Understanding 5 types of racism online

Posted on January 03, 2024 in Explainers.

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Racism online is a form of discrimination that takes place on social media and other digital spaces when someone posts or shares content discriminating against an individual, group, or community based on their skin color, ethnicity, citizenship, or national origin. It mirrors the systemic racism present in our societies and can fuel real-world violence. 

Over the years, CCDH identified different expressions of racism online, including antisemitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-black hate, as well as white supremacy. We’ve also exposed how AI tools are replicating and amplifying racism online. Understand racism online and take a look at 5 types of racism we’ve identified.

What is racism?

Racism is a form of discrimination in which people are treated unfairly because of their skin color, ethnicity, citizenship, or national origin. The United Nations’ International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination defines it as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

Racism or racist discrimination can be direct or indirect. Direct racism happens when someone is treated less favorably when compared to other people in the same circumstances because of their race. Indirect racism happens when a rule, policy, or practice treats a specific racial, ethnic, or national group of people with a disadvantage.

What is systemic racism?

Systemic racism happens when practices and policies deeply rooted in society lead to unfair or harmful treatment of certain groups of people based on their race.

This kind of racism is so embedded in society that it’s often seen as “natural” and can be reflected in government policies, in legal and economic systems, and in the digital space.

Protest to end systemic racism

What is racism online?

Racism online is the act of posting and sharing hateful and prejudiced content against an individual, group, or community based on their skin color, ethnicity, citizenship, or national origin. It reflects and amplifies the systemic racism existing in society. 

In the same way that offline racism feeds racism online, many real-world attacks, including mass shootings and even genocide, can be linked back to racist rhetoric that is spread online.

5 types of racism online we spotted

1. Antisemitism

Online hate against Jewish people rose alarmingly on social media following the Hamas attack in Israel, in October 2023, and the subsequent bombings in Gaza. In November, our research on Twitter/X revealed that the platform kept hosting antisemitic content a week after we reported it. In the report, we identified different formats of antisemitism, including:

  • Holocaust denial or glorification 
  • Racist caricatures
  • Conspiracy theories about Jewish people
  • Direct incitement of violence against Jewish people

In partnership with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), CCDH previously showed that Iran’s state-controlled Press TV uses social media to promote hateful narratives and conspiracy theories about Jewish people.

CCDH's report cover: X Content Moderation Failure - X Keeps hosting 98% of 200 posts reported for antisemitic, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian hate

2. Anti-Muslim hate

Online hate against Muslims has also spiked amid the Israel-Gaza conflict. In the same research that showed the rise in antisemitism on X, CCDH identified posts dehumanizing Muslims and inciting violence against them. 

According to the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network (AMAN), “anti-Muslim hatred” refers to the deliberate project of inciting hate against Muslims, frequently conducted through dehumanization and conspiracy theories. It includes: 

  • Expressions of disgust towards Muslims 
  • Iteration of extreme right narratives about Muslims 
  • Expressions of wanting to expunge Muslims 
  • Expressions of wanting to kill or see Muslims dead 
  • As well as fantasies of violence against entire Muslim populations

Between February and March 2022, we reported over 500 posts containing anti-Muslim hate to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube. Platforms failed to act on 89% of posts promoting the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, which claims Muslims are working to ‘replace’ white people in the West. This conspiracy featured prominently in the ideology behind the Christchurch Mosque attacks in New Zealand and the Tree of Life synagogue attacks in Pennsylvania.

3. Anti-black hate

In July 2021, England’s loss on penalties in the Euro final unleashed a wave of racist abuse on social media against the black players Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho. CCDH identified 105 Instagram accounts making racist comments on the three players’ official accounts and reported them to the platform. 

These comments included the use of the n-word, the dehumanization of black people by comparing them to animals, and incorrect assertions of their nationality. Instagram failed to act on 42 accounts comparing players to monkeys, 17 accounts using the n-word, and 15 accounts that told players to “return” to other countries, despite the fact all were born and raised in the UK. 

In December 2022, we found that tweets mentioning the n-word went up 202% on the average daily rate, following Elon Musk’s takeover.

4. White supremacy

Following his Twitter takeover, Elon Musk introduced a “general amnesty” to previously banned accounts, including a known white supremacist. In February 2023, we estimated how much Musk could profit from ads promoted next to these toxic accounts

One of them was Anthime Gionet, known as Baked Alaska, a white supremacist internet personality who attended the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally and has been sentenced for his role in the Capitol insurrection. We found an ad next to a post from Gionet in which he asks his followers if he should “say the n-word”. 

According to the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacy refers to “various belief systems” that include one or more of the following ideas: 

“1) whites should have dominance over people of other backgrounds, especially where they may co-exist; 

2) whites should live by themselves in a whites-only society; 

3) white people have their own ‘culture’ that is superior to other cultures; 

4) white people are genetically superior to other people. As a full-fledged ideology, white supremacy is far more encompassing than simple racism or bigotry.”

5. AI and racism

AI tools can also generate and amplify racist narratives that already exist online. We tested Google’s Bard and found that the tool generated persuasive misinformation content on 78 out of 100 narratives, including antisemitic narratives such as Holocaust denial.

Our research has also shown that Midjourney is being used to generate racist and conspiratorial images, including fabricated images of George Floyd committing crimes, and Jewish people plotting child sacrifices.

Online racism: end racism sign

Some actions to stop the spread of racism online

Evidence shows that many real-world attacks can be linked back to racist rhetoric that is spread on social media and other digital spaces. As mentioned above, this includes mass shootings and even genocide.

Social media, AI tools, and other online spaces must prioritize people’s safety and ensure their platforms are not enabling the spread of racist hate. For example:

  • Social media platforms must enforce their own policies against racist hate, and improve their content moderation to stop the amplification of hateful content.
  • AI companies and tools must prioritize safety from the outset, incorporating mechanisms to curate training data and prevent the spread of harmful, misleading, or hateful content. 
  • Governments and legislators must implement a set of regulations that force social media companies and AI tools to act against racism online.

You can report racist content and misinformation to most social media platforms using their own reporting tools.