Dangerous Speech in 2023

Dangerous speech flourished in 2023, stoked by wars (political and cultural) and vocal authoritarian leaders around the world. Threat narratives, false or real, can be especially powerful during wars, pandemics, and elections. The war between Israel and Hamas is a stunning example: since it began, people all over the world have seen daily updates of the horrifying details, often empathizing with one side or the other and, in the process, have demonized, dehumanized, and punished those who disagree with them, collapsing space for discussion. Antisemitism has risen sharply, as has the equating of civilians with terrorists to justify violence against them — a phenomenon we are now seeing seep into political speech demonizing other groups of people, such as migrants.

Elections are another context in which dangerous speech thrives, as we have written in the past. Political leaders use dangerous speech to stoke fear among their supporters, and then say that they are the only ones who can protect against such a terrible threat. False claims of election malfeasance are also common and can be dangerous speech in the tense times surrounding elections. For example, in January 2023, these claims inspired riots in Brazil that were eerily similar to the January 6th, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump who refused to accept his defeat in the election two months earlier. In Brazil, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, the then-president who had just been defeated in his bid for reelection, broke windows and stormed governmental buildings in an effort to restore their far-right leader. We expect incendiary speech related to elections, and associated violence, to rise in 2024, with over 40% of the world’s population experiencing a national election in their country (we won’t see that many elections in one year again until 2048).

2023 also saw heinous dangerous speech aimed at LGBTQ+ people. In the United States, Republican leaders attacked transgender people especially. For example in March, right-wing political commentator Michael Knowles went so far as to call for the eradication of “transgenderism” during CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. In Kenya, our Global Research Initiative fellows Kendi Gikunda and Njoki Kariuki documented dangerous speech and violence after courts upheld the right of association for LGBTQ+ people in the country. This type of dangerous speech has been accompanied by a wave of new anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world, creating an environment that is particularly perilous for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

As we move into 2024, democratic space is shrinking around the world — half of the 173 countries monitored by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) saw a decline in at least one indicator of democracy (such as freedom of the press or judicial independence) in 2023. Dangerous speech both contributes to and benefits from this. Members of populist political parties and their leaders continue to use dangerous speech that paints minority groups as a threat to the nation in order to build their own political power, such as Donald Trump, who said undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country” and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who referred to liberalism as a “virus” and compared the “woke movement” to Communism in its desire to stoke conflict.

As dangerous speech proliferates, it’s all the more important for people to be able to contradict it, or “counterspeak.” This is becoming harder. Authoritarian leaders are suppressing critical voices — for example, shutting off the internet for over 100 days in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. Governments also frequently call for the take down of online content that challenges their authority, demands to which tech companies too often acquiesce. The shrinking space for dissent has made counterspeech difficult, but not impossible, and many persist despite the challenges. Building on our years of research on counterspeech and counterspeakers, in 2023, the DSP gathered a group of counterspeakers to discuss the specific challenges they face responding to hatred in contexts (or on topics) that put them at increased risk of physical or online attacks (look for our findings from this effort early next year).

What can we do about it?

The flourishing of dangerous speech in the world in 2023 is troubling, but there are constructive steps to take to minimize its harmful impact. Here are ideas from our work:

  • Identify dangerous speech, distinguish it from remarks that are not dangerous though they may be upsetting to some, and protect reasoned dialogue among people who disagree as Susan Benesch wrote for the publication Faith & Leadership.
  • Learn effective counterspeech strategies from the “Toolkit on Using Counterspeech to Tackle Online Hate Speech” that we wrote in a collaboration with the Future of Free Speech project.
  • Improve digital architecture and human behavior by introducing friction (i.e. stop prioritizing speed over safety) as Susan Benesch and her coauthor Brett Frischmann argued in the Yale Journal of Law & Technology.
  • Conduct research on what works — including encouraging more interdisciplinary research on the effectiveness of counterspeech, as Cathy Buerger and Joshua Garland propose in their chapter in the new book, Counterspeech: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Countering Dangerous Speech.