Creating a lexicon of terms to combat hate speech

07 May 2019
Creating a lexicon of terms to combat hate speech

As South Africans prepare to participate in the relatively young constitutional democracy’s sixth general elections on the 8th of May 2019, there is much reason for gratitude and celebration. South Africa is a country in which freedom is constitutionally enshrined conferring upon all persons within the country – irrespective of their gender, sex, race or creed the right to freedom of speech, the press, religion, association.

The new South Africa is characterised by freedom. However, what is  often overlooked is the immense responsibility the conferral of freedom imposes:

Despite the numerous and tangible achievements of the past 25 years of democracy, persistent problems, which include among others,  extreme economic disparities,  racially skewed land ownership, high unemployment rates – particularly amongst youth –  create fertile conditions for stress factors such as migration and climate crises to trigger conduct that aggressively undermines inter-related freedom. It is in such contexts that freedom of speech is frequently invoked to justify hate speech.

As the chasm between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged continues to grow in South Africa and societal frustrations flare up into anger,  there has been an upsurge in the use of hateful and racist language, not confined to private interactions but flagrantly bandied on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook with the technological medium providing the illusion of anonymity.

According to the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) Annual Trends Analysis Report released in December 2018, the most commonly reported human rights violations were racism and socio-economic rights’ infringements.

“The public exposure of many racist incidents can be attributed to the growing popularity and use of various social media platforms (particularly Facebook and Twitter). In addition, people use social media as a platform to express racism,” the report states.

It is against this backdrop that Washington D.C.-based PeaceTech Lab – a non-profit working to reduce violent conflict using technology, media, and data – recently joined forces  with Media Monitoring Africa to examine the origins, context, and influence of hateful speech in South Africa, the findings of which were published in the report, ‘Social Media, Discrimination and Intolerance in South Africa: A Lexicon of Hateful Terms.’

PeaceTech Lab’s lexicon is described as a “tool, which pairs social media analysis with in-depth qualitative research, [that] is intended to help everyone – from civil society activists to government officials – in their efforts to address this problem.”

Media Monitoring Africa’s Thandi Smith explained that the data which informed the lexicon was obtained by means of an online survey distributed to the public through social media channels as well as mailing lists, and with the dissemination assistance of various partners.

Smith said, “[w]e did not have any official advertising, other than our social media channels. Through these networks… we [managed to secure] approximately 635 respondents…  adding that most of the terms submitted were racial in nature.

When asked if any of the results came as a surprise, Smith said terms like ‘white privilege’ and ‘colonialist’ appeared in multiple results.

“One can understand that these terms could be used in an offensive way, but on their own, [they] do not constitute hate speech,” she said.

Encouragingly, Smith pointed out that results speaking to LGBTI or gender issues were minimal.

While perusing the lexicon of hateful terms could be triggering to many South Africans, drawing attention to offensive language rather than sweeping it under the carpet may serve to problematise its use.

“One of the objectives of the lexicon of hateful terms is to begin mapping where terms are being used online and how this impacts conflict offline,” explains Smith. “When you are able to identify where hateful terms are being used, organisations can begin using this data to prevent further conflict or start [to] address how it gets used online.”

She concluded that it was PeaceTech Lab and Media Monitoring Africa’s hope that the lexicon would create awareness around what type of hateful/offensive language is being used and why.

“South African organisations can also use this as a reference guide to map out where this is being used and whether this is reflecting offline conflict, and begin engaging with issues before they become violent.”

Visit the PeaceTech Lab website to download Social Media, Discrimination and Intolerance in South Africa: A Lexicon of Hateful Terms