“The Holocaust didn’t begin with gas chambers, but with hate speech directed at a minority.” This is the bitter description that reveals that hate speech is not limited to mere expressions. And this truth tells the whole world that hate speech is the “harbinger of atrocities, including genocide.”
While the use of social media and digital platforms to spread hatred may be new, unfortunately, the weaponization of public discourse for political gain is not. As we have seen in history, when hate speech combines with disinformation, it can lead to stigmatization, discrimination, and violence at the level of atrocities.
Here are some examples from recent history:
The Nazi regime in Germany enacted legal regulations to crush independent media and instead introduced state-controlled radio and print media that spread hate speech, antisemitism, disinformation, and lies. Media campaigns normalized atrocities. This facilitated the Holocaust, one of the greatest horrors in history. The Holocaust didn’t start with gas chambers but with hate speech directed at a minority.
In the 1970s, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge movement in Cambodia launched an intense propaganda campaign to mobilize the rural population and seize power. The hate-filled discourse systematically labeled intellectuals, dissidents, urban dwellers, and ethnic and religious minorities as the “enemies” of the Cambodian people. It is estimated that between 1975 and 1979, under the Khmer Rouge regime, 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died. Hate speech played a triggering role in this atrocity.
In Rwanda, prolonged hate speech fueled ethnic tensions by spreading baseless rumors and dehumanizing ethnic Tutsi citizens. This was supported by hate propaganda broadcast by Radio Libre des Mille Collines, which incited the Hutu majority to kill Tutsi citizens. The genocide that occurred in 1994 is estimated to have systematically killed over one million people in less than three months. The victims ranged from babies to the elderly, predominantly of Tutsi ethnicity, but also including moderate Hutu, Twa, and other individuals who opposed the genocide.
The facilitative role of hate speech and disinformation campaigns in inciting and legitimizing war crimes has also been proven in the Bosnian War. In areas predominantly inhabited by Serbs, continuous nationalist propaganda through party-controlled media demonized Bosnian Muslim population and other groups as violent fundamentalist enemies conspiring against Serbs. Opposition was silenced. In July 1995, Serbian forces killed 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys within a few days in Srebrenica, a Muslim enclave and a UN-protected “safe zone” in eastern Bosnia. The Bosnian War resulted in the death of over 100,000 people.
In Myanmar, a hateful and deceitful campaign conducted with derogatory and dehumanizing language against the Rohingya Muslim minority was mentioned in UN reports as the cause of human rights violations. Hate propaganda conducted by state officials, politicians, military and religious leaders led to systematic persecution, including killing, mass rape, torture, forced displacement, and other severe human rights abuses against the Rohingya minority.
Unfortunately, these events driven by hate speech took place in plain sight of the world.
These historical examples, demonstrating that hate speech can be a precursor to atrocities, indicate the possibility of their recurrence at a level that calls attention to xenophobia, racism, intolerance, and hate campaigns against minorities. In response, the UN Secretary-General launched an action plan to combat hate speech on June 18, 2019. Additionally, June 18 was declared as the International Day for the Elimination of Hate Speech in 2021.
According to the UN, some responsibilities of individuals in the fight against hate speech include:
When possible, do not remain silent even if others are being targeted. Speak calmly but firmly against hate speech and clearly express that you do not agree with the content of the expression. When relevant, counter false information with reliable sources to support your arguments with facts.
Taking a public stance and showing solidarity with those targeted by hate speech demonstrates that rejecting hate is the responsibility of every individual.
Another way to combat hate speech is to spread your own counter-narrative, ensuring that hate does not dominate the discourse. You can undermine the content of hate speech by promoting tolerance, equality, and truth through positive messages that defend those targeted by hate.
Unfortunately, both in our country and worldwide, as hate speech reaches more people at the speed of light, it is necessary for all responsible individuals, institutions, and ourselves to accelerate our response in order to prevent new genocides from occurring.