Digital Democracy

Digitalization and the Public Sphere in Brazil


Definitions, specificities and context of online discrimination in Brazil on Twitter and Facebook

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Online hate speech practices are a challenge to democracies, particularly because they touch on issues related to one of its pillars, namely freedom of speech. Seeking to understand the dynamics of negotiation between the safety of protected groups and the insurance of freedom of speech, this study investigated the public debate on Twitter and Facebook about hate speech and censorship. For that purpose, we will first present an overview of the definitions and legislations informing the understanding about hate speech, discussing the specificities of the online context and the forms of definition and self-regulation proposed by the platforms. Afterwards, based on a data collection on social networks, specifically Twitter and Facebook, we will analyze the public debate about hate speech and censorship, especially considering the peaks of discussion about these topics and events associated with them. Lastly, we will identify the major actors and interactions happening at the highest peak of debate about hate speech and censorship, using graphs that present a structural analysis of social networks. The study used bibliographic and documental sources as well as data collected on Facebook and Twitter, which were then analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Keywords: hate speech; digital platforms; censorship; freedom of speech; social networks.


  • Our theoretical review combined with the analysis of the platforms revealed that, although there are guidelines for sanctions of accounts that publish offensive content, it is very difficult and complex to detect this type of post;
  • The research focused on collecting data about hate speech and censorship, gathering around 11 million posts on Twitter and 34 thousand posts on Facebook between November 2020 and January 2021;
  • Regarding the debate about hate speech on Twitter and Facebook, the posts focused on topics such as misogyny and racism. The peak of posts about the topic on both platforms happened on November 20, 2020, Black Awareness Day. The number of posts increased due to the discussion about structural racism, with the news that a black customer had been beaten to death in the previous day at a Carrefour supermarket in Porto Alegre (RS);
  • The discourse about censorship and freedom of speech increased due to the sanctions imposed by the platforms for accounts such as that of the former president of the United States, Donald Trump, whose posts questioning the results of the presidential elections were associated with the storming of the United States capitol by extremist groups. The suspension of accounts mobilized the networks to discuss the approach taken by the platforms regarding the censorship of opinions expressed by users, both on Twitter and on Facebook.


Debate about hate speech and censorship on Twitter

Between November 16, 2020 and February 6, 2021, hate speech was the topic of approximately 11.6 million posts on Twitter. The debate was driven by the celebration of Black Consciousness Day, the assassination of a black customer by a security guard at a Carrefour supermarket in Porto Alegre (RS), the storming of the United States Capitol, and the ensuing suspension of the accounts of the former president of the United States, Donald Trump, on social networks. It became evident that the two topics driving the debate on Twitter were hate speech (the debate about structural racism) and freedom of speech (the debate about censorship). As indicated by the literature, the debate about online offenses is always accompanied by questions about the violation of individual freedoms and the censorship imposed by the platforms against opinions expressed by users.

In the period analyzed, other news stories also contributed significantly to this debate. Regarding hate speech, the harassment episode of the congresswoman Isa Penna (PSOL-SP) was permeated by a discussion about the vulnerability of women and mysogyny in different spaces. Regarding freedom of expression, there was a publication by the Ministry of Health about early treatment for Covid-19, which was considered by Twitter to be misleading.

As indicated previously, the data collection about online hate speech or offenses is always accompanied by posts about the users’ freedom to express freely. During the period analyzed, there was an intense debate about the suspension of accounts or the removal of content in social network websites, such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter itself, due to violations of the platforms’ guidelines. Some posts coming from profiles of politicians or bloggers with partisan, ideological or identity alignments questioned the decisions made by the websites, claiming that the content that was blocked did not violate the community standards or that the reasons for the suspension were not rational, and that those users were actually being targeted by defamatory campaigns started by opposing groups. The suspensions are eventually compared to other cases in which users indicate posts that also contained sensitive content, such as offenses or threats against certain politicians or partisan groups, or the dissemination of fake news or information, but those posts were not removed by the platforms or caused the authors’ accounts to be suspended.

The following figure shows the evolution of the debate on Twitter. Based on the peaks indicated in it, notably on November 20 (about hate speech) and on December 15, 2020 and January 19, 2021 (about freedom of speech), we will conduct a qualitative analysis based on the engagement around the topics. We will take into account the number of shares, likes and followers in each account in order to detect the publications that drove the debate.

Figure 1 – Volume of Interactions in Twitter Categories
Period: From November 16, 2020 to February 6, 2021

Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV DAPP

. Source: Twitter | Elaborated by: FGV DAPP

Debate about hate speech and censorship on Facebook

This section will present the findings of the analysis conducted on Facebook between November 15, 2020 and February 11, 2021. We collected 21,149 posts about hate speech and 12,773 posts about the topics of freedom of speech or censorship. The evolution of both debates was observed in parallel, considering the direct relationship between the two topics which we mentioned previously. Thinking about this articulation is important for this study because there is a growing demand for mechanisms to curtail hate speech and, similarly, impose limits to freedom of speech.


Figure 3 – Evolution of the debate about hate speech and censorship on Facebook
Period: From Sunday, November 15, 2020 to Thursday, February 11, 2021

Source: Facebook | Elaborated by FGV DAPP

. Source: Facebook | Elaborated by FGV DAPP


Although the offenses, threats and discrimination that are part of hate speeches have subjective effects, considering the great psychological suffering they produce, their investigation cannot dismiss their political impacts. The silencing and invisibility of vulnerable groups weaken their demands and pleas, removing them from democratic decision-making processes. Therefore, identifying and fighting hate speeches is important for democracy.

This study presented a literature review about the topic, aiming to demonstrate the major understanding about what hate speeches are in the academy and in the legal field, their specificities in the digital environment, and how they are defined by digital platforms in their self-regulation protocols. The bibliographic and documentary investigation revealed that while it is possible to conceptualized gate speeches in theory, it is very complex to define them in concrete situations. The challenge becomes harder in online pages with memes, videos, organized communities, lexical variations and other aspects.

The material demonstrated that, in addition the adoption of international treaties to fight the different forms of discrimination, it is necessary that countries formulate legislation combining their social, historical and especially cultural contexts with the specificities of the online universe. In that sense, the challenge was not easier for the platforms. When explaining their perception of the different manifestations of hate speeches in their Terms of Use and Community Guidelines, the platforms left a series of gaps about how to approach and moderate the authors of that content. One hypothesis on that regard is that global platforms need to know the sociocultural particularities which their users belong to in order to develop viable and more productive solutions when fighting hate speeches.

The empirical analysis in this study consisted in mapping the debate of hate speeches and its relationship with freedom of speech on Twitter and Facebook between November 2020 and February 2021. Even though they are both digital social networks with a significant number of users, including in the Brazilian context, we understand that they have limitations in terms of representativeness, both regarding the amount of digital interactions and the diversity of authors they enable. This analysis offered an incomplete view of the complex ecosystem involved in the creation, proliferation and maintenance of online hate speeches.

Regarding our methodological concerns, one challenge related to the development of search syntaxes – used to collect and classify the data to be analyzed – was the presence of subtleties in the conceptualization and semantic-pragmatic scope of the topic targeted by the study, that is, “hate speech”. Considering that it is very difficult to conclusively and indisputably determine what actually is hate speech, or even offensive speech, and especially considering how this discourse happens in the public debate on social networks, finding linguistic and discursive strategies to analyze this phenomenon proved to be an undeniably flawed task.

Based on the data collection and analysis we conducted, we found that the volume of debate about hate speech and censorship increased during a holiday and based on the repercussion of national and international news. This leads us to believe that the existence of a public agenda and the participation of the news media contributed to the intensification of ongoing discussions in the platforms we investigated. In addition to these elements, the posts about the topic made by public figures who have a large network of followers produced a high volume of interactions, which demonstrates the politically strategical role of public figures in the production and reach of the debate.

Considering the evolution of the online debate in the period analyzed, this study indicated the existence of tensions related to the structural and personal understandings of discrimination. This means that, for some of the authors, this debate is critical to the development of democracy and must be present in the public arena, while for other authors, this discourse destabilizes the political field without producing effective change. Lastly, the sanctions applied by the platforms interfered with the volume of publications and with the participation of certain actors, intensifying the debate about freedom of speech and leading to a discussion that does not question their legitimacy, but their limits.

By identifying the arguments and authors that compose this debate, this study lays the groundwork for new investigations about the dissemination of hate speeches on the networks. Among them are the appearance of new platforms in response to the sanctions, the expansion of the lexical diversity associated with the different possibilities of language, the relationship between the self-regulatory procedures of platforms and the sociocultural contexts in which they are applied, and the strategies of social actors to disarticulate online discrimination.


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Research Coordination
Marco Aurelio Ruediger
Amaro Grassi

Dalby Hubert
Danielle Sanches
Eurico O. Matos Neto
Luiza C. Santos
Lucas Roberto da Silva
Polyana Sampaio Barbosa
Renata Tomaz

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Renata Tomaz

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