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Countering youth-oriented hate speech

By Trudy Dunham

Viral Peace. Can you imagine peace going viral as quickly as the latest online video? Can you imagine peace and tolerance overcoming hate speech?

This fantastic concept is the name of a non-government initiative whose purpose is to build capacity to counter hate speech. Small cadres of credible community leaders in eight or so countries have been trained to effectively respond to hate speech in social media and online communities. Considered counterterrorism, the leaders 'trolled' online sites relying on strategies such as logic and humor to undercut the power of the extremist rhetoric.

Is the Viral Peace model an effective strategy to spread peace and tolerance in the world? To reduce the prevalence and acceptability of hate speech? I don't know, but this past week Harvard announced the formation of a network which builds on the Viral Peace model to counter online youth-oriented hate speech. I find the announcement hopeful and the approach compelling on several levels.

We live in a world of citizen journalists and bloggers. Everyone has an opinion and is an expert. There are no controls on who publishes, and little controls on what is said, or who accesses. Media literacy is an essential survival skill in our 21st century - the ability to analyze and evaluate media. It is the ability to understand the embedded message, the spin, the faulty logic, the parts of the story that are missing - to know when you are being played. Building media literacy skills should aid our recognition of hate-speech, and the rhetoric leading us into it, for what it is. Well crafted comments added to hate speech can aid our seeing the spin and provide the missing parts to the story.

We also live in a world of clickactivism - youth are comfortable clicking a 'like' or donate button, writing a brief comment to endorse or ridicule an issue, and sharing their view with others. These common behaviors don't need to be taught. But how to best craft an effective message is a skill worth building, as is the ability to recognize microagressions as early indicators of hate-speech and intolerance.

This work might also compel us to examine the ethical values underpinning our society. As Durkheim and Haidt have pointed out, all cultures have norms to protect against harm, and most also endorse the values of justice and fairness. Other commonly endorsed values are loyalty to one's own group, authority and respect for elders and leaders, and sanctity. These last three values can build strong connections within a group, but are also related to intolerance of those not of our group, or who hold different opinions. The essential elements of good youth work, especially Belonging and Generosity, can provide balance for these values to counter any tendency toward extremism and intolerance.

I am encouraged by this effort to address youth-oriented hate speech using commonly available tools, and to build capacity in the youth and caring adults of our society to use our own voices to address the issue. Will your organization be joining The Berkman Center at Harvard in this new initiative? What is your organization already doing to address hate speech?

-- Trudy Dunham, former research fellow

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  1. A brilliant solution Miss Trudy. I have been doing research on how media ingrains hate speech for their political and economic advantage. It is an extremely important but neglected issue in Pakistan. Your article really helped. Thank you

  2. Glad it was helpful. And very glad to hear that you are working on the issue! Let us know what you find.