Richard G. Jones, Jr.
Scholar, Educator, Author

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Using Social Media to Track Hate:

May 16, 2013

Humbolt University, Twitter, and the Hate Map

This is the fourth article in a special week long series on "Social Media and Communication."

Social media is now being used in really interesting ways to study socio-demographics and even track the use of hate terms to create a composite of what areas are the "most hateful." A project at Humbolt State University has tracked the use of "hate terms" on Twitter and now has a public, interactive, map they call the "Geography of Hate." On this map, you can see the frequency of use of hate terms related to race, sexual orientation, and ability in any area in the United States.

This is yet another way that social media intersects with an important communication issue - hate speech, which I discuss in the chapter on verbal communication in my book, Communication in the Real World.

Defining Hate

Hate is a term that has many different meanings and can be used to communicate teasing, mild annoyance, or anger. The term hate, as it relates to hate speech, has a much more complex and serious meaning. Hate, in this context, refers to extreme negative beliefs and feelings toward a group or member of a group because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or ability.[i]

The Difference Between Anger and Hate

We can get a better understanding of the intensity of hate by distinguishing it from anger, which is an emotion that we experience much more regularly.

  • First, anger is directed toward an individual, while hate is directed toward a social or cultural group.
  • Second, anger doesn’t prevent a person from having sympathy for the target of his or her anger, but hate erases sympathy for the target.
  • Third, anger is usually the result of personal insult or injury, but hate can exist and grow even with no direct interaction with the target. Fourth, anger isn’t an emotion that people typically find pleasure in, while hatred can create feelings of self-righteousness and superiority that lead to pleasure.
  • Last, anger is an emotion that usually dissipates as time passes, eventually going away, while hate can endure for much longer.[ii]

In short, hate speech is a verbal manifestation of this intense emotional and mental state.

How is Hate Speech Used

Hate speech is usually used by people who have a polarized view of their own group (the in-group) and another group (the out-group). Hate speech is then used to intimidate people in the out-group and to motivate and influence members of the in-group. Hate speech often promotes hate-based violence and is also used to solidify in-group identification and attract new members.[iii]

Perpetrators of hate speech often engage in totalizing, which means they define a person or a group based on one quality or characteristic, ignoring all others. A Lebanese American may be the target of hate speech because the perpetrators reduce him to a Muslim—whether he actually is Muslim or not would be irrelevant. Grouping all Middle-Eastern or "Arab-looking" people together is a dehumanizing activity that is typical to hate speech.

Hate Speech and the First Amendment

Incidents of hate speech and hate crimes have increased over the past fifteen years. Hate crimes, in particular, have gotten more attention due to the passage of more laws against hate crimes and the increased amount of tracking by various levels of law enforcement.

The Internet, and social media, have also made it easier for hate groups to organize and spread their hateful messages. As these changes have taken place over the past fifteen years, there has been much discussion about hate speech and its legal and constitutional implications. While hate crimes resulting in damage to a person or property are regularly prosecuted, it is sometimes argued that hate speech that doesn’t result in such damage is protected under the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees free speech.

In 2011, the Supreme Court found in the Snyder v. Phelps case that speech and actions of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who regularly protest the funerals of American soldiers with signs reading things like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Fag Sin = 9/11,” were protected and not criminal. Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the decision, "We cannot react to [the Snyder family's] pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."[iv]

Questions to Consider:

  1. Do you think the First Amendment of the Constitution, guaranteeing free speech to US citizens, should protect hate speech? Why or why not?
  2. Visit the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Hate Map" to see what hate groups they have identified in your state. Are you surprised by the number/nature of the groups listed in your state? Briefly describe a group that you didn’t know about and identify the target of their hate and the reasons they give for their hate speech.

[i] Michael Waltman and John Haas, The Communication of Hate (New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2011), 33.

[ii] Michael Waltman and John Haas, The Communication of Hate (New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2011), 33–34.

[iii] Michael Waltman and John Haas, The Communication of Hate (New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2011), 3.

[iv] "Regulation of Fighting Words and Hate Speech," Exploring Constitutional Conflicts, accessed June 7, 2012, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/hatespeech.htm.

[v] “Hate Map,” Southern Poverty Law Center, accessed June 7, 2012, http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/hate-map.