Free Speech, History

“Hate Speech” Does Not Incite Hatred

The United States Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed that “[s]peech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground” is protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. However, the protections of the First Amendment extend only to government efforts to punish or censor speech. Private entities remain free to take action against people who engage in speech which ostensibly demeans others, and private actors from Harvard University to Facebook and Twitter have punished or censored individuals whose speech they have found to be “hateful.”

Those who advocate the censorship of so-called “hate speech” claim that it causes various ills, but perhaps the most common claim is that “hate speech” engenders hatred towards particular groups, and thereby causes violence against members of those groups. Such claims have been particularly common in recent years, and have included allegations that “anti-police hate speech” on the part of Black Lives Matters supporters has led to violence against police officers; that Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric has led to an increase in hate crimes; and that anti-Muslim hate speech on the Internet can motivate some people to commit acts of violence against Muslims.

The claim that “hate speech” causes hatred, and thereby causes violence, is superficially appealing, but the more one thinks about it, the less sense it makes. Is it really likely that otherwise reasonable people will be driven to hate others, and to violently attack those others, simply because they were exposed to hate speech? The proponents of that view rarely, if ever, offer direct evidence for that claim. There is a simple explanation for that failure: such evidence does not exist.

At first blush, that would seem to be an outlandish claim. What about the infamous “hate radio” in Rwanda? Doesn’t everyone know that those broadcasts caused people who had peacefully coexisted with their neighbors to engage in genocide? Well, in fact, there is no evidence that that is true. This common understanding of the role of “hate radio” overlooks basic facts of Rwandan history, including the fact that the genocide took place in the midst of a Tutsi-dominated insurgency that had begun in 1990, and which had resulted in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Rwandans as insurgent forces approached the capital in 1993, just a year before the beginning of the genocide. Thus, the myth that Rwanda was an Arcadia of ethnic harmony before the “hate radio” broadcasts began is just that: a myth.

A father in Rwanda searches for his lost child. ©ICRC/Benno Neeleman

Perhaps more importantly, the popular narrative regarding the role of “hate radio” ignores twenty years of scholarship which finds little evidence that the radio broadcasts caused people to engage in genocide. For example, a 2017 study published in Criminology found no statistically significant relationship between radio exposure and killing.1 Moreover, the anthropologist Charles Mironko interviewed one hundred convicted perpetrators and found that many either did not hear the “hate radio” broadcasts or misinterpreted them, and University of Wisconsin political scientist Scott Straus found that peer pressure and personal appeals, not hate radio, is what motivated most perpetrators.2 Similarly, political scientist Lee Ann Fujii’s book-length study of the Rwandan genocide found that those who participated in the genocide did not show unusual levels of fear or hatred of Tutsis. Instead, they participated through personal relationships with local elites, often because they feared repercussions if they did not participate. Hate had nothing to do with it.

Professor Fujii’s findings are consistent with a recent study that was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, which found that villages with better radio reception had higher levels of participation in the genocide, but which credited that effect not to the creation of hatred, but rather to the fact that the broadcasts told those who were already willing to participate how to coordinate with others, and assured them that the government supported the killing and hence that they would not be punished.

At this point, an alert reader might object that several “hate radio” executives were convicted of genocide-related offenses, and might also point to the well-known claim that some of the killers “had a radio in one hand and a machete in the other[.]” That is true, but it is also true that immediately after the assassination of the Rwandan president, the “hate radio” broadcasts shifted from general propaganda to broadcasting specific advice and instructions to those already participating in the genocide regarding who to kill and where to find them.3 It was for only those post-assassination broadcasts that radio executives were convicted, rather than for the pre-genocide, more generalized “hate speech.”

Finally, these findings regarding the role of “hate radio” in the Rwandan genocide is consistent with what we know about the effects of propaganda in general. Contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence that propaganda is able to change minds; rather, it is generally effective only among those who already agree with it, and counter-productive among those who disagree.4 That was true even of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda, which decreased denunciations of Jews by ordinary people in areas which had not historically been anti-Semitic.5

Therefore, the scholarly consensus is clear: “Hate speech” does not engender hatred. Rather, to the extent that is has any effect on violence at all, it makes it somewhat easier for those already inclined towards violence to act, largely by placing an imprimatur of official approval on acts of violence, and thereby making people who are already hateful and prone to violence believe that they can get away with acting violently.

This implies that censoring “hate speech” by ordinary persons is pointless – it is only “hate speech” by elites that can be dangerous (and even then not by creating hatred). There is no evidence that “hate speech” by ordinary persons has any effect on violence whatsoever. Thus, the efforts of such private actors as Facebook and Twitter to scrub the internet of what they deem to be “hate speech” by ordinary persons are, at best, misguided. But such efforts can also be dangerous because they help create excuses for governments to use allegations of “hate speech” to silence ideas that they dislike. Indeed, Freedom House has noted that that has already occurred in Russia, French courts have upheld “hate speech” convictions of advocates of the BDS movement to boycott of Israel, and in Spain, Catalan separatists who burned photographs of the Spanish monarch were fined on the grounds that they had incited violence and promoted hate speech.

Finally, efforts to censor extremists can backfire by causing them to see themselves as a persecuted minority who are justified in using violent means to be heard. Therefore, as painful as American law’s protection of “hate speech” can be, the alternative is almost certainly worse.  In addition, given that even the Supreme Court recognizes that, in the contemporary world, “the most important places … for the exchange of views  … is cyberspace …, and social media in particular[,]” Twitter, Facebook, and other private actors should resist calls to censor hateful speech; they might believe that doing so serves the public interest, but in fact it does quite the opposite.


Gordon Danning is History Research Fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He has published a law review article on the free speech rights of high school students and conducted research on political violence.


1 Hollie Nyseh Brehm. 2017. Subnational Determinants of Killing in Rwanda. Criminology55(1): 5-31.
2 Scott Straus, 2007. What is the relationship between hate radio and violence? Rethinking Rwanda’s “Radio Machete”. Politics & Society35(4): 609-637.
3 Richard Carver. 2000. Broadcasting and Political Transition: Rwanda and Beyond. African Broadcast Cultures: Radio in Transition, edited by Richard Farndon and Graham Furniss, 188-197. Oxford: James Currey 190.
4 Hugo Mercier. 2017. How Gullible Are We? A Review of the Evidence from Psychology and Social Science. Review of General Psychology, 21(2): 103-122.
Maja Adena, Ruben Enikolopov, Maria Petrova, Veronica Santarosa, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya. 2015. Radio and the Rise of The Nazis in Prewar Germany. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130(4): 1885–1939.


  1. rodmclaughlin says

    It’s not that there is no empirical evidence that hate speech “engenders” violence, it is impossible. If I hear hatred against anyone, it’s entirely up to me whether I believe it, and act on it. Individual responsibility is a fundamental principle of Western philosophy, and attempts to prevent hate speech are therefore an assault on Western civilisation. All of them. Laws against holocaust denial, riots against conservative speakers at universities, attempts to prevent supporters of the movement to boycott Israel… all of them are equally opposed to freedom of speech.

    • Marshall Gill says

      “Individual responsibility is a fundamental principle of Western philosophy, and attempts to prevent hate speech are therefore an assault on Western civilization”

      This is the beginning and end of “hate speech”. Those who would regulate it are the people who would destroy Western Civilization and their useful idiot pawns. Children today are not taught “sticks and stones” but some other version where words can really, really hurt you. They are also taught that they are not personally responsible for their actions. If someone gives a really hatey speech, what else would you do but act? It wasn’t MY fault!

      It isn’t coincidence that almost all supposed hate speech is labelled as such by the Left against the right. BLM isn’t hate speech but “build that wall” is. Describing an unborn living individual as a “non-person” is not hateful but saying “that human has a right not be murdered” is.

  2. P. K. Adithya says

    Well then, why criminalize speech that calls for violence? Is it really plausible that otherwise reasonable people will be driven to violently attack others, simply because they were exposed to incitement?

    This article ignores what ought to follow from basic intuitions about human behavior – people who secretly harbor hateful views become emboldened by hearing them expressed in public by others. If the number of such people is sufficiently small, it won’t amount to a serious problem. But that’s not always the case. Do you really believe that a radical cleric can’t energize a mob with a stirring sermon?

    What you’ve done is simply explain away the radio broadcasts in Rwanda. The conditions for genocide were pre-existing, but it is quite doubtful whether the genocide would have occurred, or been as devastating, without the radio broadcasts (all other things being equal). And that is really the key question here.

    From Wikipedia, on Rwanda: “The current government prohibits any form of discrimination by gender, ethnicity, race or religion. The government has also passed laws prohibiting emphasis on Hutu or Tutsi identity in most types of political activity.” Perhaps the author should explain to the Rwandan government how they’re only empowering hateful extremists with these laws, and inform them that the radio broadcasts weren’t that big a deal.

    I’m very much pro-free speech, but you also need to be honest when making the case for it. The idea that no one listens to Nazi propaganda and becomes a Nazi is silly. Not many, thankfully, but some certainly do. Some European countries have a ban on Holocaust denial because there are people who would listen to the stuff and lap it up. People can be credulous – otherwise we wouldn’t have all the problems you write about, like social justice idiocy.

    Outlawing hate speech is not an optimal solution in a country like the United States, for myriad reasons. No need to make the separate claim that hate speech doesn’t cause animosity.

    • rodmclaughlin says

      A perfect example of the slippery slope that using empirical arguments for free speech leads to. You’re in favour of free speech for Americans, but Germans aren’t good enough.

    • Marshall Gill says

      So, no personal responsibility? If some speech can supposedly incite violence, why doesn’t it incite violence in every person that hears it? In every case you mention, less than 100% of the people who heard the speech went on to commit acts of violence. How were these people immune? It is almost as if they had free will and chose not to act.

      • Or why is it that the “hate speech” by the KKK members in Charlottesville = bad, incite violence, but the “hate speech” by Antifa in Charlottesville = sunshine and koombaya and boo-hoo that the President noted them to be the same thing.

      • P. K. Adithya says

        Of course there is personal responsibility. But speech doesn’t have to incite violence in 100% of the audience in order to cause a great deal of damage.

        On the basis of personal responsibility, would you say that speech calling for violence shouldn’t be prosecuted? Taking it to the extreme, that would mean not holding Osama bin Laden responsible for 9/11, if all he did was propagandize and give orders.

        Again, I’m not for the criminalization of hate speech in advanced countries, especially one with a proud tradition of free speech like the United States. But this article’s arguments are delusional.

        • Marshall Gill says

          Conspiring to commit murder is not just “speech”. Coordinating violence is not just speech. Connecting contacts, providing money and training and support are more than just propagandizing. I believe that bin Laden did more than just speak. To my knowledge we have not prosecuted a single Imam who preached death to the infidel and took no action. Of course, like all things, I could be wrong about that.

          “On the basis of personal responsibility, would you say that speech calling for violence shouldn’t be prosecuted?”

          I admit that I am a bit of a rights purist but no, I don’t think it should be prosecuted. I don’t believe that words have totem power. They can make people do exactly nothing. You calling for my death hurts no one. Let me repeat that. A call for violence hurts exactly no one. If someone chooses to kill me because of your call, or because they thought this exchange amounted to a call to violence how did your words make them do something that they didn’t wish? To certain people words are actual magical spells that make them act a certain way? They didn’t want to kill me but once you suggested it they had murder in their hearts? Except of course for those who are immune to the magic. (not accusing you of anything just examples.)

          • P. K. Adithya says

            Well, I’m glad you stated your position so clearly and we just have to disagree.

            Personally, I’m quite happy to lock up anyone who publicly calls for the assassination of Donald Trump. Obviously not everyone will be inclined towards action when they hear something like that, least of all Trump’s supporters, but a high profile call for assassination could certainly inspire extremists. In the current US political climate, an assassination could be the death blow to American democracy. I would be willing to sacrifice any rights purism in order to prevent such a catastrophe.

            I’m not against free speech at all. For example, in my home country (India), a film on a historical figure is currently being violently protested by Rajput extremists. I don’t believe the state should appease them one bit. However, there is a fine line to tread between sacrificing freedom and allowing genuine hate speakers to sow paranoia. Fortunately in the West politicians have an easier task with only calls for violence needing to be criminalized. I wish it was that way everywhere, but I very much doubt it’s that simple. This article doesn’t even recognize the very real costs of allowing hate speech, even if they are ultimately outweighed by the benefits.

  3. B Weeks says

    “…they participated through personal relationships with local elites, often because they feared repercussions if they did not participate. Hate had nothing to do with it.”

    This reflects the findings of Robert Browning who examined the motives of a nazi unit who systematically killed civilians. His book “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” goes into detail. Ideology appeared to have played less of a role than is often believed. He examines many solid data sources to build his case. Career advancement ambition and peer pressure stood out as the major drivers. These were men who joined the police to avoid military service. They recognized that what they were being asked to do was a “dirty job” but they didn’t wish to have their friends be let down. The option to leave was offered but 98% chose to stay. Some weeping—at first. What’s terrifying is that these were ordinary people which means any of us are capable of the same.

    On your reference to a mob not being stirred by sermons—there is a counter-argument to that. In that scenario it is the authority figure calling out a specific target. This is what leads the mob to target someone. The Milgram experiment shows that. In truly authoritarian environments you don’t resist direction. Stalin told his guards not to come into his room even if he was screaming. One night he screamed, they rushed in and he shot them. Later he had a heart attack and no one came in until he had been long dead.

    In Rwanda certainly the radio would have contributed to the ideological possession and rationalization of those horrors in the minds of the perpetrators. Exactly to what extent seems difficult to ascertain with clarity. Some people think advertising is magic, others think it has no effect. What’s more likely accurate is the old saying, “50% of advertising works, the problem is we can’t tell which half.”

    In practical terms the rules around free-speech or lack thereof might be said to vary in their optimal application depending on the context. So in Rwanda where resentment has been long brewing among a population that is smuggling weapons and broadcasting intent—there’s a crucial problem. Particularly when checks and balances have eroded. If you’re in an extremely safe country where a tiny minority has extreme views—it’s better to hear those views so you can target arguments that respond to them. You’d also target surveillance to the best of the ability of your police service. (In some areas the resources are not there to track the # of possible threats) Watching and listening enables you to monitor the threat and to apply diplomacy or force as needed. Though it’s easy to misjudge in either direction.

  4. Andrew Roddy says

    Pretty silly stuff. Sectarianism all round the world, past and present, is learnt from peers and members of our own community. It is transmitted primarily through speech. What, for the love of God, are you talking about?

    • Jeremy H says

      “Sectarianism all round the world, past and present, is learnt from peers and members of our own community.”

      If it must be learned then from where did this mythical beast known as “hatred” arise in the first place? Who and where was case zero? It seems far more likely that, like all human passions, hatred is an instinctive response that can be released under the right circumstances, including collectively, where “hate” speech would be more of a symptom than a cause. Any preacher, “hate” inspired or otherwise, exists only at the behest of a willing audience.

      The author makes some reasonable points that those supposedly acting violently out of hatred are in fact often likely to be responding to other societal pressures instead. You, however, have offered nothing other than a blanket dismissal with a vague appeal to the “obvious.”

      • Andrew Roddy says

        It’s a very direct appeal to the obvious. Sometimes that’s necessary. This was a clear case.

  5. Mick Campbell says

    The corollary of a belief that hate speech can “incite” another to commit acts of hatred is that words can manipulate matter at a distance.

    • Drew Days says

      This is at best some form of skeptical rationalism fan fiction. Arguments for limiting hate speech do not require any mechanism exist for speech to literally create hatred in peoples’ minds. So this is just a straw man argument. Worse, you are essentially arguing against the ability of humans to convey ideas to one another via speech. I guess if you want to take this to its logical conclusion then we could go all the way and just say that we cannot really prove other humans exist and its meaningless to expect any expression we make to mean anything to anyone else. But then why are we even wasting our time writing things which could never possibly be proven to convey meaning or have any influence outside of our own thoughts, and it all gets dumb pretty quick.

      If you want to explore hate speech through the vein of speech functioning to influence other people, then I think a more useful argument would run along the lines… limiting speech only serves to hide public discussions of the existing ideas propagating through society. So if your goal is to change hearts and minds, limits on speech will actively prevent this.

      This whole discussions though is really focused on rather lofty ideals about society and liberalism (as in the enlightenment kind of liberalism, not MSNBC/Democrats). The recent discussions I have seen about limiting hate speech are focused on the internet, and are more about protecting people from having shitty experiences. While some slippery slope arguments about controlling speech on the internet do appeal to me, I am not really sure you are going to convince a gay teenager receiving death threats on twitter that he should grin and bear it because his personal misery is illogical and Milton really had a great idea. Rules controlling speech have always existed in every society for all time. Who controls the naughty list and how they justify it varies, but welcome to every societal institution ever. If you really want to make a claim that any and all control on speech is bad then I would love to see it done with Roberts Rules of Order. I see no reason online communities should not be able to come up with any arbitrary set of rules to govern speech, and if you do not like them, then act in accordance with another liberal rationalist, Adam Smith, and take your business elsewhere.

      If you want to talk about government and hate speech then there are even more arguments, but they still have nothing to do with something as stupid as denying the ability of speech to influence people. How about the fact that it requires the government to make legal dentitions of minority groups thereby perpetuating an essential component of bigotry. This also will not convince proponents of limiting hate speech, but at least you are working within a relevant framework.

      • Marshall Gill says

        ” I see no reason online communities should not be able to come up with any arbitrary set of rules to govern speech, and if you do not like them, then act in accordance with another liberal rationalist, Adam Smith, and take your business elsewhere.”

        Why would you think that this doesn’t exist already?

        • Ah, but it doesn’t. The Internet is like the 1960s in the US South with segregation. While in today’s society you can tell an LGBTQRSTUV couple to go to another bakery to get a wedding cake because there are a plethora of options, back then (and the reason for all the victimology) is because in the 1960s the mixed-race couple did not have options so we must continue rules put in place back then. Well, in 2018, the Left controls the bakeries. Yes, there may be 1 or 2 bakeries located somewhere willing to bake the cake for the mixed-race (Conservative) couple on the internet but they are back-alley (abortion) shops and not mainstream outlets.

  6. Daniel PV says

    Some parts of this resonated. I’m not entirely sure I agree with the crux of the article, but there were some nuggets of truth in amongst this Alt-Right appeasement piece;
    Namely, the desire by some groups to derive justification for committing acts of vandalism or violence on a seemingly innocuous comment or statement. Such groups just have a general axe to grind, and so look for any justification to “go off”.
    The most tragic recent example was those group of guys in South Africa, who decided to smash up a shop (a store owned by H&M) over a ridiculous advertising “blunder” (if you can even call it that), where a kid model was wearing what was supposed to just be a cutesy kid’s hoodie with a sound bite on it. This one said “the coolest monkey in the jungle” – the kid model happened to be Afro-Caribbean. Following on the back of some massively contrived accusation of “racism” (so comical and cringe worthy its like something out of a Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant comedy sketch) there was a shit storm, and the advert was pulled. Completely unintentional, clumsy stuff (even the parent of the kid was telling everyone to shut up). It was perfect justification for that group to go and commit an act of wanton vandalism, though. Everyone knew damn well (literally everyone) that there was absolutely zero harmful of malicious intent on the behalf of the advertiser. Certainly an opportunity to justify vandalism with “hate -speech” being the catalyst.

  7. Stacy McMahon says

    This is one of those arguments between intuition on one hand, and evidence that leads to a counter-intuitive conclusion on the other.

    Further, it’s a contest between two separate intuitions based on one’s vantage point. Considering yourself alone, it’s intuitive that propaganda is unconvincing if not counterproductive for the propagandist. Nobody listens to the idiot at the bar rambling about how the ___ are ruining the country. But for some reason if you consider faceless others listening to propaganda, it’s intuitive that many of them lap it up and then go forth to commit acts of violence against the __ that they’re told are ruining the country.

    So, you have two intuitions at odds with each other, as intuitions are wont to be. Wouldn’t it make more sense to listen to the evidence?

  8. Very selective look at the evidence, motivated by ideology, not pragmatism. As much as I personally value diverse opinions, it’s clear that impressionable minds can be incited by powerful preachers.

  9. Seems to me that Hitler gave a LOT of speeches. Are you arguing that it is a mere coincidence that as he gave more antisemitic speeches, antisemitism flourished? That the rise in antisemitism in Germany was due to some other factors? Seriously?

    Virtually every country in Europe has proscriptions on certain specified public (not private) speech, and this has been the case for more than 50 years. They are not sliding into fascism. This idea that only America has the proper formula for political speech is just naked American exceptionalism.

    • Observer says

      By some strange coincidence, virtually every country in Europe is sliding slowly but surely into civil war-like conditions and are being colonized by millions of hostile aliens which threaten the continued physical existence of the indigenous groups and which the natives are not allowed to object to with their speech under such “hate speech” laws.

      Which really tells you the actual purpose of said laws; it’s to tamp down on speech that the powerful don’t like. We all know that hate speech and hate crime laws are applied selectively, in a third worldist style fashion where the outgroup (in this case, the beset upon European native) gets the book thrown at it and the powerful and their client groups get away with crimes up to and including murder.

  10. Noah Carl says

    Nice article. But what do you make of this study from 2015, which found that:

    “Between 1933 and 1945, young Germans were exposed to anti-Semitic ideology in schools, in the (extracurricular) Hitler Youth, and through radio, print, and film. As a result, Germans who grew up under the Nazi regime are much more anti-Semitic than those born before or after that period: the share of committed anti-Semites, who answer a host of questions about attitudes toward Jews in an extreme fashion, is 2–3 times higher than in the population as a whole”

    • Observer says

      Might we apply this to the anti-white ideology being promulgated by media-academia-government complex in virtually the entire western world today? Oh no, of course not. It’s just desserts according to the same people who enjoy implementing hate speech laws to tamp down on those groups negatively affected.

      That’s what hate speech laws and hate crime laws are, though. Tools of the powerful against the powerless. Nobody of course question where the “hate” comes from, though. The priors and worldview of those who promote them are so warped that they can’t see that for example turning a country like America from an overwhelmingly European country into a non-European “”””melting pot”””” at gunpoint and undemocratically might cause “hate.”

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