Hate Speech in Online Communities

Last week, we examined how hate speech can be used as a way to intimidate and upset opponents. We looked at Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg’s use of the n-word as an example of how, even though he was playing a competitive video game, he wasn’t using it this way. It’s important to look at the reasons that people use hate speech because it demonstrates how ingrained it is into our lives. If someone is only using a word to intimidate someone, then we might be able to argue that they wouldn’t otherwise use that word. However, if a racial slur is the first expletive that someone says in a moment of frustration, then it’s most likely a word that occurs in their everyday speech.

This week’s essay looks at hate speech in online communities, especially how it becomes “the norm”.

Types of Internet Communities

When we’re talking about internet communities, we can mean several vastly different things. There are social media sites, such as Facebook, where it’s generally clear who is speaking because a real human’s name is usually attached to each message.

Then there are online forums where people create pseudonyms, like SmokeDog420, and can speak a little more candidly about things that they otherwise couldn’t (or wouldn’t). Sure, some of it’s illegal, but a lot of it comes out of genuine fears of persecution, such as queerness, kinkiness, or enjoyment of something that isn’t considered “OK” for a certain type of person (such as grown men loving My Little Pony). People can safely hide behind a different name while still creating an identity within that group. Some of these people don’t even hide their real identities. Many of these forums existed long before “social media”, so people used names like “Vampyre52” instead of their real name because that’s what everyone else did.

Then there are anonymous message boards, such as 4Chan. In these communities, most posters are listed as “Anonymous” and their posts are given a seemingly random number. Because everything’s anonymous, there’s no way to determine whether or not a reply comes from any specific person or several different people. Users generally refer to this ambiguity of identity as the “hive mind”. The hive mind can be as few as one person or as many as tens of thousands. Unless you have access to a website’s IP logs, there’s really no way to know what response belongs to which person, or even who these people are.

Hate Speech in Online Communities

It’s important to recognize that, as soon as a group gets acquainted to a certain kind of language within a subculture, it becomes a part of that subculture’s “dominant culture”. If I said something hateful on Facebook, I would get private messages from coworkers and family. I could lose my job. Even on a pseudonymous message board, I might find my account banned. But in an anonymous culture, the only consequence is a response from other users. Since they aren’t tied to an account, just a post, then it’s easy to ignore the message and hide. Since there’s no “reputation” tied to their account, they have two choices: leave the community or stop leaving messages that aren’t part of the “norm”.

The most important part of an online community is its ability to police itself. Message boards have moderators. Even 4chan has a handful of mods. But since 4chan gets over 1 million new posts a day 1, it’s impossible for so few volunteers to completely police the entire website. This is how the “hive mind” takes control; by attacking people who speak against the norm, they get to decide what is and isn’t appropriate. What’s strange is that the norm tends towards hate speech, and the most aggressive posts are against people who are trying to police hate speech.

While I can’t speak to Kjellberg’s familiarity with 4chan, I believe that 4chan serves as a guide for how other online communities interact. In a forum where hate speech goes unpoliced, it easily becomes the norm. It really doesn’t have to be an anonymous community, like 4chan. Hate speech is common in forums for popular sites like BodyBuilding.com and Something Awful. Once it becomes normalized, it is more likely to be uttered in a moment of frustration, such as during an online video game match.

How This Brought Us Here

For some people, the idea that hate speech is used online is completely unsurprising and might not even seem like it’s worth talking about. However, the way that these online communities work, and the way that they have overlapped with video game communities, has directly led to the election of President Trump and the rise of white supremacy in America. Next week, we’ll connect those dots. What’s scary is how easy that will be.

  1. Smith, Craig. “10 Amazing 4chan Statistics and Facts (December 2016)”. (17 Mar 2017). DMR. Retrieved on 8 Sep 2017

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