Do not compare apples with pears might be one of the most popular differentiations but another one is almost equally famous: The Internet versus “the real world” (especially among Boomers).

The thought is misleading and wrong – especially in the digital era where people’s “real lives” actually happen online. Also hate, discrimination and resentment made it therefore to this digital part of everyone’s living environment. So where do we draw the line between expressing an opinion and hate speech?

If you hate the new season of Selling Sunset (how could one?) and articulate your thoughts online is that considered hate speech? No, since hate speech refers to an offensive communication or act of speech that targets people or a group of people based on inherent characteristics (such as race, religion or gender) and that may threaten social peace. In the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, it is officially defined as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.”

To summarize and point out the important of the matter, Hate Speech is a threat to minorities, our democratic and pluralistic values but also to society in general. Why does the United Nations – a huge multilateral organization one might not connect with digital era phenomena – is interested in the matter and provides in fact a strategy and definition?

Why the UN is willing to fight Hate Speech

First, based on the UN Charter as well as the Sustainable Development goals, the United Nations aims to fight discrimination, inequalities and hate of all kinds. Fighting hate speech hence means fighting and advocating for human rights, especially taking into account that human rights do unfold its range of operating into the digital sphere of our daily lives. Another reason may seem surprising and interesting at first, but it becomes understandable upon further consideration: Fighting Hate Speech means fighting a downward spiral of hatred, anger and violence which can translated online hate speech into offline violence. Or as general secretary António Guterres warns: Hate speech is an alarm bell – the louder it rings, the greater the threat of genocide. It precedes and promotes violence.

The responsible UN entity for the Hate Speech campaign is indeed the Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. Hence, the United Nations do not understand Hate Speech as a phenomenon only occurring in the digital sphere without having any impact on other spheres but as something broader and more severe. Viewing the fight against hate speech as a fight that prevents from genocide, the UN focuses on the polarising effects of these hateful communication and how these lead on a downward spiral of hate, discrimination and crime. An understanding, that acknowledges the importance of the world wide web in crisis.

The UN Strategy against Hate Speech

The Strategy Plan works on key commitments such as educating people, being updated and involved on the development of technologies, advocating for the matter, supporting the member states and educating those working with the UN. As broad as these commitments is the scope of such: All UN entities are addressed.

One commitment though did become action. In 2021 (two years after the Strategy became effective), an event in cooperation with the member states was held. The Online Forum => Addressing Hate Speech through Education Multi-stakeholder. A forum that has to be viewed critically since the proclaimed media partner CNN has been criticized due to its news coverage during the Covid-19 pandemic. A critique that is still around, especially after the channel published an interview with Donald Trump from May 2023 where the former president spread fake news and was not stopped or argued against doing so.

A media partnership (also key commitments of the Strategy Plan) should hence be considered carefully.

What can we do?

Being mostly digital natives and citizens of todays digitalized world, young people have the chance and responsibility to fight hate speech!

Action can revolve around raising awareness in your networks, speak up when you come across hateful comments and speech, support those who speak up (online and offline), report hate speech to the operators of social networks and become part of networks and initiatives who actively fight hate and advocate for human rights and the sustainable development goals (such as the United Nations Youth Association).

But careful: Pause if fighting hate speech and those comments are too much for you to handle. Put yourself first and advocate for human rights with the capacity you have!