HCAW Blog #5: The dark side of social media: the problem of LGBT+ online hate

Rachel Keighley @Rachel_Keighley

My first encounter with hate crime came in Durham when a group of young lads in a car shouted out of their window at my girlfriend and I who were holding hands walking down the street. To ensure we got the point, they then did a U-turn, so they could pass by us again, shouting profanities, slurs and threats. I was shocked. Growing up going to a Catholic High School I knew coming out as gay had the potential to cause some familial tensions (luckily it did not), but I naively thought strangers would not care, or outright threaten my existence due to my sexuality. It was from this experience I found out about LGBT+ hate crimes which in turn motivated me to enter the world of academic research, not least as a form of activism. Trying to better understand the experiences and injustices many have experienced due to their sexuality; my research has led me to investigate what is occurring online.

Online hate: it’s not free speech, it’s hate speech

Officially, we know very little about online hate. The UK Home Office released experimental statistics in 2017/18, which were not repeated in their 2018/19 report due to a severe lack of data. However, in 2017/18, the statistics showed 352 online hate crimes recorded against a person’s sexual orientation: suspected to be a gross underrepresentation of the actual figure. Academic research estimates also offer little clarity. Estimates vary wildly, often because sexuality and gender identity, despite being two different aspects of a person’s identity, are researched together. With this in mind, data suggests that anywhere between 45% (Stonewall) to a staggering 78% (Galop) of LGBT+ individuals have experienced or witnessed hate online.

Why online hate crimes are not officially recorded is a question with many possible answers. Perhaps it is due to our lack of understanding as to what hate looks like online. Consequently, my research into LGBT+ online hate reveals the possibility that many victims of online hate just do not recognise it as a crime and therefore do not report it. Maybe social media sites and media platforms that play host to online hate are not taking enough responsibility to police the matter themselves. Social media sites have come under a lot of scrutiny for their mishandling of online activity, favouring a person’s right to free speech over the potential damage words can cause. A recent example of this is JK Rowling’s twitter feed, where she continually espouses a rhetoric that is seen by many as both transphobic and hurtful to the dismay and emotional heartbreak of millions of followers.

Debates around freedom of speech can be seen to have shaped how we tackle online hate especially incidents of verbal abuse. For example, if we dismiss hate incidents online as not reaching a particular threshold to be ‘hateful’, then we are in danger of justifying discriminatory views and perhaps even encouraging their occurrence.

All the power but none of the responsibility

The UK’s response to online hate is fraught with inconsistencies. Currently the law on online hate crimes (known as malicious online communications) is patchy with few, if indeed any incidents, leading to successful prosecutions. The UK Government released a White Paper in 2019 into the harms of online hate. Unsurprisingly, its conclusion was that more needed to be done to protect the rights of the vulnerable and marginalised. Despite recommendations about how to do so, these have yet to be incorporated into law.

Instead, responsibility for policing the online world has fallen to social media sites themselves. Apart from the fact that there are no real legal consequences for perpetrators of LGBT+ online hate, this results in social media sites receiving fines from the EU for allowing hate material to go unmediated on their platforms, instead of the perpetrators of hate themselves. Yet social media sites continue to play host to hate material with woefully apathetic community guidelines.

Advocacy and activism

My motivation for researching LGBT+ hate is as much about protecting the victims as it is about trying to understand what motivates identity related prejudice. Maybe there is not a rational answer, but it is an important question to ask if we want to target perpetrators of hate and challenge their views in pursuance of a more equal society. Social and political contexts are important in understanding online hate and research suggests democracy (or lack thereof) is a litmus test for discriminatory views. It is important not to focus on LGBT+ hate as an isolated phenomenon but view it within a wider system of oppression and prejudice, designed to maintain a social hierarchy in which the privileged remain on top. Currently, if you are a victim of online hate, the overwhelming sentiment is that you won’t find support from the law or social media sites.

Third sector and community responses to online hate, however, are much stronger. Speaking specifically of LGBT+ online hate, there exists a number of excellent charities and organisations who offer support to LGBT+ individuals. Moreover, advocacy is becoming a powerful tool in the activists’ arsenal through encouraging conversations around sexuality and gender. In doing so, the norm is challenged as we enter an era in which sexuality and gender are not assumed to be binary or fixed. Standing together against hate in solidarity with other marginalised communities is something we should all be doing as we bring issues of equality to the table.

Rachel Keighley is a third year PhD student at the School of Criminology, University of Leicester. She specialises in the subject of online hate, in particular against a person’s sexuality.

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