Digital Citizenship

Tool or Weapon? Addressing Cyberhate in the Classroom

Classroom strategies to fight cyberhate include not supporting or reinforcing it, reporting it, supporting the targets, speaking out against hate, and engaging in activism.
October 7, 2015
A young woman is walking on the sidewalk past a brick building with her backpack on, looking at her cellphone.

One of the most newsworthy incidents this summer was the tragic murder of nine African American parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina. The suspect in the crime, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, is a white man who was known to be heavily influenced by online white supremacist hate speech, most notably from the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that now functions primarily as an Internet clearinghouse for racial fear-mongering "news" stories.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Konner Sauve, an 18-year-old high school senior, made headlines in June when he revealed that he was behind the yearlong anonymous posting of 650 photos and kind messages to other students at East Valley High in Yakima, Washington. Sauve said, "I wanted to focus on the better aspects of people. To shed a positive light on each individual, make them feel appreciated, and to know that someone cares." The Instagram account, @thebenevolentone3, has 14.3K followers.

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

As a society, are we more surprised by a Dylann Roof or a Konner Sauve?

The Downside of Social Media

Modern technology, the internet, and mobile communication have quite literally rocked our world and changed it forever. Through online communication, we can buy anything we want, meet and connect with people across the globe, exchange ideas in a polite or heated tone, learn things small and large, and express ourselves in countless ways. Unfortunately, this global communications technology also has become a place for people to communicate and spread hate, vitriolic language, and bigotry.

We define online hate speech, or cyberhate, as the use of electronic communications technology to spread bigoted or hateful messages or information about people based on their actual (or perceived) race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other similar characteristic. Cyberhate has become a growing concern in our society, especially for young people because of their active engagement in the electronic world.

Cyberhate can take various forms, including the web sites and communication forums in which Dylann Roof participated. It includes the vicious and organized rape and death threats toward women who spoke out against sexism in the gaming industry (commonly referred to #GamerGate). It also includes attacking individuals based on their appearance, racist tweets ranging from sports to the Miss America Pageant, anti-Semitism expressed on Facebook, and hateful comments written in response to news articles. It is difficult to quantify the extent of cyberhate and its change over time; however, there seems to be agreement among experts (PDF) that the problem is increasing in magnitude.

5 Strategies to Fight Cyberhate

What can educators do to help young people address cyberhate? The first step is to educate students about cyberhate by defining it and analyzing how it reflects and perpetuates bias and discrimination prevalent in our society. At the same time, it's important to be mindful not to direct students to hateful websites for "research." Instead, provide screen shots and articles about the cyberhate.

Educators can talk with students about the following strategies for responding to cyberhate, and provide the skills needed to make it happen:

1. Don’t support or reinforce the hate.

One of the most important and easiest tactics is not to support the haters. Help students resist the temptation to respond, applaud, "like," or share. By refusing to join in, they send an important message that bigotry, hatred, and intolerance are not acceptable.

2. Report cyberhate.

Many internet companies and social networking sites acknowledge that counterspeech -- using our voices -- is the most powerful tool in fighting hate online. Most have cyberhate policies with direct links for registering a complaint when free speech has crossed the line into hate speech. Help students learn how to report cyberhate.

3. Support the targets.

Whether the targets are individuals or groups, and whether you know them or not, encourage students to reach out and let these targets know that someone cares about them. Or, as Konner Sauve did, design a project in class where students add to or create their own online support forums or individual posts on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram in support of someone who is a target of cyberhate.

The best response to bad speech is good speech, and that's true online as well as in person. Encourage young people to address online hate speech by organizing or participating in counterspeech. They can write an encouraging comment, ask others to do the same, or use social media platforms to support the person.

4. Speak out against hate.

In response to messages of bigotry and hate, students can convey their thoughts by writing a comment in disagreement, making a video, writing a blog, or using social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to condemn hate online. In this way, they amplify the message that it is unacceptable. Assign this as a group project or infuse it in other parts of your curriculum.

5. Engage in activism.

In the face of cyberhate, many individuals and groups are fighting back with organized efforts to confront the bias. Last year, Honey Maid created a "This Is Wholesome" commercial which included diverse families (two dads, an interracial family, and a family heavily tattooed). The ad immediately sparked negative and hateful backlash from individuals and organizations. In response, Honey Maid released another video titled "Love" which received positive messages -- ten times as many as the original hateful ones. Encourage students to join groups or campaigns already underway, or engage in counterspeech as a class by taking on an activism project of the students' choosing.

How does your class or community address cyberhate? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.