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Online toxicity in Slovakia increased by 60% after attempt on PM Fico's life

Computer monitors and a laptop display the X, formerly known as Twitter, sign-in page, July 24, 2023, in Belgrade, Serbia.
Computer monitors and a laptop display the X, formerly known as Twitter, sign-in page, July 24, 2023, in Belgrade, Serbia. Copyright Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Tamsin PaternosterEuronews
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Researchers have long drawn links between hateful online comments and their capacity to push people further towards extreme political stances, beliefs and worldviews.

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The attempt on Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico's life on Wednesday triggered an intense wave of hateful and toxic comments online, according to data compiled by Slovak start-up Elv.ai. 

The organisation found that on the day of the assassination, hateful comments — which can include vulgar language, hate speech, racism, xenophobia, threats, as well as justification of the attack — increased by 60% compared to their entire monitoring database.

Previously, the level of toxicity in online comments reached its highest during the Slovakian presidential elections in March and April, with Elv.ai recording hateful comments made in 13.62% of online discussions. 

In comparison, the level of toxicity following the assassination attempt was 21.62%.

"Such events often act as catalysts for underlying tensions and grievances to surface online. Emotional reactions to high-profile incidents often provoke strong responses, leading individuals to express their anger or fear online," Elv.ai's Jakub Šuster told Euronews. 

"Social media platforms can amplify hate speech through echo chambers, where users are exposed primarily to opinions that reinforce their own, often radicalising their views," he added. 

Following the attack, the Slovakian interior ministry urged users on one of its official Facebook pages to refrain from sharing inappropriate or vulgar content about the attack. It also asked professional media outlets to turn off their comment sections and moderate social media posts on the subject.

Interior Minister Matúš Šutaj-Eštok has also asked journalists and politicians to refrain from spreading antagonistic comments on social media following the attack.  

Meanwhile, Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová said in a post on X on Wednesday that "hate speech and rhetoric full of hate, which we witness across society, leads to hateful acts."

Consequences of online toxicity

"Online hate speech contributes significantly to stoking divisions within Slovak society. The proliferation of hateful comments can have several profound impacts. Persistent hate speech exacerbates social divides, making it harder for communities to engage in constructive dialogue," Šuster explained.

"Repeated exposure to hate speech can desensitise individuals to extreme views, gradually normalising such rhetoric."

In 2023, the European Roma Rights Centre lodged six criminal complaints against individuals in Slovakia on behalf of members of the Roma community who said the individuals had posted anti-Roma hate speech online. 

"Some of the comments are outrageous; others are even more serious and aim at the extermination of Roma. In some cases, the haters may have committed criminal acts," said volunteer coordinator and lawyer at the Forum for Human Rights Diana Repiščáková.

Researchers have long drawn links between hateful online comments and their capacity to push people further towards extreme political stances, beliefs and worldviews. 

In 2018, the United Nations reported that social media, and particularly Facebook, played a significant role in the 2017 Rohingya genocide in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. 

In Kenya, a $1.6-billion (€1.47bn) lawsuit in Kenya’s High Court accused Facebook’s parent company, Meta, of amplifying hate speech and violence on Facebook in relation to Ethiopia’s 2020–2022 conflict in Tigray.

The European Union's Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) declared in 2023 that online hate speech had risen across Europe and that the EU hadn't done enough to regulate the issue despite the implementation of the Digital Services Act, which aims to impose a code of conduct on online hate speech.

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