Hate Speech in European Politics

Our 11th ENCATE Lunch Talk was an incredibly informative talk on a subject that concerns us all: hate speech in politics. The talk revolved around the European Liberal Forum´s report “US/THEM Hate Speech at the Service of Politics” (which, on a side note, is also visually attractive and was nominated for Polish Graphic Design Awards 2020).

Our guest speaker, Milosz Hodun, the editor of the report, started out by telling us about the motivation behind the report. Based on the previous reports ELF and Projekt:Polska had published such as “Liberal Agenda Against Online Hate Speech” and “European Atlas of Democratic Deficit” there appeared to be a gap in the research of the much-discussed issue of hate speech, namely how it is being used in politics.

The report is based on the contributions of activists, politicians, and researchers from 27 European countries. Since there is no single definition of hate speech that was applied it became quickly apparent that the standards of what qualifies as hate speech vary significantly. Moreover, the fact that the data was collected by professionals from different fields only added to the differences in understanding and using the term “hate speech”. Milosz even admitted that, compared to Poland, some of the examples seemed a bit mild. Nonetheless, from the wide range of phenomena reported it was clear that most of the examples share the following characteristics: they are divisive, exclusionary, and enticing.

Specifying with concrete examples from his home country of Poland, Milosz discussed the ruling party’s strategy for gaining votes: “the ruling coalition is very careful in examining the electorate and hateful speech is very precisely addressed to potential recipients”. Thus, mainstream media, such as public television channels promote and spread hateful speech, which in turn becomes cited on social media channels and received as a reliable source. In addition, state-owned companies sponsor niche right-wing magazines.

We went on to learn about the key findings of the report:

  • Hate speech in politics can be observed to some extent everywhere in Europe. Even in countries that were thought to be free of hate speech, such as Portugal or Spain, hate speech has become present through the extreme right-wing parties entering the parliaments.
  • Populism and extremism contribute to hate speech. Most of the hate speech in politics appears to be coming from the extreme right-wing, although in some cases it is also found on the extreme left.
  • Hate speech is mainstreamed by the media. The report shows a pattern in which extremists use hate speech, which in turn draws reactions from mainstream politics, the exchange is reported on the media, and then spreads on electronic media. Meanwhile, the line between acceptable and hateful speech is blurred as the discourse shifts to the extreme bit by bit. In this way hate speech is being normalized.

The report also includes recommendations for effectively combatting hate speech. First and foremost, optimistic, and a benevolent language is a tool utilized by some politicians (Emanuel Macron for example) to refrain from participating in the hate speech cycle and lead the discourse in a different direction. Secondly, education and the spread of media literacy can be useful in helping audiences, especially young and impressionable recipients, critically engage with media content. Life-long learning also contributes to countering hate speech, since the audience of hateful content includes older age groups as well, who are not necessarily more resilient in the face of it.

On the political front the report advocates for legislative changes, which protect vulnerable groups that are often targeted by hate speech. It also calls for transnational cooperation in responding to hate speech. Lastly, according to the report’s findings, the training of law enforcement authorities is lacking when it comes to hate speech. Hate speech is often regarded as an issue of lesser importance and its impact is not well understood by the local authorities. The report, therefore, recommends investing in training law enforcement authorities by educating and informing them about the ways in which hate speech can be fought on the ground.