Hate Speech on Facebook: the causation effect

I have to say, I have never been a huge fan of Facebook, but as everyone else, I use it. I came to terms with the fact that if I do not want my data to be owned by them, I should not use it. I also came to terms that there are TONS of very good policies with respect to data privacy and ownership that we really SHOULD enforce and apply, not just to Facebook but also to a lot of other companies (starting with mobile and internet providers, if you ask me).

But, this post is not really about Facebook. This post is about how mixing correlation and causation, when it comes to analyzing social media and hate speech on social media, can have very damaging effects and why we REALLY should try to avoid it, even if it makes for a pretty catchy headline.







In January this year this article was published and circulated on Twitter and elsewhere , followed by some discussion about how social media is being used for hate speech and incitement to violence. The information in the article is not news to anyone that has been looking at social media and hate speech in conflict settings before: from the amazing work done by iHub Research with Umati; to the work done by Holocaust Museum Fellow Rachel Brown to produce Defusing Hate: A Strategic Guide to Counteract Dangerous Speech and of course the amazing work one by the PeaceTech Lab on creating a taxonomy of terms used in hate speech in South Sudan.

The issue of Hate Speech and online content is really a tricky one and while it has been flagged quite some time ago – a big event that triggered a lot of conversations about this was, in the era of predominance of non-digital tools, the events of the 2008/2009 post election violence in Kenya, where mobile phones and radio were used to spread rumors; incite to violence and to perpetrate hate speech.

One of the great work that was done following the Kenya events was the research implemented by iHub Research under the Umati project. The Umati project had as objective to figure out what type of hate speech on social media were happening, and if they were in fact triggering actions on the ground.

The questions I am trying to highlight here is very simple: is social media hate speech content the cause OR the effects of actual violence happening on the ground? The article mentioned before makes the point that social media are being used in South Sudan to trigger and actually fuel violence on the ground. What the article does not say, but implies, it is a concept that has many more repercussions on the way we see social media hate speech and violence: that is that if we stop hate speech online we indeed will be able to lower the level of violence in the country.

In fact, this is the biggest problem I have with this rationale: considering hate speech on social media as the cause of a problem (violence on the ground, and in the South Sudan case, a genocide), as opposed to the symptom of the widespread violence already happening in the country.

But is this the case? What data do we have to say that there is a causation effect in between hate speech on FB and violence on the ground? And this is the problem: the data we have proves the contrary.

Let’s start again with the Umati project. Two main findings in fact prove the contrary of that.

  1. Hate Speech online does NOT mirror the violence on the ground: “Despite this clear increase in the volume and severity of hate speech incidences online during and after elections, there was little reported violence on the ground as compared to the 2007/8 post-election period. Notably, had the trend in Umati data been used in isolation to predict the possibility of post election violence, the prediction would have been that there would be violence, given the highly vitriolic data Umati came across in February and March (examples provided in Appendix II). The peaceful election outcome suggests that there are overriding factors that can strongly contribute to the serenity of an election period.” (from here)
  2. When there is a relationship in between hate speech online and events on the ground, it is indeed a reverse relationship: ” We have observed that most dangerous speech occurs as a response to events that happen on the ground. These events come to the attention of the commenters mainly through traditional and online media reporting. The media therefore, plays a vital role in highlighting what topics are discussed online and suggests that responsible reporting by media houses, whether in newspapers, online or on radio, may shape the type of conversations that form around those reported topics.” (from here)

When I spoke with the Umati research team, back in 2013, they explained to me that they could not prove that hate speeches on line did in fact translated into specific actions on the ground. And, if you know a little about social media and how they works this makes totally sense: social media are a mirror of what people and communities are talking about. They are indeed a barometer of the temperature of that community, meaning that they are the arena where conversations happen (freely and in between peers) and in this way they are a way to look into a certain community and its dynamics. In fact, if we assume that Social Media like Facebook have an automatic way to influence real actions on the ground we would have never came out with the term slacktivism.

But there is more to this: while I do agree that social media hate speech can have an influence in the conversations that people have, and therefore increase the level of acceptance of violence, and therefore increase the overall outcome (meaning people are more likely to commit violent acts), I think we need to make sure that we do not end up curing the symptom and disregarding the real disease.

If we focus all of our attention on hate speech on social media, and specifically on Facebook, we run into the risk of not understanding why and how violence on the ground is happening, and with this, not really focusing on the fact that real violence, committed by real people, is happening, and that the role of media (see above from the Umati reports) is here key in making sure that events and facts are indeed reported accurately and as such cannot be used as a source of hate speech.

This is all to say that we need to ficus on the right issues and try to solve the right problems:

  • If hate speech is happening on social media, we have to look at the reality on the ground to see what is triggering it before we assume that they are the cause. The fact that two things happens in the same time or follow the same trajectory does not mean that they are positively correlated, as shown below (real data):

  • Hate speech is based on facts: facts are used to trigger a certain vision of the other person/group (they have done this and therefore they are “less of a human/person/group). If we want to fight against hate speech, facts needs to be set straight (and with this I mean REAL facts, not alternative facts);
  • Demonizing social media platforms because they are a place where hate speech happens is not helping, neither us, nor social media platform, to learn how to address the problem. Furthermore, it may actually translate into repressive or censorship-like laws under the umbrella of anti-hate speech regulations, something that we have seen before can be easily used to repress freedom of speech (a very good reading on the subject is here)
  • When hate speech on social media are rising. there is something MUCH more effective that we can do to stop it, which is to fight is here it is. Back in 2011 in Egypt, social media activists were targeting social media pages of the regime by blasting them with real facts and counter arguments (peacefully) until the owners of those pages were basically giving up the pages themselves.

So, all in all: engagement is the way you counter hate speech. And you can use Facebbok for hate speech as much as you can use it for engagement, you just need to look at the full picture. Go where people are, and use their means of communication, rather than demonizing them.



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