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Equipping DSI for integration projects with the tools to counter online hate speech

17th December 2018

Lavinia Schwedersky rounds up lessons from betterplace lab’s recent peer learning workshop.

For our last peer learning event this year we wanted to offer a workshop to our community that addresses a growing challenge for people and projects working to support migrants and refugees: online hate speech.

When we suggested organising a workshop on this topic, the response from our community was immediate and very positive. Almost all of them have had to deal with hateful comments to their posts, aggressive messages and even orchestrated outrage pouring hundreds of these comments onto their Facebook and Twitter pages.

We therefore invited two experts from the civic.net project at the Amadeu Antonio Stiftung and, together with our own counterspeech project at betterplace lab, Das Nettz, organised a workshop aimed at equipping DSI for integration projects with the tools and strategies to deal with online hate speech.

The most important action strategies summarised

After sharing a few personal encounters with hateful comments and messages regarding their work, the participants discussed what constitutes online hate speech and the most useful strategies to deal with it. Here’s a brief summary of the most important aspects:

What is online hate speech?

There is as of yet no generally accepted definition of online hate speech. Most commonly it is described as expressions that incite, promote or justify racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia or other forms of hatred against specific groups in the form of comments, messages, posts, images and videos.

Why is it important to react to online hate speech?

Similar to the need to intervene when you witness someone being discriminated against, insulted or attacked in everyday life, it is important to react and position yourself when you witness this online. To protect and support those who are affected, but also to make sure hateful comments don’t become legitimised by going uncontested. It is not the person who commented you are trying to reach in this case, but the hundreds of readers who need to see that racism, sexism and any form of hatred against specific groups is not tolerable or “mainstream”. Hate speech comes from a loud minority of users but is at times so professionally organised that it seems as though it is coming from an enormous group of people. Completely ignoring hateful posts and comments is therefore not a good option, though you should be selective when it comes to responding so as to not waste too many resources.

Should we delete and report or counter and discuss?

Comments that are clearly violent and extremist should be deleted with a comment referring to a code of conduct, if you have one. Additionally they should be reported as they may constitute a criminal offence, depending on your country’s laws. In Germany for example comments denying or trivialising the Holocaust are forbidden by law.

Comments that don’t fall into this category but display an intolerant and racist worldview can be countered by asking for sources and figures to back-up their statement or simply by posting a link to a source that accurately depicts the situation. Simply commenting that the post is racist and hateful can also work. Creating “support mechanisms” among friends and partner projects, where you like and positively react to each others posts can also be an important tool in dealing with hate speech on your social media pages.

Putting the lessons into practice

After the input by our two experts the group had the chance to practice what they had just learned in a “commenting challenge”. Confronted with hateful comments everyone was given 60 seconds per comment to react and then reacting to the other comments.

The exercise showed how helpful and encouraging it can be to see comments countering hate speech and how this can immediately change the impression viewers get of who is dominating a discussion. Also, reacting positively to constructive and positive comments first is not only a great sign of support, it also pushes these comments to the top of the discussion, making the hateful ones less visible.

The bottom line

Along with right wing populism spreading across the globe, online hate speech is on the rise and projects supporting minorities rights are often on the receiving end.

There is unfortunately no immediate solution to this but there are ways to feel better equipped in dealing with it and turning the discourse around. The participants were grateful for the opportunity to learn some of these tools during the workshop as well as being pointed to initiatives such as civic.net who offer support for civil society projects overwhelmed by online hate speech.

We’re very happy that we could offer this workshop in support of the DSI for integration community and hope for a more positive trend in online and offline discourses in 2019!

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