From Insult to Hate Speech: Mapping Offensive Language in German User Comments on Immigration

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2439

Article | Open Access

From Insult to Hate Speech: Mapping Offensive Language in German User Comments on Immigration


  • Sünje Paasch-Colberg Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
  • Christian Strippel Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
  • Joachim Trebbe Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
  • Martin Emmer Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany


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Abstract:  In recent debates on offensive language in participatory online spaces, the term ‘hate speech’ has become especially prominent. Originating from a legal context, the term usually refers to violent threats or expressions of prejudice against particular groups on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation. However, due to its explicit reference to the emotion of hate, it is also used more colloquially as a general label for any kind of negative expression. This ambiguity leads to misunderstandings in discussions about hate speech and challenges its identification. To meet this challenge, this article provides a modularized framework to differentiate various forms of hate speech and offensive language. On the basis of this framework, we present a text annotation study of 5,031 user comments on the topic of immigration and refuge posted in March 2019 on three German news sites, four Facebook pages, 13 YouTube channels, and one right-wing blog. An in-depth analysis of these comments identifies various types of hate speech and offensive language targeting immigrants and refugees. By exploring typical combinations of labeled attributes, we empirically map the variety of offensive language in the subject area ranging from insults to calls for hate crimes, going beyond the common ‘hate/no-hate’ dichotomy found in similar studies. The results are discussed with a focus on the grey area between hate speech and offensive language.

Keywords:  comment sections; content analysis; Facebook; hate speech; refugees; text annotation; user comments; YouTube

Published:   3 February 2021


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DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v9i1.3399


© Sünje Paasch-Colberg, Christian Strippel, Joachim Trebbe, Martin Emmer. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.