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Online hate speech is up 20% since start of the COVID pandemic, research finds

Written by on 15/11/2021

Online hate speech has increased by 20% in the UK since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research.

Anti-bullying charity Ditch The Label reviewed 263 million online conversations in the UK and US on social media sites, blogs and forums between 2019 and mid-2021.

It found the largest increase in abuse was targeted at the Asian population, with an increase of 1662% in anti-Asian hate speech last year, compared to 2019.

Increases in online abuse were also linked to real-world events, such as Black Lives Matter protests, the World Health Organisation declaring a pandemic in March 2020 and the murder of Sarah Everard by an off-duty Met police officer.

The PC was let go from his position after making 'offensive' comments about the BLM protests
Image: Increases in online abuse were also linked to Black Lives Matter protests

Dr Liam Hackett, CEO of Ditch the Label said: “It is clear that online hate speech has reached an all-time high and, to some communities, is at an unbearable extreme.

“By far, the most alarming data surrounds abuse directed towards marginalised communities, with a deep intensity surrounding racism and Asian hate.”

Dr Hackett told Sky News the pandemic has worsened the problem.

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“We see the pandemic as a perfect storm where we were all suddenly locked in the home with high levels of disposable time, but actually the nation’s mental health generally declined,” he said.

“When you put those two things together it’s not surprising that hate speech has increased.”

Key findings in the report:

  • Instances of and discussions about online hate increased by 20% in the UK since the start of the pandemic
  • Between 2019 and mid-2021, on average there was a new post about race or ethnicity-based hate speech every 1.7 seconds
  • Discussions about and examples of racist hate speech peaked during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 as well as recurring discussions about immigration and Brexit in the UK
  • Ethnicity-based hate speech was spurred primarily by the beginning of the pandemic as anti-Asian hate became significantly more common and widespread

The report’s findings echo the abuse received by British Chinese content creator Michelle Elman, who lives in London.

She was forced to stop working on one social media platform due to the hate messages she received – and told Sky News that while anti-Asian abuse online was nothing new, there was an increase during the pandemic:

Infections in England are now at the same level as they were at the end of the second wave in January
Image: The pandemic has worsened the problem of online abuse, the research found

“There was so much fear and anger around the pandemic. It was definitely under the theme: you caused the pandemic, you are the reason I can’t see my family, jokes about eating bats, jokes about eating dogs.

“Anytime I’ve spoken about anti-Asian discrimination, even as early as 2014/2015, it was always met with silence – so I guess when it started happening last year, especially in the first lockdown, I was just kind of used to it sadly,” she added.

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The findings come as the government scrutinises the draft Online Safety Bill – aimed at tackling abuse on social media – with a committee due to publish its report on the bill by 10 December.

A Department For Culture, Media & Sport spokesperson said: “Online hate has no place in our society and we’re introducing tough new laws to force companies to do more and clamp down on it.

“Under our pioneering Online Safety Bill social media firms will face huge fines if they fail to uphold their duty of care to protect UK users from this vile abuse.

“But there is nothing stopping social media companies going faster now and we urge them to step up and do all they can.”

 Sky News

© Sky News 2020

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