How to protect yourself and others from online hate speech - experiences from Malaysia
Hack the Hate
August 26, 2022
“Do you live in a tree house?” “Do you keep a crocodile as your pet?”
These were some of the condescending questions Nazif faced from other students when he moved to Kuala Lumpur from his home state of Sarawak in East Malaysia for university. As is often the case, people from East Malaysia are subjected to unfair stereotypes that misrepresent their region as underdeveloped.
“The way people in my university used to mock my hometown affected me a lot at that time. My city is modern and our lifestyle is very similar to the people in Kuala Lumpur, so I found those comments very unfair and hurtful”, said Nazif.
Tuleshina was always passionate about dancing. A few years ago, she started posting her K-Pop dancing videos on TikTok. However, she received a few hateful comments including several that targeted her ethnicity, which was very distressing for her.
“Those messages were very toxic, they spoke negatively not only about my dance but also about my Indian ethnicity and identity. They made me feel down for days and I did not know what to do”, remembered Tuleshina.
Hate speech–experienced by Nazif and Tuleshina above–is becoming a widespread phenomenon in today’s digital world. It can be conveyed not only through words, but also via internet memes, images, music and even symbols.
The United Nations loosely describes hate speech as ‘offensive discourse targeting a group or an individual based on inherent characteristics–such as race, religion, or gender–and that may threaten social peace’. This often discriminatory and intolerant language usually aims to spread hateful and divisive narratives against ‘the other’ who are deemed different.
Hate speech can also reflect underlying and/or visible tensions in society, putting forward rhetoric that perpetuates stigmatisation and dehumanisation. This can threaten social stability and peace, creating an environment that is more conducive to violent extremism.
90 per cent of Malaysia’s population are internet users, the vast majority of whom are youth. These youth across the country actively use social media and share their content online daily. As digital natives, young people are also exposed to a constant stream of information, which makes them especially vulnerable to hate speech as well as violent extremist messaging. The negative impact of hateful messages online can be as strong as messages conveyed face-to-face.
“When we post content of our creative expressions, we feel extremely vulnerable to people’s opinions. The hateful comments I received hurt me so much that I stopped dancing”, said Tuleshina about her experience of being a victim of online hate speech.
The psychological reasons behind people who convey hate speech often include low self-esteem, isolation, challenging social or economic situations or traumatic life experiences. Thus, leaving hurtful comments on someone else’s videos or photos online is often a way to seek attention and an attempt to gain influence over another person’s emotions.
“The important thing that I have learned is that hate speech is never about us, it’s always about those who post the comments” said Nazif. “I always explain this to my friends who face online hate speech, and encourage them to ignore those posts and focus on the positive comments that are always more.”
Left unaddressed, hate speech can be deteriorating for the mental health of youth and lead to further aggression online that might result in violence in real life. Digital literacy and critical thinking skills are important fundamentals that will equip youth to address any kind of negative content.
Whilst social media platforms have mechanisms to report hate speech and to prevent it from being amplified, it is important that these mechanisms are localised and constantly reviewed in order to take into consideration the ever-changing trends in harmful behaviour/rhetoric.
“Being active on social media, I am used to the fact that not everyone will like what I post, but there are always more people that appreciate what I share than those who criticise. So I create for my friends and like-minded people to motivate and inspire them.” said Tuleshina.
UNDP Malaysia and the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT) – with the support of the European Union–work to strengthen youth knowledge and skills in digital literacy and empower them to create their own positive and inspiring online content, as part of the Preventing Violent Extremism regional project being implemented in Malaysia.
The advocacy and knowledge-sharing activities that UNDP implements also aim to empower young people to celebrate who they are and to understand that the issue of hate speech is usually more about the perpetrator and does not lie with them.
The Preventing Extremism by Leveraging Impactful Tailored Approaches (PELITA) workshop that took place in Kuala Lumpur on May 24-26 2022 with the participation of thirty undergraduate students from across Malaysia was part of these efforts. Participants were trained to recognise and report hate speech, as well as provided with a safe space to share deep interpersonal exchanges with one another on the experience of facing and addressing hate speech and bullying online and in everyday life.
As an outcome of the workshop, it is hoped that the participating youth are more resilient, better equipped to positively influence their peers and to make meaningful, localised efforts to prevent violent extremism bydisseminating positive digital content that can counter hate speech.
UNDP in collaboration with SEARCCT and the EU will continue working with youth on addressing hate speech and promoting tolerance and diversity in Malaysia through creative capacity building and advocacy projects. The new powerful initiative Creators Forward has already kicked-off with a boot camp to empower young influnecers from Southeast Asia to make social media platforms a safe and inclusive space that everyone can enjoy.