Global Warning: Curb Hate Speech to Prevent Violence

30 June 2023

Hate speech is contagious. It spreads and infects like a disease. Historic and ongoing, hate speech poisons people across the globe and motivates them to inflict irreparable harm on individuals, religious groups, and other targeted minorities.


At the recent United Nations International Day for Countering Hate Speech, Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, “We can and must raise awareness about its dangers, and work to prevent and end it in all its forms.” The UN also recently called for the Sudanese people not to be drawn into “the vortex of hate speech and ethnic polarization,” condemning the killing of West Darfur governor Khamis Abbake.

Meanwhile, U.S. campuses are struggling with hate speech. The Music Hall of Williamsburg recently canceled in advance a Blexit event with Candace Owens, saying that it would endorse hate speech. At City University of New York, students and activists want law school dean Sudha Setty to be fired for allowing student Fatima Mohhamed’s commencement speech, which protesters called hate speech against Jews.

Across the world, hate-filled rhetoric permeates digital spaces and public discourse, often spurred on by social media. Research shows online hate speech directly correlates with physical crimes against racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), hate-based harassment against members of marginalized groups is growing, with women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and Asian Americans experiencing increasing rates of online harassment and threats of violence. The ADL reports the sharpest rise in antisemitic rhetoric, memes and incidents across the United States — 2,717 in 2021, a 34% increase over 2020 and still rising.

Hate speech is hard to define, which makes it hard to prosecute without violating freedom of expression. International and U.S. laws don’t prohibit hate speech, though the Irish Criminal Justice Bill is in its final stages of voting and could result in the jailing of offenders for inciting violence through hate speech. Most laws only forbid “incitement” that deliberately triggers violence and discrimination. The U.S. criminal justice system can only deal with the consequences of hate speech after it turns into a hate crime or mass atrocity.

Thirty-three countries — plus 46 countries of the Council of Europe — have enacted hate crimes legislation. Most of what is ruled illegal in these countries would be considered protected free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Of course, incitement to violence is excluded from that protection. Although the U.S. has no national hate speech statutes, 47 of the 50 states have enacted hate crimes legislation.

An increase in hate speech serves as an early warning for incitement to violence and mass atrocities. Paying attention to places where hate speech is spreading is crucial to interrupting the possibility of violence.

Hate speech, for example, was an instigator and precursor to the 2016 murders of 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the 2019 Walmart shooting in El Paso, the 2022 killings in a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket, and in a Colorado Springs nightclub targeting members of the LGBTQ+ community. In Pittsburgh, a jury recently found Robert Bowers guilty of 63 counts, including 11 hate crimes, in the murders of 11 people during a 2018 rampage on the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Hate speech is precisely the point at which early intervention is needed to prevent future atrocities, including religicide — the killing of a religion, its followers and heritage. The Holocaust began with hate speech targeting Jews. The genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda began with leaders spewing hate speech. Rohingya in Myanmar, Uyghurs in China, and Yazidis in Iraq know how dehumanizing language leads to violent scapegoating and religicide.

It is possible to interrupt hate speech and contain its spread. It begins with just a few “carriers,” who choose to use and perpetrate inflammatory language and rhetoric to spread their disinformation, prejudice and toxic beliefs.

In their shared mission to end religiously motivated violence, the United Religions Initiative is joining forces with Cure Violence Global to launch the #WePreventViolence campaign. These efforts recognize that religion is not the root cause of violent conflict, but can be a positive force for peace, justice and healing.

The core precepts of each of the great religions are rooted in love, peace and respect. But ironically, it’s in religion that one can find scriptures that unfortunately have been weaponized for hate in the modern era.

Religious leaders and faith-based actors need to use their platforms of influence to effectively counter hate speech and change social norms that make violence somehow acceptable. Just as faith-based organizations have worked together to address other community health risks, such as COVID, they can address the root causes of America’s division. And tech and social media companies need to monitor the potential spread of hateful rhetoric on media and social media platforms.

Violence Prevention

A woman stands at a memorial outside Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018, after a shooting there left 11 people dead. A federal jury in June 2023 found the shooter, Robert Bowers, guilty of 63 charges.Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Between July and December 2020, Twitter removed 1,628,281 tweets violating its policy against hate speech. In the first six months of 2021, more than 1.1 million Twitter accounts were flagged for “hateful conduct violations” — posts that include violent imagery, harassment or incitement to violence. Facebook flagged more than 17 million instances of hate speech in just three months. During the pandemic, the European Commission reported a 13-fold increase in antisemitic postings on German sites, and a seven-fold increase across French-language accounts. 

It’s crucial to identify digital patterns associated with hate speech, which can predict and intervene when hate speech is present or likely. AI-powered systems can automatically filter, flag, report and hide posts that violate guidelines, preventing the further spread of vitriolic rhetoric, thereby reducing transmission. Yes, free speech advocates may claim censorship, but sometimes it’s necessary to use technology to stop fomenting violence.

Beyond media platforms and tech solutions, individuals can play a critical role in stopping the spread of hate speech, online and offline. Elected officials, community leaders, parents, teachers, youth groups, sports icons and other celebrity influencers could use their platforms to halt hate speech. Religious leaders and spiritual teachers are also logical interventionists, given their influence and commitment to fostering empathy and healing.

By embracing a healthy approach to ending violence, stakeholders can play a pivotal role in creating antidotes to this widespread contagion.

Jerry White is executive director of the United Religions Initiative and shares in the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Georgette Bennett is founder and president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and founder and chair of the Multifaith Alliance. They are co-authors of “Religicide: Confronting the Roots of Anti-Religious Violence.”