Tracking Hate Speech on Twitter

by Vilissa Thompson

It finally happened:  someone has taken the time to track the usage of hate speech (which includes slurs and derogatory terms) on Twitter.  In The State, Columbia, South Carolina’s newspaper, published an article about the prevalence of hateful tweets on the internet, and how a good percentage of the tweets tracked were from those who lived east of the Mississippi River.  This article intrigued me, especially since I live in a Southeastern state that has a history of ardent viewpoints and mistreatment concerning the groups of people targeted in the hateful messages analyzed in the study.

Here is how the tweets were tracked:  Monica Stephens, an assistant professor of geography at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California and three geography students, used data from the DOLLY Project, which had archives of tweets with the locations indicated.  The tweets used in this research analysis were from June 2012 to April 2013.  Stephens and her students analyzed the tweets from this specific timeframes and constructed a visual map highlighting the geotagged tweets to display where hateful tweets were most prevalent.  (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “geotag,” it is when you allow the geographic location of where you are tweeting to be posted on your tweets.)

The hate maps allows you to select derogatory term identifiers to see where in the country those words were tweeted the most.  From reviewing the maps, one does notice that a good percentage of the hateful tweets tracked were prominently from one side of the country.  However, we must not stereotype Easterners as being bigots/hateful, nor can we safely concluded that those who occupy other parts of the country do not harbor prejudices about race, sexual orientation, or those with disabilities.

The research findings about how some individuals are choosing to use the internet is disturbing, especially when hateful messages and propaganda are being shared to millions of users through mediums like Twitter.  Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, but that protection does not condone its usage, whether it is spoken or in written form.  Websites like Twitter can enforce policies that discourage the use of such language (i.e., Facebook allows you to report offensive posts/statuses), however, such policies can only go so far.

This brings me to my point:  what can we do to decrease the kind of hateful speech that seems to breed online?  We are all aware of the harmful, and sadly, deadly, effects of cyberbullying on our children in this country, but how come there is not a strong movement in place to “clean up” the hate language on the web?  Negative words, whether it is about someone’s race, sexual orientation, disability, or appearance, do hurt, and can greatly affect a person’s self-esteem and self-worth.  What will it take for us to be more serious about the damage that is being done, whether the target is an adolescent or an adult?

When I come across offensive posts, I do report  it.  Why?  Because I know how destructive such words and language can have on the psyche and well-being of individuals, from a professional standpoint.  Also, I, myself, have been the target of hate speech via the internet in the past, and it  is not an experience I would want anyone to endure.  That kind of language is not empowering or uplifting; it is dehumanizing, hurtful, and isolating.  The “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” rhyme that we learned in elementary school may tell us that words lack power, but for anyone who have been called a name due to who and what they are, they know differently; words have tremendous power.

Tell me, what are you prepared to do when you observe hate-filled messages on sites like Twitter?  Do you report it, or keep scrolling?  If you choose the latter, then are you indirectly “approving” the message being shared to millions online through your inaction?  

Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.

Maya Angelou

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Vilissa Thompson

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW is the Disability and Advocacy Staff Writer for Social Work Helper, and she is also the Founder of Ramp Your Voice! In addition to being a Disability Rights Consultant and Advocate, Vilissa seeks to propel the faces and voices of people of color with disabilities both within the disability community and in the general public. Vilissa can be contacted via email at, or by visiting the Ramp Your Voice! website at View all posts by Vilissa Thompson

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