On a mission to understand hate posting

As a member of Generation Z, my entire conscious life has been shaped by the Internet, technology, and social media. This, according to Rothman, makes me a digital native. Yet, despite this title, I do not understand hate posting. Likely, this negative digital expression of opinion seems so inconceivable to me because of my general lack of engagement with social media content online. It is the year 2020 and I have yet to comment something on a stranger’s social media account. That is to say, that while I comment regularly on my friends’ posts, I have never ‘left something in the comment section below’ nor commented on any strangers’ Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter post. But, instances of cyber hate are increasing – thus, I am on a mission to understand its drivers as well as implications for society at large.

A 2018 study by Amnesty International focussing on female politicians and journalists from the UK and US, found that every 30 seconds a woman is receiving an abusive comment on Twitter. The following image featuring a tweet is only one of many examples of racist, sexist, or ideologically-driven hate speech online – a drop in the sea of the anti-feminist and racist rhetoric on the Internet. What is the motivation behind this? Why are people ‘wasting’ their time promoting negativity, bias or bigotry?

Example of cyber hate on Twitter from @SofiaJe77506458 and @WNixin – Depicted is a photoshopped mug-shot image of US Representative, Ilhan Omar, featuring her with an edited, unflattering hair-do.

Facilitation and Motivation
According to Burnap and Williams:

The evolution of the World Wide Web from a static linked content publishing platform to a highly interactive real-time broadcast medium through which billions of people are able to publish their current thoughts, feelings and beliefs has revolutionised public communication.

But, these new technological affordances allow changes to not only occur in human communication but also in interaction and behaviour.

In his recently published article, Kilvington seeks to explore the factors behind the motivation for hate speech and abuse online. In doing so, he utilizes Goffman’s prominent dramaturgical theory of self, self-presentation, and society and updates it for online communication. He bases his argument on these new technological affordances and argues that anonymity, invisibility, dissociative imagination and rapid response form four key differences in online versus offline communication. Through the utilization of Goffman’s stage metaphor, Kilvington is able to put forth his thesis convincingly: Online, due to these four factors, the frontstage and backstage of communication have become blurred. Thus, a third stage emerges, the ‘backstage mimicry’. This blur, enabled by these differences is what foster disinhibition which, in turn, exacerbates online hate speech.

Kilvington’s virtual stages of hate

Moreover, disinhibition is given rise to by feelings of freedom and courage.  Henry contends that due to the First Amendment of the US and the Internet’s borderless nature, international power to regulate cyber hate speech is virtually devoid. Thus, the US Constitution’s focus on ‘freedom of speech’ trumps, for example, Germany’s Grundgesetz, which proclaims that “[h]uman dignity shall be inviolable… [t]o respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” As demonstrated above in the visualization of Kilvington’s virtual stages, this leads to the underpinning notion of cyber hate speech which assumes that there is likely no punishment awaiting harmful online abuse.

Furthermore, other noteworthy motivating factors for hate posting online are the so-called filter bubbles.  These echo-chambers, brought about by the filtering of posts by algorithms, shape user’s perception of what may be regarding as acceptable communication online. As a result, Kilvington finds that “increasingly extreme viewpoints are being consumed” and cesspools of abusive language are formed.

As our lives are becoming increasingly intertwined with the virtual world, it is important to analyse the potential impact this increase in cyber hate has on society at large. Some scholars like Kilvington and Merunkova and Slerka, appear to have already characterized my generation, Gen Z, as doomed, in this regard. Unlike our parents’ or siblings’ generations, interactions online in public environments of online networks form an integral part of our identity, thus making us especially vulnerable to the exposure of hate, discrimination, bullying, abuse, insults, etc.

Moreover, Belk puts forth the argument that due to the “increasingly prosthetic nature of our digital devices,” and as the binary of the online and offline world is crumbling down, the self becomes extended via digital expression. This leaves me to wonder, is this constant negativity that some Internet users are actively engaging with going to make them more bitter, frustrated, angry people offline? Are those that are merely exposed to it by observation also affected?

In his article, Kilvington goes as far as to describe cyber hate to a tsunami that ripples across country lines and causes “offence, upset and pain.” When comparing hurtful, offensive online communication to a deadly natural disaster is appears as though the impact of cyberhate on our daily lives is insurmountable. Here, however, it should be noted that “[t]he Internet is a distorted reflection of society, where minority and extreme opinion are indistinguishable from the mainstream.” This leads to a distortion in the representation of perspectives, as most Internet users are observers like me, not participators. Regardless of this, it appears as though the voices of the few can make a lot of noise, leaving their impact to be palpable.

Abuse and bullying online have been linked to increased suicide deaths in minors, as well as adults. According to the Megan Meier Foundation, which was set up by Megan’s parents after she committed suicide following ‘a cruel cyberbullying hoax’, 34% of students experience cyberbullying during their lifetime. This can impact student’s ability to study, lead to depression as well as self-harm. Moreover, those who have fallen victim to cyber hate speech are twice more likely to commit suicide than those who have not.

Finally, it can be concluded that it is imperative for me and other Internet observers to learn more about the dynamics surrounding cyber hate, as the phenomenon is increasing and it is impacting individuals and society in a myriad of ways. While it might simply be considered a form of free speech by some, its influence cannot be underestimated. It is reshaping the self as well as changing people’s perceptions about themselves. In turn, it causes human lives to be lost.


  • Amnesty International (2018). Women Abused on Twitter Every 30 Seconds – New Study, Press Release, Available Online: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/women-abused-twitter-every-30-seconds-new-study [Accessed 1 December 2020].
  • Bundesministerium der Justiz und Verbraucherschutz (2019). Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany in the revised version published in the Federal Law Gazette Part III, classification number 100-1, (Federal Law Gazette I p. 404). Available Online: https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_gg/englisch_gg.html#p0019 [Accessed 1 December 2020].
  • Burnap, P. & Williams, M. L. (2016). Us and Them: Identifying Cyber Hate on Twitter across Multiple Protected Characteristics, EPJ Data Science, [e-journal] vol. 5, no. 1, p.11, Available Online: http://epjdatascience.springeropen.com/articles/10.1140/epjds/s13688-016-0072-6 [Accessed 1 December 2020].
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  • Henry, J. S. (2009). Beyond Free Speech: Novel Approaches to Hate on the Internet in the United States, Information & Communications Technology Law, [e-journal] vol. 18, no. 2, pp.235–251, Available Online: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13600830902808127 [Accessed 1 December 2020].
  • Kilvington, D. (2020). The Virtual Stages of Hate: Using Goffman’s Work to Conceptualise the Motivations for Online Hate:, Media, Culture & Society, [e-journal], Available Online: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0163443720972318 [Accessed 1 December 2020].
  • Megan Meier Foundation (2020). Statistics, Megan Meier Foundation, Available Online: https://www.meganmeierfoundation.org/statistics [Accessed 1 December 2020].
  • Merunkova, L., & Slerka, J. (2019). Goffman’s theory as framework for analysis of self presentation on online social networks. Masaryk University Journal of Law and Technology, 13(2), 243-276.
  • Rotham, D. (2014). A Tsunami of Learners Called Generation Z, Public Safety: A State of Mind, [e-journal] vol. 1, no. 1, Available Online: https://mdle.net/Journal/A_Tsunami_of_Learners_Called_Generation_Z.pdf [Accessed 2 December 2020].
  • Starr, S. (2004). Understanding Hate Speech, in C. Möller & A. Amouroux (eds), The Media Freedom Cookbook, [e-book] Vienna: Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), pp.125–141, Available Online: https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/b/b/13836.pdf [Accessed 2 December 2020].
  • U.S. Constitution, Amendment I. Available Online: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights-transcript#toc-amendment-i [Accessed 1 December 2020].

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