Understanding Harmful Speech Online

December 8, 2016

by Robert Faris, Amar Ashar, Urs Gasser, Daisy Joo

This paper offers reflections and observations on the state of research related to harmful speech online. The perspectives outlined here are grounded in the lessons from a year of exploratory work in the field by researchers at the Berkman Klein Center and collaborating researchers and institutions. Our review includes an assessment of the efforts of civil society organizations to address racist speech in Brazil and Colombia; a study of the legal foundations of harmful speech regulation in India; a mixed methods look at discourse among white identity groups in the United States; an attempt to track offensive speech online in Tunisia; and a paper that explores the definitional and framing questions that complicate efforts to study and address harmful speech online. We also highlight a small selection of other recent efforts in the field.

A key element of this initiative is to explore different approaches to the study of harmful speech and to draw lessons from comparative analysis. We chose to pursue this diverse set of research efforts in our first year in order to better understand the strengths and limitations of various research strategies and to assess why different types of interventions exist in some contexts and are missing in others. We hope to accumulate enough experiences to begin to answer what has worked and what has not, to define what constitutes success, whether in government, private sector, or community responses such as counter speech. 

Last updated

December 8, 2016