Dangerous Speech along the Path to Mass Violence

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See the Proposal to Prevent Group Violence

Inflammatory public speech rises steadily before outbreaks of mass violence, suggesting that it is a precursor or even a prerequisite for violence, which makes sense: groups of killers do not form spontaneously. In most cases, a few influential speakers gradually incite a group to violence. Violence may be prevented, then, by interfering with this process in any of several ways: inhibiting the speech, limiting its dissemination, undermining the credibility of the speaker, or ‘inoculating’ the audience against the speech so that it is less influential, or dangerous.

Such efforts must not infringe upon freedom of speech, however, since that is a fundamental right and since free speech itself may help to prevent violence. Before acting to limit ‘dangerous speech’ – speech that catalyzes violence – we must have a means to distinguish it from other speech, even that which is controversial or repugnant.

Former WPI Senior Fellow Susan Benesch developed an analytical framework for making the distinction, as part of her Dangerous Speech Project. The framework is based on the insight that the dangerousness of a particular speech act, in the context in which it is made or disseminated, depends on five variables: the speaker, the audience, the speech itself, the historical and social context, and the means of dissemination. For example, some speakers are more influential than others, and some audiences are especially vulnerable.

Benesch has been working since 2010 with the United Nations’ Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG), Francis Deng, and more recently with the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, Edward Luck, to provide them with tools to limit the catastrophic effects of violent speech in pre-genocidal situations, without impeding the right to freedom of expression. In addition to her guidelines for evaluative monitoring of speech and other efforts, she is also producing a white paper on policy responses to limit the effects of dangerous pre-genocidal speech – paying special attention to new media which are, increasingly, the means of its dissemination. The project has focused on inflammatory speech in several countries in particular, including Cote d’Ivoire, the former Yugoslavia, Egypt, and Kenya.

We are most grateful for the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the United States Institute of Peace.

New Resources and Publications:

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, February 5, 2013, A second panel on Hate Speech and Incitement to Genocide, moderated by Michael Abramowitz, director of the Museum’s genocide prevention program.

United Nations Headquarters, February 1, 2013,  Susan Benesch participated in Hate Speech and Incitement to Genocide, a side event to the General Assembly presented by the Government of Norway and the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide.

Dangerous Speech: A Proposal to Prevent Group Violence, January 12, 2012.

Harvard University, November 28, 2012, Susan Benesch presented a paper entitled “Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and the Contours of International Human Rights Law” as part of a lecture series sponsored by Harvard’s Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy.

The Media InstituteOctober 25, 2012,  Dangerous Speech Project director Susan Benesch featured in a discussion of the issues raised by the response to the “Innocence of Muslims” video on YouTube and calls in various countries to make that video inaccessible on the Internet.

Council on Foreign RelationsOctober 23, 2012,  Roundtable session on the impact of social media on American domestic and foreign policy.

PBS MediaShift, October 12, 2012, Special Roundtable on Hate Speech vs. Free Speech Online. Featured Susan Benesch, Trevor Timm of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, and Jonathan Peters of the Missouri School of Journalism.

Freedom HouseOctober 11, 2012, Lunch presentation on the Dangerous Speech project to Freedom House staff.  Watch the video and review thepresentation.

Global Voices Citizen Media Summit, July 2, 2012,  Susan Benesch moderated Inside/Outside: Diaspora Influence Online and participated in theDigital Media and Disruptive Publics academic conference prior to the summit.

Free Speech Debate, March 22, 2012,  Interview with Timothy Garton Ash on the distinction between hate speech and dangerous speech.

Yale Law SchoolNovember 5, 2011, Emerging Challenges to Freedom of Expression: From Hate Speech to Social Networks.

Brookings InstitutionMay 17, 2011,  Featured speaker for Private Experts’ Roundtable: Managing Global Order.

Kennedy School of Government, Harvard UniversityApril 27, 2011, Speech, Song, Crime? Dangerous Speech on the Road to Atrocities

United NationsOct. 28, 2010,  Dangerous Speech on the Road to Genocide: A Dialogue with Member States

Cardozo School of LawApril 15, 2010, International Law on ‘Hate Speech’

Fordham Law SchoolMarch 26, 2010,  The Internet As A Dual Use Technology: Democracy and Extremism

Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International StudiesFebruary 10, 2010,  Is It Safe Yet: Refugees’ Lessons for Evaluating Transitional Justice.

Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International StudiesOct. 19, 2009. Song as Crime: the Prosecution of a Rwandan Pop Star

Humboldt University of Berlin Faculty of Law,  May 2009,  The U. S. Torture Memos: International Law and Domestic Process

Carnegie Endowment for International PeaceMay 2009,  Prosecutions as Mechanisms of Accountability

University of Texas at Austin School of LawFebruary 2009,  Song as Crime: the Prosecution of a Pop Star, and other New Cases on Incitement to Genocide

Voices that Poison

Additional Resources:

Special Roundtable on Hate Speech vs. Free Speech Online, Susan Benesch joinded Trevor Timm of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and legal scholar Jonathan Peters for a roundtable, October 12, 2012.

First we call them insects: the prelude to horror, Australian Broadcast Corporation, April 26, 2012.

Susan Benesch Interview with Timothy Garton Ash [Video], Dangerous Speech project director Susan Benesch provides an overview of the distinction between hate speech and dangerous speech, April 20, 2012. 

Free Speech Debate, A new international conversation about free speech. 

Emerging Challenges to the Freedom of Expression: From Hate Speech to Social Networks, Yale Law School, November 5th, 2011.

Report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Sixty- sixth session of the United Nations General Assembly , August 10, 2011.

Speech, Song, Crime? Dangerous Speech on the Road to Atrocities, Mass Attrocity Response Operations Presentation, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, April 27, 2011.

Election-Related Violence: The Role of Dangerous Speech, Proceedings of the American Society of International Law, 2011, Elections and Ethnic Violence

Incitement as International Crime Contribution to OHCHR Initiative on Incitement to National, Racial, or Religious Hatred, February 2011.

Francis Deng Statement January 19, 2011.

Francis Deng Statement December 29, 2010.

Dangerous Speech on the Road to Genocide [Video], Side event at the UN General Assembly, October 28, 2010. Most relevant portion starts around 26:40.

The New Law of Incitement to Genocide: A Critique and a Proposal Speech, Power, Violence: A Seminar of Experts. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, April 2009.

Vile Crime or Inalienable Right: Defining Incitement to Genocide Virginia Journal of International Law, Volume 48, 2008.

Inciting Genocide, Pleading Free Speech World Policy Journal 21.2, 2004.



(Photo courtesy of Harold Shapiro

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