"I am a skinhead, give me your location": how social media spreads hatred towards the Roma

March 4, 2024

The whole world in one click. Social media has reduced the distance between Kyiv and Berlin, Zhytomyr and Ljubljana. Even Australia doesn't seem so far away. Communicating with friends, exotic landscapes, interesting facts, and diverse cultures—all of this combines with spiteful comments.

Social media provides complete freedom of action. By hiding behind 'personal opinion,' people generate hatred, discrimination, stereotypes, and hostile language (the list can go on, unfortunately, all marked with a 'minus' sign).

Certainly, you have seen those comments criticizing the appearance, figure, beliefs of any person. At the same time, it's impossible to form a clear list of criteria by which they are subjected to bullying.

And this bullying reaches catastrophic proportions when it comes to a specific ethnic group or nation. Commentators generalize, label, relying on stereotypes, which, in turn, lays the foundation for hatred and bullying in real life.

This is confirmed by the research of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC). Experts have highlighted the connection between online hate speech against the Roma and real violence in various countries over the course of several years. This is particularly evident when it intersects with far-right movements and politicians. The increase in anti-Roma statements encourages others and instills confidence both in using such expressions themselves and in taking aggressive actions in reality.

Absolutely, your clarification is important. Hate speech has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Sometimes discriminatory statements are masked under the guise of freedom of expression. Freedom of speech entails expressions like "I don't like Roma people," "I disagree with the Roma," or "I've had unpleasant experiences in my life." However, generalizations backed by aggressive language or calls for physical harm have nothing to do with freedom of speech.

The researchers from the ERRC have identified that hate speech is most frequently encountered in the following sources:

1) Pages of far-right groups on social media.

2) Neutral entertainment platforms.

3) "Neutral" platforms with infiltrated right-wing and xenophobic subscribers. These types of platforms and groups may portray neutrality, but in reality, they disseminate hatred towards minorities in Ukraine, including the Roma community.

Note that researchers studied social media before the onset of the full-scale invasion. However, after February 2022, there have been cases of harassment and physical aggression against the Roma community.

In its 2017 report, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance noted that Roma are presented as the most frequent targets of racist violence from both non-state and state actors: "...reports of racist violence continue to be received, as well as of the inability of the police to intervene to stop racist or homophobic attacks."

The ECRI (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance) cites two mob attacks in 2014 and a pogrom in 2016 in the village of Loshchynivka, involving over 300 people. In 2018, there were at least seven attacks on Roma communities. In 2018 and 2019, as a result of such pogroms in Lviv and Berehove, two Roma individuals were killed.

Many of these pogroms were carried out by far-right paramilitary formations and state security services.

Offline violence during these pogroms went hand in hand with a strong presence on social media by far-right groups, including a neo-Nazi group previously known as S14, (now known as the Foundation for the Future, its former name was a reference to a well-known white supremacist slogan).

Many of these attacks were premeditated and typically broadcasted live on social media. Advance warnings were posted on Facebook, along with ultimatums to leave the area or face consequences.

This contributed to the spread of hate speech against the Roma in Ukrainian social media. The attacks themselves were militarized and theatrical, featuring individuals wearing masks and musical accompaniments added to the video recordings of the incidents. After the attacks concluded, messages were sent to subscribers indicating that the area had been "cleansed" of Roma.

Returning to the study of social media, researchers from the ERRC observed that on YouTube, it is easy to find examples of anti-Roma hate speech using the term "Gypsies." On the other hand, negative content about the Roma was relatively difficult to find on Facebook through keyword searches, except for pages associated with far-right groups.

The content containing hate speech was often not removed from Facebook because it was encoded. This means that authors replaced some letters in words with symbols such as @, $, *. For example, "Cig@ny". This reduces the likelihood of Facebook removing the content. Members of far-right groups also use more veiled language; they do not explicitly write "let's kill the Roma," but instead use phrases like "#itler knew what to do with them.

Telegram is mostly used for closed group messages, making it popular among far-right groups. However, there are also several open Telegram channels where, among other things, hate speech is disseminated. Interestingly, the list of reasons for complaints on Telegram does not include "hate speech." To file a complaint, researchers used the "other" option.

It's unfortunate to hear that many anti-Roma comments on YouTube are not removed even after complaints about their content.

On TikTok, it seems that the platform's response involves hiding the material from the user who reported it, rather than deleting or blocking it for all users of the application. This approach may limit the exposure to offensive content for the reporting user but raises questions about the broader handling of hate speech on the platform.

Researchers also observed that when reporting content on TikTok, the video ratings drop, and the number of views decreases. Additionally, if three videos from the same account are reported, the account automatically becomes temporarily blocked.

The researchers identified examples that represent a narrative promoting violence against the Roma, including:

"Adolf handled it in three days. There's still no one like him. Everything is simple."

"There was once a guy Dobroslav. So, he just started shooting them. They disappeared from the area instantly! And for a long time, they didn't come back."

"The police seem to be busy with the fate of the Gypsy thieves..."

These examples illustrate the disturbing nature of the content that propagates violence against the Roma community.

The activities described in the Telegram channel, where subscribers post photos of Roma individuals along with maps marking places as "dangerous," are deeply concerning. These images may include pictures of Roma people asking for alms on the streets, accompanied by descriptions like "be careful at the metro station... there is a group there." The posts often contain comments regarding the ethnic identity of the group (Roma), typically accompanied by hate speech directed towards the entire Roma community. Such cases appear to have taken on a systematic nature, reflecting a disturbing trend.

The cumulative impact of this persistent hate speech on the Internet lies in the further normalization of anti-Roma sentiments in society. On their part, social media platforms have called for adherence to commitments they publicly made but often fall short, especially when it comes to promptly removing hateful content and disinformation targeting Roma communities.

Today, Roma serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine contribute significantly to defending the freedom and independence of Ukraine. They actively participate in the reconstruction of liberated territories, provide medical assistance, and offer legal support. It is crucial to leave behind views and attitudes imposed by empires and colonizers in the past.

Social media represents boundless freedom and a means of self-expression. However, it's essential to remember: your rights end where they infringe upon the rights of others.

Based on the research by the European Roma Rights Centre.