Credit: Flickr/John S. Quarterman. CC 2.0 Some rights reserved.
In the weeks surrounding the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, anti-immigrant hate crime in the UK rose to worrying levels, culminating in the dramatic murders of the Polish national Arkadiusz Jóźwik and British MP Jo Cox.
For some, it seems that the victory of the ‘leave’ campaign legitimised hostility towards immigrants and minorities. Brexit was fought on a narrative of division, tapping into deeply-felt tensions that were caused by poverty, growing levels of inequality and a crisis of faith in political representation and democracy. These tensions were then wrapped up in a simplistic package of blame against immigrants. The binary politics of the referendum—‘yes’ or ‘no’—reinforced the narratives of ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’, pushing people to pick sides crudely.
What was happening on the streets was even more present online. The anonymity of the internet offered vitriol a safe haven, with reports revealing a peak in online abuse against those from mainland Europe, British Muslims and other minorities who were openly insulted and told to ‘go back to their country.’
What we’ve seen online in the UK this year is part of a growing global phenomenon. Over the past decade social media has been linked to intensifying religious tensions in Myanmar, where Facebook has been used to feed anti-Muslim sentiment. It has been a catalyst in fuelling post-election conflict in Kenya, where politicians have been calling for violence online. And it has fuelled divisions in the US by reinforcing extreme narratives on both sides during the presidential elections.
Social media has changed the way we communicate. It offers valuable opportunities for connection but at the same time segregates people into social ‘bubbles’ that echo and legitimise one’s own opinions. As Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy explains, the growing personalisation of online content, especially news outlets tailored to our interests and opinions, “creates the impression that our narrow self-interest is all that exists.” Rather than offering wider exposure to social and political realities, these bubbles simplify issues and make societies more vulnerable to a ‘mob mentality’ as patterns of hate find fertile ground in a cycle where opinions and assertions go unchallenged.
As a peacebuilding organisation, International Alert’s work in conflict-affected areas around the world has demonstrated time and again that hate speech is never benign. History shows that it has fanned the flames of violence, created a language and culture of enmity, and normalised hostile environments conducive to mass violence. In Rwanda for example, the International Criminal Court has connected hate speech to war and genocide, with newspaper articles and radio broadcasts resulting in widespread acts of violence in 1994. If we are not aware of the tipping points between hate speech and conflict, violence can become a genuine risk.
Online hate speech is all the more harmful because it’s difficult to capture, qualify and regulate, yet it reaches a huge potential audience. Unfortunately, societies are ill-equipped to deal with this phenomenon because legal responses are inadequate, and however well-intentioned technology firms may try to be, they have yet to come up with any effective responses. The criminalisation of hate speech also raises ethical dilemmas: whilst it aims to protect people from harm, it also risks restricting freedom of speech.
The solutions to online vitriol have to be more holistic than simply policing, banning or repressing hateful views. They must involve the development of more responsible political and media practices that re-introduce nuance into public conversation, reflect societies’ complex social identities, and encourage respectful interaction. In the words of political satirist Jonathan Pie, “when will we understand that discussion is key?”
As political and media narratives are increasingly turning legitimate grievances and anger about political failures into irrational fears of the ’other,’ the pathologic phobia and anxiety they generate must be addressed with new tools. In behavioural therapy, one of the most efficient responses to phobia is systematic desensitisation through gradual exposure. Maybe this is what we need, being more exposed to each other, acknowledging each other’s existence and right to be different, accepting each other’s needs and grievances and getting rid of the boogieman.
But unfortunately it isn’t that easy. One experiment that was designed to burst social media bubbles around the US election showed that exposure to opposing viewpoints merely reinforced people’s adversarial attitudes. When divisions are so deep, unmediated exposure only reaffirms pre-existing beliefs. Exposure is not enough: in order to change behaviours, people need to engage safely and willingly in a process of transformation.
Peacebuilding offers a number of tried and tested tools that can help in this process. The first is active listening. In times of uncertainty, we all need to feel that our concerns are being heard, that we can worry about migration, terrorism, the economy or the failure of elite politics without being judged. Expressing one’s needs and fears opens the way to confronting the underlying problems. In addition, conflict analysis, dialogue, mediation and collaborative problem-solving are all tools that can help map grievances and improve relationships among citizens and between citizens and their institutions.
But we also need to find ways to bring these approaches to the online world, adapting the tools of peacebuilding to the particular scale and modalities of the internet, re-imagining citizen-led solutions and creative social responses that can open up the space for alternative narratives and ‘peace speech.’ This is where technology can play an important role.
Existing platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook can be used in innovative ways to encourage dialogue across differences. Recent initiatives such as #refugeeswelcome or Techfugees are good examples of digital tools that facilitate positive responses to migration. Campaigns like #notinmyname or the comical trolling of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have allowed Muslims to voice alternatives to the narratives of blame that follow every terror attack, whilst also highlighting the power of humour as a great way to lighten negativity.
Initiatives like YouGov in the UK, Akshaya in India and the Digital Cabinet in Brazil show the potential of digital technology to improve accountability and increase feelings of empowerment by bringing decision-making closer to people. More generally, in our increasingly lonely societies, social media can help us to create social bonds offline, whether cooking and dining with unknown neighbours in supper clubs, meeting with strangers around common interests, or finding a life partner.
However, even in the aggregate these constructive initiatives struggle to resist the tide of anger and hate. That’s why International Alert organised a #peacehack in October 2016 designed to find better ways of tackling online hate speech through the use of technology. Developers and designers drew on real-life experiences of online abuse and islamophobia described by schoolchildren from the north of England to understand how digital tools can counter hateful narratives. Ideas that emerged included Hate Speech Stopper, a plug-in that makes you pause and think before using hate speech online, and Noby—an interactive educational tool that offers guidance on how to react when faced with real-life hate crime.
Just as important were the relationships built during #peacehack. Technology professionals found out more about how they can use their skills for peace and social justice. Children had their voices heard and were empowered to craft new solutions. Initiatives like these offer an interesting channel to scale up peacebuilding approaches online. Hate picks no sides—it merely fills the gap left by broken communication. We need to stop blaming each other for society’s ills and start focussing on our basic human need and common interest to live in peaceful and prosperous environments.
Peacebuilders often say that ‘peace is a process’ of building new relationships and repairing broken ones. In an era of digital communication these relationships will increasingly be mediated through the internet, so that is where we need to focus our efforts, starting with younger generations who are both more exposed and less resilient to online hate speech. Peace education and digital literacy can be combined to transform the internet into a more positive and hopeful space.
Listen to a recorded audio version of this article courtesy of curio.io.