Reporting Online Hate Speech at University

The start of the University year has been a rather unpredictable time for many. It is becoming increasingly more likely that student studies will continue online and this, alongside the fact that University provides an opportune time to be joining new online groups and societies, will mean that even more activity and interaction will be happening in these online spaces.

Whilst, overall, these groups are welcoming and positive, it is, sadly, not uncommon for them to be misused. In recent years, there have been a number of high profile reports of hate-speech, including racist and sexist bullying, taking place in online university groups. Furthermore, the recent death of George Floyd has led to a rise in discussions worldwide about racism online sparking activism across generations, calling for reform in education and holding individuals, groups and organisations to account for inciting hate. Whilst this is hugely encouraging to see, those speaking out against institutionalised racism online have found that they can become the targets for racist abuse.

If you have witnessed, or been the victim of, hate-speech online in connection to your university, you may be wondering what steps you can take to report it. Report Harmful Content (RHC) is a national reporting centre which helps everyone to report harmful online material and behaviour. They can support you through all stages of reporting online hate-speech and abuse at university.

What is hate-speech?

Hate-speech is any language that promotes offensive stereotypes or encourages violence against a group of people on the basis of their collective identity.

Hate-speech can include harassment (e.g. sexual harassment, stalking, unsolicited images) and threats (e.g. death threats or rape threats). It is often used as part of a wider campaign of bullying.

Hate speech and abuse is never acceptable and is prohibited on many social media platforms. Hate-crime and harassment is against the law. Universities UK have published clear guidelines for responding to hate-speech and abuse, outlining a zero-tolerance policy.

Reporting hate-speech and abuse online

One off incidents of hate-speech, abuse, threats or harassment can be reported to social media. Most large social media companies and app providers do not allow this type of behaviour on their platforms and will usually act quickly to remove this content. RHC has advice on how to report abuse across multiple platforms.

If you feel it’s safe to do so, speak out and challenge misinformation online where possible. Counter-speech can help to influence discourse and change attitudes for the better.

Ongoing and larger issues

In cases where abuse or harassment is ongoing and sustained, you should turn to your university for help. Universities have a duty to ensure the welfare of all their students, which includes protecting them from online hate-speech and sanctioning abuse. Most universities have anonymous reporting routes which can be found on their websites. You can also make a report in person to your students’ union. Many unions have trained advisors who will offer you support and expert advice and help you seek practical resolutions.

Remember you can report hate crime to the police on 101 (non-emergency number), 999 (for emergencies) and online.

Not satisfied with how your report has been handled?

If you feel that report has been insufficiently handled by your university, you have the right to complain. Your university will have an internal complaints procedure, details of which can be found on their website.

If this doesn’t resolve the issue, then you can raise the matter with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA).

Not satisfied with a police response? Each police force will have an internal complaints procedure to follow. If this doesn’t resolve the issue, you can make a complaint to the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC).

Things to remember

Your university has a duty of care towards you; all reports should be taken seriously and handled with sensitivity. When making a report you should expect to be presented with all of your options, be kept informed throughout the reporting process and offered additional support if needed. 

You have the right to choose which course of action you wish to take. You should never feel under pressure to take forward reports or withdraw complaints. No one should attempt to prevent you from referring a report to the police.

Document (via screenshots etc.) both the harassment and your communication with the university.

If you have been the victim of abuse, it is never your fault. Seek emotional support, speak to a friend and take care of yourself.

Further advice and support

Contact your university welfare department, chaplaincy service or the National Union of Students (NUS) for further support.

RHC can also put you in touch with additional emotional and practical support services.

True Vision provide advice about online hate crime and a route for reporting this to the police.

In an emergency, contact the police on 999. If you have recently been sexually assaulted, you can get medical and emotional support from your local Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC).

Online Welfare Advice Packs for University Students

Report Harmful Content have worked with True Vision and the National Police Chiefs Council to create a resource compiling this information for all students and those supporting them: Negate the Hate. All the advice packs are available to view, download, print and order on our website.

If you, or someone you’re supporting, has been affected by any of these issues, we can help. Take a look at our helplines flowchart to find out who best to contact and when you’re ready we’ll be here to offer advice and support.

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