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Understanding the rise in online hate speech in Portugal and Spain: a gap between occurrence and reporting

Isabel R. Pinto, CPUP Centre for Psychology at the University of Porto; University of Porto; Catarina L. Carvalho, CPUP Centre for Psychology at the University of Porto; University of Porto; Mariana Magalhães, University of Porto; Sara Alves, CPUP Centre for Psychology at the University of Porto; University of Porto; Márcia Bernardo, University of Porto; Paula Lopes, CPUP Centre for Psychology at the University of Porto; University of Porto; Cátia de Carvalho, University of Porto;
Project selected in the Social Research Call 2020 (LCF/PR/SR20/52550016)

Online hate speech has serious consequences, both for individuals and society. In addition to damaging the psychological well-being of victims, the unchecked dissemination of hate speech online can lead to the normalisation of discrimination, intolerance, polarisation, and violence between citizens, thus threatening social cohesion and respect for fundamental European values. This article provides a review of the literature about hate speech, particularly focusing on its antecedents and consequences. One important conclusion is that hate crimes are difficult to detect and measure. Indeed, official statistics often fail to reflect the real extent of such offences because of a gap between the occurrence and reporting of hate crimes. Hate speech is a hate crime that is especially difficult to detect and measure because its definition is often ambiguous. Even in countries where hate speech is considered a crime (such as Portugal and Spain), fines are low, and there are few or no criminal reports of hate speech. The existing social control mechanisms—whether formal (institutional) or informal (social media)—have proved to be ineffective or at least insufficient, as the number of reported hate crimes appears to be rising, not only in Portugal and Spain, but in the whole European Union (at least in the countries in which data is available).
Key points
  • 1
       Hate speech is verbal aggression directed toward an individual or group because of attributes traditionally indicative of social vulnerability. According to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), racism and xenophobia are the main motivation for hate-based threats in the EU with almost 2000 reported cases, out of 3370, between 2016-2020. Official Portuguese and Spanish data show migrants as the most frequent victims.
  • 2
       Hate speech becomes a more complex and nuanced phenomenon in online contexts. When people are online, they tend to display high levels of disinhibition, deceptive behaviour, lack of empathy, and moral disengagement regarding their own misbehaviour. Indeed, a study from 2021 by Casa do Brasil de Lisboa showed that the main context in which respondents perceived hate speech against immigrants in Portugal is online (32%).
  • 3
       Hate speech is hard to detect and measure. Available data usually focus on hate crimes in general. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, for instance, reported 7,203 hate incidents in 2020, but more may have occurred without even being documented.
  • 4
       The gap between the occurrence and reporting of hate speech may be explained by legal factors. In fact, the lack of legal consensus on whether hate speech is a crime and the perceived inefficacy of existing control mechanisms in social media represent the main reason (> 40%) for not reporting, according to the EU-MIDIS II, 2016.
  • 5
       Aside from legal factors, there are also social motives for this gap. The lack of reporting from bystanders (e.g., because they do not know how to do so or fear retaliation), the diversity of targets and content of hate speech, and the legitimisation of this behaviour by opinion makers increase the difficulty of detecting and, thus, countering hate speech.

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