Jul 31

The Prevalence of hate speech on social media

By Vitalio Angula

The availability of multiple platforms to raise one’s opinion under the guise of freedom of speech and freedom of expression has resulted in much vitriol being spat out on social media that qualifies as hate speech. Hate speech is not limited to race-discrimination and manifests itself in tribalism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, islamophobia, and sino-phobia, to mention but a few. And nowhere is it more common and ‘tolerated’ than on social media.

This year alone, the prevalence of Hate-Speech directed to those regarded as minorities received widespread circulation on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp. Civil Servants like Eva-Maria Nangolo’s utterances about damara culture and heritage drew public condemnation for those who recognized it for what it was, hate speech!

Another instance was Member of Opposition Party Namibia Economic Freedom Fighters (NEFF) Epafras Mukwilongo’s attempt at humiliating the Minister of Justice in the Chambers by using a harmful stereo-type in relation to her gender and the surname she uses.

“I have a question for Honorable Dausab, are you a MAN or a WOMAN”, Mukwilongo questioned the Minister much to the disappointment of fellow parliamentarians and those who had tuned it to listen to the days national assembly.

Words are not innocent and understanding hate speech requires us to understand what it is and why it takes place; namely to hurt, harm and incite violence!

Words are not innocent, and hate speech runs parallel with discrimination…a subtle form of violence.

The United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech defines Hate Speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, 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)”.

On 16 May 2023, the Supreme Court of Namibia ruled that the government must recognize the unions of same-sex couples who married in countries where it was legal for them to do so although same-sex marriages remain illegal in Namibia itself.

What ensued following the landmark judgment which went against previous judgments was a vitriol of hate speech targeting members of the LGBTQ Community. Hate speech targeting the LGBTQ community is often referred to as homophobia, the dislike of/or prejudice against gay people.

The Afro-barometer report of 2021 found Namibia (64%) to be the third most tolerant country towards homosexuality on the African continent behind Cabo-Verde at 82 % and South Africa at 71%. Given this report, why is hate speech targeted at members of the LGBTQ community accepted as a norm in Namibia, especially on online forums.

The answer lies in the power dynamic that places heterosexuals in a socially superior position to their homosexual counter-parts and this is what the Supreme Court (atleast I think) tried to balance in their judgment on the recognition of same-sex marriages solemnized outside the country.

The opposite of exclusion is not inclusion; the opposite of exclusion is equity!

The question thus arises, where is the power and who are we trying to protect. It is often argued that one of the functions of a democracy is to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.

Racial discrimination is forbidden in the Namibian Constitution, it would be unthinkable today for a white person to openly refer to a black Namibian as a “Kaffir” and get away with it!

This is because the law is quite clear on the previous power dynamic that placed black Namibians in an inferior social position to their white counter-parts and sought to remedy this skewed distribution of power through legislation.

Human beings are creatures of habit and those who engage in hate speech do so to harm, injure, de-humanize, ridicule and de-base their targets, at times with clear intention and at times without knowing or fully acknowledging how their words affect the next person and this brings forth the question of whether hate speech be legislated against in Namibia and which minorities should be protected in such legislation.

Another fundamental question is how we balance the concept of hate speech in relation to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Vitalio Angula is a socio-political commentator and independent columnist

NOTE: Some of the ideas expressed in the article emanate from a workshop on hate-speech hosted by the Namibia Institute for Democracy (NID)