Mapping Hate Speech and Human Rights Abuses

The old saying goes actions speak louder than words, but sometimes certain words can lead to really bad actions.  Take for instance the 1994 Rwandan genocideRadio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) used its airwaves to promote hate speech by calling on Hutu listeners to kill Tutsis or to “exterminate the cockroaches.”  Unfortunately, it wasn’t until long after nearly one million people were killed that those outside of Rwanda fully understood the cause of the violence.  Employees of the radio station were eventually convicted and jailed for their crimes.

The Sentinel Project, a Toronto-based human rights organization, recently launched Hatebase, the world’s largest online database for hate speech.  The ultimate goal is to use this space to find early indicators of ethnic discrimination and violence through language.

“Hatebase is available to casual users through a Wikipedia-like web interface, and to developers through an authenticating API,” said Sentinel’s ICT advisor Timothy Quinn.  “Although the core of Hatebase is its community-edited vocabulary of multilingual hate speech, a critical concept in Hatebase is regionality: users can associate hate speech with geography, thus building a parallel dataset of “sightings” which can be monitored for frequency, localization, migration, and transformation.”

Unfortunately, hate speech is common place worldwide, and has taken on a whole new level of severity on the Internet.  Furthermore, hate speech can be very broad in interpretation.  The same word can be viewed as offensive to one person and benign to another person.  Looking at the current entries on the map, there are some word metrics that could be identified as hate speech under certain cultural contexts.

Hatebase is defining hate speech as “any term which broadly categorizes a specific group of people based on malignant, qualitative and/or subjective attributes — particularly if those attributes pertain to ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, disability or class.”  They are essentially using the famed logic of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”

For example, the use of “cockroach” in Rwanda: Had this database been around before the genocide, people could have identified and mapped the word to use as a metric to correlate any violence or discrimination happening in a specific location.  But in another context, Quinn said, “it could be that there’s a cockroach outbreak, but in that context it’s pretty likely it’s not and in any case it’s a significant datapoint.”

The Sentinel Project plans to only focus their efforts in regions where there is a real potential for ethnic violence.  In March Sentinel staff members were in Kenya to monitor tensions during the presidential elections.  The group is currently monitoring public statements being made by public officials in Iran against the Bahai minority and any correlating violence.

Over the next few months, Sentinel plans to enhance the functionality of the site, but we think this project is already onto a good start, and we hope to follow its progress.

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