Home Content Forum Lifestyle Stopping the Hate: Tackling Online Hate Speech
Home Content Forum Lifestyle Stopping the Hate: Tackling Online Hate Speech

Stopping the Hate: Tackling Online Hate Speech

In conjunction with International Day for Countering Hate Speech, the Content Forum highlights the impact of hate speech and ways to contain it

(L-R) The panel session moderated by emcee and presenter Sheahnee Iman Lee, with speakers Wathshlah Naidu, Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Journalism; Sazzy Falak, parenting influencer, content creator, and actress; Ceddy Ang, food content creator and entrepreneur; Gandhi Palanisamy, lawyer and legal content creator and Hafizin Tajudin, Head of Public Policy, Malaysia, Tiktok. 

In a hyperconnected world where social media rules the roost, the rise of hate speech has become a pressing global issue. Despite the fact that xenophobia and bigotry are not new problems, the rapid advancement and reach of modern technology have resulted in an alarming rise in hate speech.

With these concerns in mind, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in July 2021 adopted a resolution to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue. It declared June 18 as the International Day for Countering Hate Speech. For a country as diverse and vibrant as Malaysia, the day is an especially poignant reminder that our words — even those casually and thoughtlessly uttered — can cause real harm.

“We need to acknowledge the impact of online hate speech to disrupt the cycle of fear, hate and misinformation,” said Content Forum Executive Director, Mediha Mahmood. “If left to fester, the division and discrimination fueled by hate speech can undermine the very fabric of social cohesion. I think all of us have the ethical responsibility to counter hate speech, and explore effective strategies to put an end to it.”

This was the rationale behind a lively panel discussion at the recent Surf's Up Digital Literacy Summit, co-organised by the Communications and Multimedia Content Forum of Malaysia (Content Forum) and social media platform TikTok. Moderated by emcee and presenter Sheahnee Iman Lee, the panel featured a wide range of perspectives and comprised speakers Sazzy Falak, a parenting influencer, content creator, and actress; Ceddy Ang, a food content creator and entrepreneur; Gandhi Palanisamy, a lawyer and legal content creator; Wathshlah Naidu, Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Journalism; and Hafizin Tajudin, Head of Public Policy, Malaysia, Tiktok.

Hate speech and its discontents
The Content Code 2022, a set of guidelines for ethical content creation and consumption developed by the Content Forum, outlines what would be considered hate speech. According to the Content Code 2022, hate speech refers to any portrayal of words, speech or pictures that aims to defame, denigrate or otherwise devalue a person or group on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

Gandhi, more popularly known as Lawyer Gandhi, pointed out that there are existing laws in Malaysia governing hate speech. This includes Sections 503 and 505 of Malaysia’s Penal Code, which prohibit violent threats against others and restrict statements intended to cause fear or cause public mischief. Meanwhile, Article 8 of the Federal Constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity, descent, place of birth, or gender. “What is important is for the netizens to be aware of this because a lot of people don’t know that it is actually a crime, or that commenters can also be sued for defamation (for untrue statements about someone),” he added.

Delving further into the root causes of hate speech, Wathshlah said that the law should serve as a last resort measure as regulations alone cannot address existing societal divisions. “This information (on social media) just adds another layer to that, because if you’re already divided by race, religion, gender, that’s for me, the basis for your attack — it’s better to start to get out of the echo chambers,” she said. “Very often, we talk about the role of social media as a space that amplifies hate but if we also look at it positively, it could also be the space to challenge that hate.”

Misinterpretations of seemingly harmless content — especially if the misunderstanding touches on sensitivities of race and religion — can also inadvertently explode into hateful conversations if not managed carefully. The online space, where there is often not enough room for non-verbal cues such as tone of voice, can be a minefield as a result.

“You would think that food would help me escape from all this drama and toxicity but no; people get upset over food content! Can you imagine? Food!” exclaimed Ceddy, sharing his experience in explaining the difference between pork-free and halal-certified eateries. “Even if a business is owned by a Malay who is a Muslim, I mention ‘pork-free’ because they don’t have the Halal certification yet,” he said. Despite this clear distinction, he said some commenters misconstrued this to claim he was encouraging Muslims to eat at non-halal places.

Often lost in these broader conversations is the impact hate speech has on those on the receiving end of it. Speaking about her experience upon her entry into the local entertainment industry as a young woman in her early twenties, Sazzy said that online gossip and speculation almost “broke” her. “Obviously, I was still young and I just couldn’t understand why these people were saying all sorts of nasty things about me. I had to grow and mature from that myself and through self-help,” she said.

Sazzy added that she now worries about what her young daughters will read and see online. “I’m worried that they’ll be attacked or harassed or sometimes people can be nasty, all those things. Long gone are the days where it was kids being ostracised in school; now they can be ostracised on social media as well,” she said.

Turning the tide of hate
While there is no single, clear-cut quick fix for hate speech, what is clear is that everyone — from content creators and consumers to digital platforms and policymakers — needs to play a proactive role in combating hate. With the sheer volume of information being generated online every day, self-regulation is crucial to chipping away at negative and harmful content.

Wathslah brought up a simple principle to start with: pause before reacting, and act intentionally. “We make sure we’re constantly checking our content, the source of where it’s coming from. Is it a reliable source? And then only act — and act here means, sometimes, just don’t forward lah,” she said. She added that teaching critical thinking and digital literacy to children from a young age was also equally important.

Sazzy meanwhile, said that she chose to introduce social media to her children only after they were older. “At 12-years-old, I allowed them on social media this year for the first time in a couple of years, but I will monitor them daily. I think parents just need to look out for their children, no matter how young they are,” she said. She also added that parents should not shy away from discussing issues of cyberbullying and responsible online behaviour with their children.

Sharing an industry perspective of the social media ecosystem, Hafizin said users and platforms could nip hate in the bud by not sharing or even discussing negative content in the first place. He noted that users should also be proactive in reporting any harmful content they’ve encountered so that platforms can immediately take action. “Produce more positivity — this is where we are lacking,” he added. “For example, when we don’t like the content produced by others, we just stop there. We complain in our own bubbles, create our own echo chambers to criticise, but we’re not doing anything to go out and come up with our own versions of positive stories.”

Gandhi echoed this sentiment, calling on content creators and consumers to be more mindful of what they post and share. “Although we may have a positive (mindset) of ‘I just want to share this joke’, we have to look at it from a holistic perspective. How is it going to impact (others), how is it going to be perceived? As a content creator or consumer, we all have a responsibility to push something positive to make the change that we want to see in the world,” he said.

Ultimately, the most powerful weapons against online hate speech might well be empathy and respect. “When we talk about things like digital literacy and critical thinking, we’re talking about empowering people to self-regulate, critically analyse information, and engage in respectful discussions — all of these, coupled with empathy, can serve to dilute hateful narratives and messages,” said Mediha.

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