Define and Tackle Hate Speech: The Experience of Social Workers in Italy

Amalia De Leo, Emanuele Russo
Informing Science: The International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline  •  Volume 26  •  2023  •  pp. 115-134

The aim of this qualitative study is to explore social workers’ representations of hate speech (HS), the effects it has on the community, and socio-educational actions aimed at combating it.

Hate speech is any form of communication that promotes discrimination, hostility, or violence towards individuals or groups based on their identity. Although its spread is facilitated by particular characteristics of the online environment (such as anonymity and ubiquity), HS has pervasive consequences even in offline reality. In the last year, several community-based projects involving social workers have been implemented to address the problem. Professionals who work with the community play a crucial strategic role in the fight against HS. Therefore, it is imperative to begin by considering their perspective to gain a better understanding of HS and how it can be controlled.

Following a psycho-sociological perspective, six focus groups were conducted with 42 social workers (19 females and 23 males) belonging to associations or organizations of a different nature, such as NGOs, local social promotion organizations, universities, private social organizations, whose mission included the theme of countering hate speech.

There are no studies in the literature that consider the views of operators working to counter hate speech within communities. Our study contributes to deepening the knowledge of the phenomenon and identifying the most suitable strategies to combat it, starting from an approach that does not only focus on the online or offline dimension but on an integrated “onlife” approach. The study offers an outline of how hate speech affects the daily lives of the communities in the cities of Torino, Palermo, and Ancona. Additionally, it proposes a grassroots strategy to address hate speech.

The results suggest that strategies effective in countering hate speech in offline contexts may not be effective in online environments. The technological revolution brought about by social media has significantly expanded the potential audience while weakening traditional communities. Addressing hate speech in the present context requires efforts to rebuild fragmented communities, gaining a thorough understanding of how the new virtual public space operates, and prioritizing hate speech as a specific concern only after these initial steps.

Hate speech represents a violation of human rights and a threat to freedom of expression. The spread of hateful messages has a significant impact on society, as it can negatively influence social cohesion, diversity, and inclusion. Understanding the causes and consequences of hate speech can help develop effective strategies to prevent and counter it, which is a crucial challenge for both research and society as a whole. Studying hate speech should involve the use of interdisciplinary methodologies.

Future research should focus on comparative analysis at the European Union level to assess the ability of civil society in other countries to develop effective strategies against hate speech.

hate speech, online hating, community, social workers, activism, social media, educational strategies
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