When does disagreement become hate?


At the Online Hate Prevention Institute we are regularly contacted by people who have been advocating for an uncommon position in various online spaces. Examples of this include climate change sceptics who engage in debate on environmental pages, parents against vaccination who engage in debate in threads on public health, anti-Islam campaigners who engage on the pages of Muslim groups, and people advocating for an end to ANZAC Day.
The Online Hate Prevention Institute’s mission is to prevent harm to individuals which can result from online content, whether we agree with their positions or not. The harm in cases like this must be clear and go well beyond hurt feelings. There are public policy grounds for ensuring there is robust debate against positions such as these, so long as it doesn’t cross the line into attacking the individual. This is particular the case when the person advocating the uncommon position goes out seeking the debate in an environment where a reasonable person would know their view is not welcome.
We all need to speak out against any hate speech, bullying or serious trolling, even when the person being attacked may have gone looking for an argument. Regardless of their views, no one should be subjected to the sort of hate where their health is affected, or bullied into throughts of suicide. There is a long gap between robust debate and hate speech, but those engaging in robust debate need to be aware of the risk of it falling into personal attacks and hate.


Robust Debate

In online discussions about issues people will disagree and all have the right to express their views. While some engagement can cross into the realms of online hate, disagreement is not itself bullying or abuse. This is especially true when the disagreement is relevant to the topic of the discussion thread, article or page and is kept to the discussion in that location.

Uncivil Discussion

Online discussions can become uncivil, impolite and inappropriate while still falling below the threshold of online hate. This is most likely to occur when someone adopts an unpopular position and seeks to advocate their view in a forum which largely has an alternative view.


Some online discussion will cross the threshold into online hate. This can occur when the discussion becomes overly personal, and extreme attacks are made against a person rather than disagreeing with what they are saying. Comments suggesting a discussion participant kill themself, for example, may fall into this category.

Serious Trolling

Disagreements can also cross the threshold when people will not keep the disagreement in the space where it occurred. For example, if some starts commenting on a person’s own profile, contacting their friends, talking about that person on other pages, or setting up pages on Facebook or videos on YouTube etc naming and attack an individual.

The Role of the Online Hate Prevention Institute

The Online Hate Prevention Institute deals with a wide range of serious incidents of online hate. We are a small charity with very limited resources. Every incident we engage with means others cannot be addressed. We try to focus on those issues which have the largest impact on society as a whole, as well as those issues with the greatest impact on individuals. Our public work usually looks at issues of group based hate, such as racism, religious vilification, misogyny, homophobia and others. We also undertake other work which is not discussed publicly and which relates to public safety or the safety of individuals.

While we do try and cover topics such as cyberbullying and serious trolling regularly in our work, we can’t deal with all the serious cases which occur. OHPI often represents the very last port of call after approaches to police and lawyers have failed.  In light of this we also can’t mediate robust debate or conversations which become uncivil but fall short of incitement and hate. We just don’t have the resources for that, and it isn’t part of our role.

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