The interplay between hate speech and disinformation

Hate speech and disinformation damage social cohesion. They distort the public formation of opinion and can lead to polarization that undermines democratic processes and decisions. How are they connected? What do they do to us as a society? How can we deal with them confidently and competently? 

Speech bubbles showing symbols for discrimination, misunderstandings, conflicts

We are facing Hate Speech and Disinformation online every day. © gettyimages / PrathanChorruangsak, Yuliya Baranych

In its early days, the internet appeared to be a utopian vision: created as a digital space to promote democracy, education and global cooperation. It was to promote open and equal access to knowledge and information and provide a platform for the free expression of opinions in a global community - regardless of geographical, cultural or social boundaries.

However, the reality of the Internet in the 21st century also shows another side. The principles of equal and free exchange of information are being disrupted by disinformation and hate online. We must learn to deal with these phenomena. To do so, it is important to understand their origins and mechanisms of action.

How are disinformation and hate speech defined?

Disinformation is deliberately disseminated, misleading or false information with the aim of deceiving or manipulating people to advance one's own interests. The aim is to influence public opinion and society. Channels such as social media platforms or messenger services are primarily used for fast and wide-ranging dissemination. 

Hate speech refers to linguistic, inhumane attacks that are deliberately and systematically directed against individuals within a group or the entire group itself. The underlying assumption is that other people are worth less, for example because of their origin, religion, sexual orientation or gender.

What is the link between disinformation and hate speech?

Disinformation can reinforce the targeted defamation or discrimination of groups. It enhances misunderstandings and hostility by creating false, one-sided or out-of-context, simplistic representations that reinforce existing prejudices and elicit emotional responses. The beliefs of those already prone to intolerance or hostility are supported by the manipulated information. Meanwhile, hate speech creates an atmosphere in which disinformation can thrive and spread, and a derogatory attitude is supposedly objectively confirmed. A reinforcing cycle is created.

What are the effects of hate and disinformation?

They make public discourse more difficult and impair citizens' ability to form an educated opinion and make decisions. Subsequently, trust within society suffers, and hate and disinformation further undermine trust in state institutions and the media, thereby weakening the foundations of social coexistence.

Eight out of ten people consider disinformation to be a threat to democracy

A recent Bertelsmann study shows that there is already a distinct awareness of the problem in Germany. 84 percent of respondents see deliberately manipulated information as a serious threat to society. The increasing use of social media as the main source of information is viewed particularly critically. 

Topics such as migration, climate change and war conflicts are particularly susceptible to the spread of disinformation. Targeted manipulation in these sensitive areas is on the rise. In January 2024 the Federal Foreign Office (German: Auswärtiges Amt) uncovered a pro-Russian disinformation campaign on the platform X, formerly Twitter. More than 50,000 fake user accounts and more than one million fake German weets were discovered, which were intended to stir up resentment towards the German government and doubts about aid to Ukraine.

What can we do to counter disinformation competently?

In the super election year 2024, we face special challenges. In over 70 elections worldwide, half of the world's population will be asked to vote and will be confronted with the question of how to search for information online: How can disinformation be exposed and effectively combated? This is a challenge for all of us: Politicians, the media, educational institutions, companies, social platform operators. Also, every individual can do their part. 

Here are a few tips

  • Inform yourself: Critically check news and sources before you share them. Use existing fact-checking sites.
  • Use educational offers: There are many media literacy resources to help you better distinguish between fact and fiction. Also visit Teachtoday, Deutsche Telekom's media literacy initiative. 
  • Use your right to vote: Encourage those around you to do so, too. Every vote counts.
  • Take a stand: report hate speech and fake news on online platforms, write counter-comments when boundaries are crossed.
  • Encourage dialogue: Participate constructively and respectfully in discussions and be open to different perspectives.

At Deutsche Telekom, we are committed to ensure that everyone can participate in the digital world. For us, media literacy is a central component of digital participation. We also want to promote digital cohesion and are committed to democratic values in our digital coexistence.

#TAKEPART in fighting for a network without hate

No Hate Speech

Words must not become a weapon. Deutsche Telekom is fighting for a network without hate in which we treat one another respectfully.