate speech can offer a novel terrain for engagement among different actors in divided societies, with a particular focus on Ethiopia. As it has been the case in other societies fractured across ethnic, political, and religious lines, at critical times such as before an election accusations of inciting hatred have been made by different actors to attack their opponents. The concept of hate speech advanced in these instances has tended to be boundless and to reflect more the interests and concerns of those referring to an act as hateful or able to incite hatred, rather than being based on an agreed definition. Section 3 reflects on the importance of bringing different actors around the same table, from members of the government and the opposition to bloggers supporting agendas at different ends of the political spectrum, and to engage in debates that can ultimately bound them to a shared definition of what is and what is not speech that can promote hate and violence, and to collectively recognize and develop measures to counteract it. A shared, academically rigorous and contextually grounded definition of hate speech and the mapping of instances that fall under it can help preventing governments and other political actors from politicising speech acts. Together with the analysis of how individuals are already opening spaces for dialogue on different platforms, it can offer a novel way to map where risks lie and where, on the contrary, people should be allowed to voice their opinions. In countries like Ethiopia, where calls for respecting and enforcing freedom of expression coming from external organizations, including human rights groups and donors, have tended to be ignored, this approach can open a new avenue for allowing dialogue among different forces in society, and with it a basis for a strong and vibrant democracy. The paper concludes by outlining the principles that should inform this new research agenda, aimed at mitigating ethnic, political and social fissures underlying debates on hate speech.

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For the full report click here.

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