What you need to know about hate speech

Last update: 16 June 2022

What is hate speech?

The UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech refers to the working definition as: "any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor."

Forms of hate speech can include scapegoating, stereotyping, stigmatization and the use of derogatory language. It is often employed in the promulgation of conspiracy theories, disinformation and denial and distortion of historical events such as genocide. States are required to prohibit most severe forms of hate speech that constitute incitement to violence, hostility or discrimination, or incitement to genocide or other violations of international law in line with Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights  

Some other forms of hate speech, such as individual threats, may be restricted too. But international law protects forms of speech that may be offensive and raise concerns over prejudice and intolerance, which can be the object of other measures to prevent harm. The Rabat Plan of Action provides guidance for defining restrictions on freedom of expression and incitement to hatred and for the application of Article 20. 

What are the effects of hate speech?

Hate speech not only causes harm at the personal level and can incite violence, it is an attack on inclusion, diversity and human rights. It undermines social cohesion and erodes shared values, setting back peace, stability, sustainable development and the fulfillment of human rights for all. 

How does UNESCO work to counter hate speech?

UNESCO cooperates with many diverse partners to address and counter hate speech within the framework of the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, which was launched by the UN Secretary-General in 2019. At all times, UNESCO emphasizes the importance of a human rights-based approach to tackling hate speech, including through safeguarding freedom of expression. 

Education is a powerful tool to combat disinformation, misinformation and hate speech. UNESCO supports countries to support regulators and judicial operators, develop education responses, and policy and legislation that promote, protect and uphold international human rights.  

How does UNESCO tackle online hate speech?

Hate speech spreads with unprecedented speed and reach through digital tools, notably social media platforms. UNESCO works to address online hate speech by equipping learners with digital citizenship skills, so people of all ages learn to navigate the internet safely and responsibly.  

Media and Information Literacy can strengthen the resilience of learners to hate speech and build their capacity to recognize and counter mis- and disinformation, violent extremist narratives and conspiracy theories.  

UNESCO advocates for increased transparency and accountability for digital platforms to counter online disinformation and speech that incite hatred and discrimination. This includes calling on social media companies to report on hate speech, how their algorithms may affect its spread, and the policies they apply to counter it. UNESCO has issued a set of 26 high-level principles to increase transparency among internet platform companies. 

UNESCO also supports the enabling of a free, diverse, pluralistic media sector, including professional media self-regulation, as well as disseminating good practices against hate speech and training judicial actors and law enforcement on international standards on freedom of expression.