Can online hate speech be cured in the next generation?

In the wake of a hate-driven attacks in New Zealand and Sri Lanka this year, world leaders are asking: Is online hate something we can cure in the next generation?

"Hate speech has been around for centuries," says Althea Middleton-Detzner, director of PeaceTech Lab. "But what's changed—especially as of late—is the widespread access to social media platforms on the internet whereby virtually anybody has the ability to reach a wide audience with their message."

Middleton-Detzner explains that in the peacebuilding field the Rwandan genocide of 1995 is pften held up as an example of the use of media and technology—in that case it was radio—as a platform and medium to spread harmful messages or hate speech.

Now peacebuilders, NGOs and educators are working to combat hate speech with online technology and groups like PeaceTech Lab and Hatebase monitor it online.

"Interestingly, over the last few years we've seen an increase in use cases in... both the public and the private sectors," says Timothy Quinn from Hatebase. "Everything from big social networks using our data now to identify white nationalists recruiting in their ecosystems to law enforcement using it to stem gang activity in high-risk neighborhoods."

Online campaigns, such as #sharesomegood, are also actively trying to counter hate speech. Youtube Creators for Change share tool-kits on how to identify hate speech and how to do something about it. But there are challenges.

Identifying hate speech is hard

"Hate speech is very nuanced language; it's very coded and contextualized language, so simply identifying it in the first place becomes challenging," says Middleton-Detzner.

One way of resolving this issue is through working with local partners and peacebuilders are focused on tracking, removing and combating hate speech.

Tracking hate speech

New technology is emerging to aid the tracking of hates speech, including the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

"By combining artificial intelligence and machine learning with social science the online hate index will ultimately uncover and identify trends and patterns in hate speech, across different platforms," says Brittan Heller from the ADL Center for Technology & Society.

"This information and data and the tools that are helping us to monitor online, then help us so that we can design and deliver strategies and approaches to addressing and combating hate speech," says Middleton-Detzner.

Removing hate speech

Regulating hate speech is a controversial topic, but social media companies are paying attention. "They're concerned about the toxicity of their ecosystems," says Quinn, "And they care because [it's] potentially driving legitimate users away, it's hurting the potential for advertising and revenue and increasingly there are legal liabilities that these companies have to worry about."

"Most people are familiar with Germany potentially levying a fine of $50 million US for posts that are not removed within a week, the UK has a potential fine of 4 percent of global revenue, and Australia recently followed up talking about a 10 percent fine of global revenue...For a company like Facebook or TicTok or Twitter, that's a huge amount of money so they are very incentivized to do something about it."

Combating hate speech: A case study

Rachel Brown and her team at Sisi Ni Amani used text messages in Kenya to actively counter hate speech during elections.

Sisi Ni Amani, which means “We are Peace” in Kiswahili, was a project that aimed to map peace initiatives to help highlight and coordinate positive peacebuilding initiatives in and across communities. The group helped peacemakers connect with each other and help highlight the initiatives and the desire for peace to the general public.

"Essentially we took this tool that had been used really effectively to mobilize for violence and we figured out how we can mobilize it to prevent violence, by educating people about the rumors that they might hear, by giving them actions that they could take to address grievances and come together across conflict lines, and by responding in real time to tensions, mis-information, and risks of violence," says Brown.

What next?

With other popular online movements like: #StopTheHate, #TheyAreUS, #NoHateSpeech, #defyhatenow, it seems the next generation is tackling the issue head-on.

Want to know more about combating hate speech online? Check out five sites with tool-kits and information:


PeaceTech Lab

Defy Hate Now

Stopping Hate

YouTube Creators for Change

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