George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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.

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Deborah Asher, Ed.S.'s picture
Deborah Asher, Ed.S.
Equity Advocate, Consultant, High School Principal, District Administrator, Teacher

Thank you Jinnie! As parents and educators we must help our children learn how to use social media and the power it has as soon as they are aware of internet devices in their world. It can easily be too late but can never too soon.

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

Returning from a teacher conference yesterday, I was stuck waiting for a plane outside Detroit. What did I notice in one airport store? Three books in a row; two on either side by Donald Trump that promised he would save the country. In between? A horrible photo of Hillary Clinton with her mouth wide open. The title of that middle book was "What's wrong with Hillary?" or something like that. The photo was hateful and mean.

THIS is the world we are raising our kids in? It doesn't matter to me if a person loves or hates the Donald or Hillary. What matters to me is that we honor kindness in our communications, if for no other reason than to set a tone for our kids! How can I encourage students to be open-minded and non-judgmental in their behavior, if any kid standing beside in any airport, can spot a photo with Hillary Clinton, mouth open, being ridiculed? We ridicule all public figures right and left these days - with no limits, it seems. Do we really think young people aren't watching? And imitating?

This is NOT a political comment whatsoever. It's just an observation. Just as many people make fun of Donald Trump - although I've never seen an entire book on any news stand with a photo of him like that. Scary business that as a society, we behave as if that's all okay.

Thank you for this thoughtful post. When you ask what others are doing, I've created an ELA based critical thinking year-long program with a teacher who discovered my material across the country. It does take a village. That's why I was at the teacher convention. We all try and do our bit.

Ktell's picture

Educators need to help children use social media effectively in order to make positive decisions and choices. I think it's hard for children to realise not only the immediate impact social media has on themselves and others but also the long term consequences it can play also.

On a side note, parental guidance and supervision is also required. Many children seem to be free to roam online as they please. There's only so much teachers and parents can do but together we can provide children with the necessary tools to keep their social media activity a positive one.

Amber von Nagel's picture

It's incredibly important to talk to kids about cyberhate and its consequences. I love the idea of encouraging kids to support the targets by participating in counterspeech. It's an action that fosters empathy and understanding both online and in the real world.

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