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Buzzword “hate speech” is spawning new industries intent on profiting from curbing online speech

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What is and isn’t hate speech – and what should be done about it – is one of the big and controversial topics when it comes to the internet.

Hate speech has also become a buzzword and a leverage tool used to easily pressure social media platforms into banning or restricting users and content, on what critics say are sometimes squarely political grounds – in other words, into using hate speech as an excuse for censorship.

Such is the power of the concept of hate speech today that an industry is springing up around it, to serve mostly tech giants under fire from politicians and the media. In addition to various fact-checking outfits, there is now a database of hate speech, that its makers, Canada’s Hatebase, sells to those who might need it.

The company draws from a partnership with the Sentinel Project (for Genocide Prevention), a Canadian non-profit. Historically it’s a well-known fact that real-world conflicts are preceded by hate speech-powered wars of words and propaganda; however, Hatebase CEO and founder Timothy Quinn is quoted as saying that Sentinel Project “discovered” this.

With Hatebase’s credibility established in this way, Quinn proceeded to explain that this “lexicon of multilingual hate speech” started as a service for NGOs – but when he realized the growing market for it, he decided to set up a start-up and start selling the database to companies.

The way it works is by combining human opinion and a natural language program called “Hatebrain” that sifts through data from the web to match instances of what is viewed as hate speech.

But have we agreed yet on what hate speech is? Apparently, “there’s much more to hate speech than just a couple ugly words. It’s an entire genre of slang.” It seems like a very broad definition unlikely to produce real consensus on which to base widely accepted, effective and non-controversial ways of combating online hate speech.

In any case, Hatebase is nothing if not ambitious: the company wants to capture the vastness of ever-changing slangs of “all languages” – and keep up with it.

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