Hate speech against immigrants and Travellers ‘widespread’ online

Users seldom report hate speech, study tracking ‘racially-loaded toxic speech’ finds

Online hate speech against groups such as asylum seekers and Travellers is widespread in Ireland but is seldom called out or reported, a new study has found.

A 12-month project by academics at Dublin City University tracked about 6,000 incidents of "racially-loaded toxic speech" by automatically scraping messages posted to Facebook and Twitter.

The findings were disclosed at a seminar organised by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) on the need for "a more social media".

Researchers found hate speech against asylum seekers and immigrants was particularly prevalent and took different forms.


Crude messages included animal comparisons, direct denigration or “race science myths”, such as this Twitter message: “Ireland 2 become crime-ridden darky shthole 70,000 eyeballing liar muslims here already &40 fakeKid rapefugees on way.”

Coded racism

They also found a large number of examples of “coded racism” which employed seemingly well-reasoned or common sense arguments.

“Its not racism thats going on in Ireland its survival of the fittest. Providing housing, benefits and education for foreign nationals over our own causes people to lash out,” read one Facebook message.

Racially-loaded toxic messages often involved commentary on the notion of “Irishness” and what it means to be Irish.

Ethnic-minority Irish people, especially if they have public profiles – such as Ibrahim Halawa or footballer Cyrus Christis – have been at the receiving end of large volumes of hate speech.

Calling out racism online typically led to accusations of being “oversensitive”, “playing the race card” or “being racist” against white people.

Researchers also identified what they described as “identitarian” ideologies, which use seemingly neutral vocabulary of ethnicity or genetic difference to advance white supremacist arguments.

They found a spike of this kind of hate speech after events such as the release of Ibrahim Halawa.

The report also found in focus groups that people tend to under-report online racist speech due to a belief that freedom of expression is absolute, or a sense that racist speech is uttered only by people who are not worth dealing with.

Bystander effect

Some also felt reporting was pointless because there was so much racist speech online, while there was also a “bystander” effect with some feeling that it was not their job to report anything.

Speaking at a seminar in Dublin on Wednesday, IHREC chief commissioner Emily Logan called on Ireland to show international leadership in combating the rise of online hate speech.

“The potential for intolerance online to shape the public debate – and resulting political debate – offline is becoming one of the hallmarks of the digital age,” she said.

“While there is no doubt that the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 is not fit for purpose and should be modernised, a legislative refresh is not the only solution to tackle online intolerance.”

Ms Logan said cultural change was possible, and new norms could be established, particularly by those with power and influence.

“Ireland needs leadership from across society to play a more discernible role in preventing the spread of online intolerance,” she said.

At the seminar, Dr Sindy Joyce of University of Limerick said she experienced hate speech online on a daily basis.

She gave graphic examples of anti-Traveller messages which she reported to Facebook – comparing members of the community to animals or stating that they should be “gassed” – but were not removed.

At the seminar, Siobhán Cummiskey, Facebook’s head of content policy, acknowledged its community standards system had failed her.

She said Facebook had up to 30,000 people working to remove harmful content and it was constantly revising its community standards.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent