Hate speech in Aotearoa New Zealand: Reflecting and resisting

By Kayli Taylor

Content warning: This piece discusses violence against the LGBTQ+ community, including the recent incident against Rainbow Youth in Tauranga. It also discusses violence of a sexual nature, including threats of rape.

Today, June 18th, is the United Nations inaugural International Day for Countering Hate Speech – building on what the institution has highlighted as the growing international issue of hate speech, its incitement of violence, and impacts on social cohesion. The United Nations defines hate speech 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.” Hate speech is increasingly a threat to Aotearoa New Zealand, particularly within the Covid-19 pandemic, and our social cohesion. Hate speech, both its online presence and offline consequences, deserves greater reflection and resistance, as we navigate and counter growing information disorders.

The Disinformation Project studies mis- and disinformation within Aotearoa New Zealand – a landscape increasingly defined by the production, promotion and engagement with hate speech. Our report in November 2021 explored the growth of mis- and disinformation in the country from August to November 2021, highlighting the ways in which ‘dangerous speech’ and hate speech was being justified and normalised within our online ecosystems. Based on the Dangerous Speech Project’s definitions of ‘dangerous speech’, and imbrication with the slow or “invisible” violence posed by Thom Davies, we noted that social media content studied incited and normalised violence against minority groups within Aotearoa New Zealand. This included, but was not limited to, Māori, other ethnic minorities, women and gender minorities, Queer/LGBTQ+ people, and those with disabilities. These communities, through the operation of dangerous speech, slow violence and the normalisation of these offensive behaviours, attitudes and perceptions, risk experiencing significant and growing harms.

Our May 2022 working paper extended this study, and placed it within the context of the Parliament Protest, and the impact it had on democracy and social cohesion. We studied how the Parliament Protest entrenched violent expression, misogyny, toxic masculinities, and other hallmarks of dangerous speech as the norm within anti-mandate and anti-vaccine social media ecologies, engaged with by millions. This is of concern to The Disinformation Project, who have observed the consequences of divisive, denigrating speech on the safety and public engagement of members of minority communities. Hate speech has repeatedly targeted researchers at The Disinformation Project. The rise of dangerous speech and associated frames caused individuals from minority communities, and those targeted, to recoil from public life and engagement. The resulting chilling effects stymie public participation, civic life, political culture, and inclusion – pillars of social cohesion.

In the month since our paper was released, dangerous speech increased significantly. Violent, vulgar and vicious discourse against public figures, such as the Prime Minister, MPs who are women, academics, journalists, and other senior public officials continues to grow, with increasingly graphic and violent content. Threats of death, rape, and intense violence are now commonplace – and daily – within the domestic online ecologies studied by The Disinformation Project. Such discourses are intertwined with misogyny, queerphobia, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and ableism. These discourses focus on, seek to amplify, and entrench differences, rather than notions of cohesion and shared identity. Instead of focussing on what binds us together, mis- and disinformation producers are increasingly highlighting difference, and the antagonistic negotiation of it.

Hate speech and violent discourses do not remain online. In just the past few days this was particularly evident. The destruction of the Rainbow Youth offices in Tauranga, under circumstances treated by Police as suspicious, is one example. This suspected arson can be studied in the context of recent media attention on issues such as Bethlehem College’s stance on gender and marriage, and the re-generation of debates about the rights of LGBTQ+ New Zealanders, but in profoundly violent ways, and vocabularies.

The incident at Rainbow Youth in Tauranga has obvious impacts on the physical building, but also has wider impacts on the real and perceived safety for Queer/LGBTQ+ people across the country, and particularly in Tauranga. Hate speech and violent discourses against LGBTQ+ people, which have been growing in the online worlds studied by The Disinformation Project, have already spilt over into kinetic, offline harms, threatening people within these communities. As dangerous and hate speech dominated discourses grow and escalate, The Disinformation Project remains concerned for those who are visible minorities in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Within the current context– long-tail effects of the pandemic, significant information disorders, and the leadup to Local Body Elections and 2023’s General Election – we need to focus on what unites us: our shared experiences, our shared history, and our shared hope for an Aotearoa New Zealand that includes us all. Social cohesion requires trust and cooperation between people with different values and identities. As we move through this period of significant, inter-related and growing challenges, the responsibility is on all of us to listen, seek inclusion, and create space for others. Part of this challenge is also to work to stamp out exclusion, affirm our support for minorities of all kinds, and work together to create an Aotearoa New Zealand we can all be proud, and part of.

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