1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

What impact is hate speech having on environmental activists

Holly Young
October 29, 2020

From the Philippines to Brazil and Germany, environmental activists are reporting a rise in online abuse. What might seem like empty threats and insults, can silence debate and lead to violence.

Hate speech online
Image: Christian Ohde/imago

Renee Karunungan, an environmental campaigner from the Philippines, says being an activist leaves you "exposed" and an easy target for online hate. And she would know.  

"I've had a lot of comments about my body and face," she says, "things like 'you're so fat' or 'ugly'," she says. "But also, things like 'I will rape you'." 

Such threats were one reason she decided to leave the country.  

There isn't much data on online abuse against environmentalists. But Karunungan is one of many saying it's on the rise.  

As it becomes woven into the fabric of digital life, we sometimes forget the impact a single comment can have, Karunungan says: "The trauma that an activist feels - it is not just 'online', it is real. It can get you into a very dark place."  

Gray zone  

Platforms like TikTok and Facebook have begun responding to calls for stricter regulation for stricter regulations.  

But what exactly needs to be regulated and how is fraught. Defining when abuse becomes hate speech, and when hate speech becomes illegal incitement to violence, differs between countries and platforms - and is increasingly up for debate. 

"There is also a huge gray zone," says Josephine Schmitt, researcher on hate speech at the Centre for Advanced Internet Studies, and definitions can be "very subjective."  

A woman holds her painted hand to the camera and wears a small sign that says climate justice now
Climate activists in the Philippines are speaking out against environmentally unfriendly policiesImage: Aaron Favila/AP/picture-alliance
Protest against anti-terror legislation in Manilla
And increasingly finding themselves under threat, including by an anti-terror billImage: Getty Images/E. Acayan

While no international legal definition exists, the UN describes hate speech as communication attacking people or a group "based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identity factor." 

According to several researchers and activists, environmental campaigning also serves as an identifying factor that attracts hate.  

"Environmental defenders are attacked because they serve as a projection surface for all kinds of group-based enmity," says Lorenz Blumenthaler of the anti-racist Amadeu Antonio Foundation. 

Personal attacks instead of political debate

Blumenthaler says his foundation has seen an "immense increase" in hate speech against climate activists in Germany - and particularly against those who are young and female. 

This year Luisa Neubauer, prominent organiser of Germany's Fridays for Future movement, won a court case regarding hateful comments she received online. This came after far-right party Alternative für Deutschland's criticisms of Greta Thunberg included likening her to a cult figure and mocking her autism

Luisa Neubauer and Greta Thunberg at a demonstration
Luisa Neubauer and Greta Thunberg pictured here at a a Friday's for Future protest Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

That attacks on climate activists are often highly personal and largely empty of actual arguments is partly a sign that "the right hasn't found a real way to address climate change" or "develop a narrative of their own," says Blumenthaler.  

But deployed as "part of a whole toolkit" including "defamation, misinformation, hate speech, the threat and inciting of violence," hate speech can be an effective way to intimidate and silence activists, according to Lara Wodtke from the program for international democracy of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. 

In Bolsonaro's Brazil, for example, Mary Menton, environmental justice research fellow at Sussex University, says in there is often a fine line between hate speech and smear campaigns. 

She has seen an increase in the use of fake news and smear campaigns - on both social and traditional media - aiming to discredit the character of Indigenous leaders or make them look like criminals. 

Coming from high-level sources, as well as local lobbies and rural conglomerates, these attacks create an atmosphere of impunity for attacks against these Indigenous activists, Menton says, while for activists themselves, "it creates the sense there is a target on their backs."  

In Germany, the Green Party is among those campaigning against hate speech
More visibility for their cause has meant more hate speech, something the Green Party is trying to draw attention toImage: Christian Thiel/Imago Images
Thousands of protesters gather before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
Fridays for Future protests have made environmental activists in Germany even more visibleImage: AFP/Getty Images/A. Schmidt

Escalating intimidation

That's a feeling Mitzi, organizer of Youth Advocates for Climate Action in the Philippines, knows well. "It's gotten to the point that sometimes I'm paranoid that if I'm commuting home someone could be following me," she says. "We're all always on the lookout."  

Mitzi says abuse on her organization's Facebook page is sparked not by posts about saving animals or planting trees, but those joining the dots to extractive industries and calling for climate justice.  

Some of it comes from international "climate trolls" calling climate change a hoax or the activists too young and uninformed. But the most frightening come from closer to home. "Some people outrightly say we are terrorists and don't deserve to live," Mitzi says.  

In Philippines, eco-activists are targets for "red-tagging" - where government and security forces brand critics as "terrorists" or "communists." 

Global Witness ranks it the second most dangerous place in the world for environmental defenders, with 46 murders last year, and Mitzi believes there is a clear link between hate speech online and actual violence. 

Online hate can delegitimize certain political views and be the first step in escalating intimidation. Mitzi says many environmental groups are frightened of having their offices raided by the police and have experienced being put under surveillance.

And the silencing effect of hate speech ripples out to those that witness it. "A lot of youth are afraid now to speak up," Mitzi says. 

Read more: Can Indigenous traditions shape environmental law?

Well-organized and strategic  

Ed O'Donovan, of Irish-based human rights organization Frontline Defenders says in contrast to the anonymous targeting of human rights defenders by bots, attacks on climate activists "often originate with state-controlled media or government officials." 

And they can serve a very strategic purpose, dehumanizing activists so that there is less outrage when they are subject to criminal process, or even attacked and killed. 

Extractive industries and businesses are also involved, he adds, highlighting how "very calculated" hate speech campaigns are used to divide local communities and gain consent for development projects.  

Anti-mining protestors in Peru
Indigenous people protesting against large-scale projects, like these activists against a mine in Peru, are particular targets for hate campaigns Image: Imago Images/ZUMA Press/El Comercio

For those invested in suppressing climate activism, Wodtke says hate speech can be a low-cost, high-impact strategy. For environmental defenders, it diverts their "attention, resources and energy," forcing them into a position of defence against attacks on their legitimacy.  

Speaking over a weak internet connection, an environmental activist from Costa Rica asks for her words to be kept anonymous. As an Indigenous woman, she is particularly vulnerable to both physical and digital abuse.  

What is ultimately being lost among the increasingly intense and racist online hate, she says, is the bigger picture: "Society and the government are forgetting that we are the ones protecting Mother Earth - and all of our existence."