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Hate Speech in the Context of Armed Conflicts

Author: Stefano Valenti

This article was prepared by Stefano Valenti as an excerpt from the master's thesis of Anastasiia Makarova, a recent graduate from the International Master's degree course in Clinical, Social and Intercultural Psychology, of the University of Padua. Stefano Valenti teaches “Human Rights and Intercultural Dialogue” and, as part of this teaching, supervised Ms Makorova’s thesis. He worked as an international civil servant for the European Parliament, the UN Agency for Refugees and the Council of Europe. Anastasiia Makarova now works as a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and a journalist in an independent Russian psychological media "Pure Cognitions".



The ultimate goal of International Organisations after the second world war has been building peace and securing stability, by addressing promptly but peacefully any global or regional threats. However, since 24 February 2022, the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine has been taking place on the borders of the European Union and NATO.  This aggression found wide support from the Russian population, and more alarmingly, it was coupled with a progressive detachment from Europe and its institutions. The reasons for this aggression, named by the Kremlin “Special Operation”, are still disputed, but one fundamental tool for creating and maintaining its support among the population is the use of hate speech. This article analyses how this phenomenon becomes pivotal in sustaining such a climate.

Defining Hate Speech

The issue of definition (or lack of definition) of the term Hate Speech has resulted in this phenomenon to be understood in different ways at the national and international levels. However, it is important to distinguish between the phenomenon of “hate speech”, which is an umbrella concept with multiple meanings, and the legal term “hate speech”, referring to all sorts of expressions (including non-verbal expressions) that are illegal since are punishable under criminal law or subject to sanctions under civil or administrative law of a country.

A recent definition of the Council of Europe includes not only illegal hate speech (i.e. punishable by criminal law or liable under civil or administrative law) but also hate speech which consists of “offensive or harmful types of expression which are not sufficiently severe to be legitimately restricted…, but nevertheless call for alternative responses…such as: counter-speech and other countermeasures; measures fostering intercultural dialogue and understanding, including via the media and social media; and relevant educational, information-sharing and awareness-raising activities”.

This definition implies that the potential danger of this type of “lawful but awful” hate speech is its possible escalation to the most extreme forms of war crimes or crimes against humanity, such as genocide. However, hate speech is already harmful in itself due to its destructive effects on the mental state of both the victim(s) and the perpetrator(s).

Wartime propaganda

In the context of armed conflicts, the concept of wartime propaganda can be related to hate speech but not synonymous with it, as there are two main distinctions. First of all, a specific feature of wartime propaganda is that it is the work of the Authorities, while hate speech can start autonomously and individually as a by-product of the hostile social environment. Secondly, wartime propaganda includes a specific feature: the State's attempt to shape both a negative image of the enemy and a positive image of itself. Therefore, wartime propaganda should not be reduced to only-hate propaganda, as it also aims to elicit approval, pride, confidence, and other forms of support, both domestically and abroad. Thus, hate speech is as effective as dangerous, but not the only tool of a State’s war propaganda.

Specifics of Hate Speech in the context of armed conflicts

In the context of armed conflicts, the use of hate speech aims to organise a collective response targeting another group by sharing only some features of war propaganda, such as persuasion, mobilisation and discredit. It can also differ in modality, displaying elements of “cold” (calculated) and “hot” (reactive) hate. Indirect, generalised and impersonal cold hate is expected to prevail in the successful (for the aggressor) phases of the war, retranslating hostile narratives that reaffirm the inevitability of violence (especially the extreme cruelty towards the enemy), while targeted and personalised “hot” hate speech appears as a reaction to the enemy counterattacks.

The article suggests that to maintain a stable environment of hostility, State propaganda benefits from employing a moderately aggressive degree of violence and indirect hate messages, with minimum to no explicit provocation and no calls to action. The Authorities tend to use hate expressions, including religious expressions, academic discourse and research, public interest discourse, as well as appealing to artistic heritage. This allows the State propaganda to maintain “normality” during war, by minimising explicit mentions of death. In the context of Russian aggression, the deaths of Ukrainian citizens are being reported as “destroying the military objects and facilities”, “disabling infrastructure”, and similar narratives are adopted by other public figures, edulcorating the blatant killings of civilians by naming them as “denazification of territories”.

Psychological Mechanisms

To successfully spread hate, the State identifies factors of tension to increase its impact on the most vulnerable groups of the population. Hate can be compared to a contagious virus requiring regular inoculation: following this metaphor, the first to be infected would be those with lower immunity and most difficult access to healthcare.

Low levels of economic development increase the population’s vulnerability to hatred and violence in various ways, including the spread of hate speech and hate crime. Economic decline, high levels of unemployment, low incomes, low-quality infrastructure, lack of access to goods with limited choices and opportunities – these are some of the factors that may contribute to the rising of hostility and violent crime in a society. Competition and mutual exclusion in the context of limited resources intensifies the need of taking advantage of “the Others” and becomes the excuse for justifying hate and hostility against them. This characteristic is described as “reduced social capital”, which is measured by the amount, size, openness and transparency of groups in society. In societies with reduced social capital, positive attitudes are typically reserved for family and close friends, while negative attitudes towards out-groups are often considered acceptable.  In healthy societies, social capital is generated through multiple sources, mainly respect of the rule of law by the authorities, high-quality education, protection of property rights, public safety and well-functioning local institutions. The lack of these elements can become a factor for social conflicts, armed conflicts, and hate-motivated behaviours including hate speech.

The State's next goal is to “desensitise” the population towards hate messages. Psychological mechanisms behind these processes can be theorised using the concepts of conformity and moral disengagement.

The three main types of conformity – compliance, identification, and internalisation -reflect the motivation of obeying to group pressure. Applied to hate-motivated behaviours in the armed conflict context, compliance is manifested by public hate speech as a way to express loyalty to the State’s authorities and their actions. Identification occurs when an individual internalises particular forms of hate speech expressed by popular public figures, leading to further perpetuation of hate speech against the enemy. This usually happens in the absence of alternative public figures disagreeing with mainstream public figures. Such absence of voices “out of the choir”, as observed in the war against Ukraine, is quite common in armed conflicts. This can be seen as a dangerous risk factor, in particular for adolescents.

The concept of internalisation, facilitated by moral disengagement, is perhaps the most useful for understanding how haters can become alienated from moral standards during wartime. Self-monitoring, self-reactive, and judgmental mechanisms that usually prevent people from spreading hate speech, seen not only as illegal but also immoral in peaceful times, are inhibited by the propaganda normalising violence.

 The mechanism of denying the harm of hate speech in general or the harm of hate speech against the victims in particular is usually reflected in statements such as “Hate speech is free speech”, “They are already used to these names”, “It will open their eyes and help them change”. Displacement and spreading of responsibility are the two final components in the process of moral disengagement. In the armed conflicts context, when hate speech is consistently supported and promoted by the authorities, individual expression of hatred is seen as approved by the government, thus not requiring a personal moral consideration, reflecting a sense of duty and patriotism. As hate speech becomes a collective action, it gains in anonymity, which will later allow an individual to attribute it to others and not to oneself, thus avoiding any sense of personal responsibility.

Empirical findings

To understand the reasons behind the use of hate speech in armed conflicts, an empirical research was conducted on a sample of 188 Russian public figures including politicians, businessmen, academics, athletes, journalists and entertainers.

This group was divided into three age categories: 18-34 years, 35-54 years) and 55+ years. Gender composition, with 41% women and 59% men, reflected the existing gender (un)balance in the above-mentioned society sectors. Participants were then grouped based on their education level and their experiences abroad, which may have influenced their attitudes towards the use or countering of hate speech. Finally, the empirical study explored participants' history of supporting vulnerable groups, their support of or disagreement with government policies.

Given the sensitive nature of hate speech in the current Russian context, secondary data collection methods were chosen over direct self-reporting, as direct self-reporting was deemed unreliable due to the possible participants’ fear of being perceived as unpatriotic. Therefore, we analysed publicly available statements from personal websites, official social media pages, public statements, interviews, and online biographies. This method allowed us to bypass the self-reporting’s bias and gather reliable data.


A consistent factor across all sub-groups suggests that working or studying abroad significantly reduces the use of hate speech. Supposedly, learning foreign languages, exposure to different cultures, perspectives, and lifestyles increases cognitive flexibility, enhances openness and empathy, counters stereotypes and promotes respectful ways of communicating.

Disagreement with government policies is another critical factor influencing hate speech. Individuals who dissent government policies tend to be less prone to the use of hate speech, indicating that open-mindedness and tolerance may be linked to critical thinking and the ability to question the prevailing political narrative.

Support for vulnerable groups is also related to a decreased use of hate speech, proving the positive influence of empathy and social awareness, cultivated through personal experiences, values, or education that emphasises inclusion. Individuals advocating for vulnerable people are likely to value diversity and dialogue, fostering a community ethos that resists hate speech and promotes mutual understanding.


The theoretical insights and empirical findings of this research lead to some recommendations for various stakeholders.

Policymakers:  policymakers should support work and study experiences abroad and promote intercultural programs. Investing in quality education that promotes critical thinking and in awareness raising campaigns that foster support to vulnerable groups is also crucial. The study suggests that simply achieving higher levels of education based on the current curricula is insufficient; instead, there is a need to enrich education with better curricula and innovative pedagogy.

Educators: based on the above-mentioned recommendations educators should integrate global perspectives into curricula, encouraging exchange programs and intercultural cooperation to promote empathy and tolerance. Critical thinking and debates, even on complex issues, should be encouraged in classrooms. Raising awareness of and empathy for human rights issues is vital, as is partnering with NGOs supporting vulnerable groups.

Internet industry: The internet industry should create tools on social media platforms to encourage diverse cultures and perspectives. Additionally, the ethical use of algorithms and AI in content moderation is crucial to ensure these technologies align with human rights values and don't amplify instead the use of hate speech.

Mental health professionals:  Mental health professionals can help combat hate speech by identifying its psychological roots and practising tailored interventions to counter negative thinking and foster empathy. Techniques such as perspective-taking and role-playing can broaden patients' viewpoints. Mental health experts should constantly adapt their strategies to societal changes, striving for a more tolerant and inclusive society.

Recommendations for the Russian context: countering the use of hate speech might require a multi-faceted strategy centred around international cooperation and cultural exchanges, allowing Russians to gain work or study experiences abroad to broaden their horizons. This approach should be complemented by supporting the entertainment industry disseminating messages of acceptance and diversity. Partnerships with human rights organisations and local NGOs is essential for uplifting vulnerable communities. Educational reforms need to prioritise critical thinking and empathy, in close collaboration with Russian educators to develop inclusive curricula. Engaging the youth through social media and digital platforms is key in promoting empathy and understanding. Equally important is strengthening mental health support, with targeted interventions for the haters. These actions aim to create a comprehensive approach towards fostering a more tolerant society in the Russian Federation.


While the phenomenon of hate speech might appear overwhelmingly pervasive, we remain optimistic. Understanding the root causes and recognizing the complex societal and personal forces at play, may already unlock opportunities for reducing this phenomenon. This demands an embrace of mutual understanding, an educational framework that surpasses traditional norms of behaviour, and the creation of bridges for a wider exposure of a larger portion of society beyond its national boundaries. The Russian Federation in particular, with its rich history and evolving society, should embody the duality of this task, mirroring the challenge to protect freedom of expression while avoiding the risks posed by hate speech in perpetrating boundless antagonism.

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