Addressing online hate speech in your classroom and outside

(This article first appeared in the May-June 2017 issue of Teacher Plus as ‘Decoding the Digital’. It was commissioned by M. Nirmala.)

If you wake up to a smartphone, it is likely that you begin the day looking at your Facebook feed and Twitter timeline, reading WhatsApp forwards and perhaps watching videos on YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat. Much of that digital universe is filled, these days, with hate speech — vitriol directed at a variety of groups, communities and individuals.

Source: Logo Design Team

The same digital universe is also inhabited by your students – children and teenagers — who might feel disturbed, provoked, fearful, fascinated, overwhelmed, excited or instigated by what they hear, see, and read. As an educator committed to their well-being, how can you help them navigate this toxic material in a way that makes them feel empowered not policed, agile not fearful?

The conceptual territory we are treading on is at the intersection of digital literacy, social-emotional learning, education for peace, citizenship education, media literacy,non-violent communication, and social justice education. A lot of resources on these subjects are available online, and
in books, but only a tiny amount can be brought directly into your classroom in a way that will resonate with your students’ life experiences.

It is possible, however, to adapt them creatively, so that learning about hate speech is not a kill-joy activity but an experience that is intellectually stimulating and emotionally rich. Find points of connection with what the students are learning in language classes, social studies, life skills or value education, and in computer classes. Draw links with the school’s vision/mission statement, anti-bullying policy, or school safety charter, if there is one.

Activity 1: Present before your students a collage of logos from the most frequently visited websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Gmail, Instagram, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, and any others that you would like to include. Using each logo, ask them to identify the website or app it stands for, and say if they use it. A show of hands for each logo, followed
by tally marks on a chart paper or blackboard, will help you and the students build a coherent picture of digital consumption/participation.

Activity 2: Invite your students to construct their own definitions of hate speech based on personal experiences in the online world. Encourage them to examine the words ‘hate’ and ‘speech’ independently, and together. Guide them to think about questions such as: What makes people hate someone? In what ways does hate express itself? What kind of speech can be called hateful? How do people feel and react when they are hated?

Enable them to think of these questions not in the abstract but in relation to the digital spaces they are familiar with. Prod them for everyday examples. After they have had an opportunity to think critically in this manner, introduce them to the formal definition that appears in the Council of Europe’s Manual of Hate Speech (2009). “Hate speech covers all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance,
including intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin.”

Ask your students if this definition seems relevant to them in the context of India. Would they like to add to or subtract from it? They can feel free to
edit for the purpose of making it clear, inclusive and jargon-free. If your students are not familiar with the meanings of the words in here, motivate them to use a dictionary, consult each other or look up online resources
instead of supplying the answers yourself.

The Online Hate Prevention Institute in Australia names and describes
specific kinds of hate speech that are not listed in the manual mentioned earlier. These include: anti-Muslim hate, racism against indigenous Australians, hate directed against military veterans, serious trolling, cyberbullying, misogyny, and homophobia. Are these the only forms of hate
speech? Certainly not. Caste, language, disability, class, education, food preferences, skin colour, physical appearance, and mental health also give birth to identities that can be subjected to hate speech. It is important
that each of these be talked about so that the school truly becomes
a place where all students are valued, and no one is made to feel inadequate or humiliated.

Activity 3: Share this list with your students, and ask them to mark the statements that would qualify as hate speech based on the discussions you have had with them. This exercise needs to be done with great sensitivity
because it can trigger intense feelings. It might be a good idea to begin and end it with five minutes of group silence with eyes closed, and establish
ground rules of mutual respect when there is a whole-class or small-group discussion.

A. Blind people should stay home. They need not study because they are not going to use that education anyway.
B. Jews are horrible. They are killing Palestinians. They deserved the Holocaust.
C. I do not understand why women expect to be paid the same as men. They spend most of their time applying make-up.
D. Muslims are being persecuted in the United States of America.
E. I do not blame airport officials who think that people from
Nagaland are Chinese. Who can tell the difference?
F. Being gay is a disease. People who like others of the same sex
should be boycotted.
G. Menstruation is polluting. Girls should stay away from the kitchen
on those days. Their touch makes everything impure.
H. Non-vegetarians are not fit to live in India. They must be sent to
Pakistan.
I. Sikhs are filthy. They have long hair that stays unwashed for years.
J. People with dyslexia are liars who do not want to study, so they
make excuses.
K. All right-wing people must be sent to an island and never brought
back.
L. Those who are cruel to animals must be hanged.
M. Brahmins have no talent. They get opportunities only because they have influential contacts in high places.
N. Dalits are a bunch of lazy bums who want to get ahead in life by playing the victim card.

O. Women who complain of sexual harassment should work from home if they have a problem with men.
P. Fat people occupy too much space. They are the real reason behind global warming.
Q. There is no racism against Africans. If they are dark, they are automatically unpleasant. It is no surprise that people do not want
them.
R. Girls who do not wax their legs are unattractive. If they are bullied,
they are asking for it. Body hair is for boys to have, not girls.
S. Vegan people are mentally disturbed. They disguise their craziness in the name of non-violence.

T. Religious people are the reason why there is so much chaos in the
world today.
U. If a boy tells you that he got molested, he is lying. That kind of
thing can never happen to a boy because boys are strong.
V. People who undergo sex reassignment surgery should be treated with dignity and respect.

Activity 4: Organize a circle of sharing where studentscan feel comfortable talking about the hate speech they have encountered, and how it has made them feel about the person who has used it, and the person or group it has been used against. Alternatively, in order to guard students’ privacy, you
can ask each of them to write anonymously on pieces of paper, which can be folded and put into a basket. You can pick up the pieces one by one, and read out to the class. This kind of reflection is helpful because it creates a sense of personal and collective responsibility about the impact hate speech can have on those it is used against, and also on those who are witness to it.

Getting students to talk about instances when they have used hate speech against someone else might be difficult. However, do keep the possibility open, and indicate so. Having the courage to admit one’s mistake is the
first step to making amends, and students who are willing to do this must be supported. If they are ridiculed, shamed or reprimanded at this point, they will not be able to transform their behaviour. Changes take time,
and require patience.

Activity 5: Build research skills by asking your students to find out if their favourite websites have any policies that protect digital users from hate speech and discourage or punish behaviour that does not comply with these
policies. Add another layer to this assignment by getting students to look for instances when the line between free speech and hate speech is blurred. Governments and private corporations are beginning to increase their hold
over what citizens communicate using social media because they feel threatened by the impact that public engagement and scrutiny can have. For example, Facebook had removed images posted by artists Mir Suhail and Orijit Sen because they were found to violate Facebook’s guidelines.
Using these examples, discuss the criteria that could possibly be used to distinguish between free speech and hate speech, especially in countries with constitutions that explicitly protect freedom of expression, which must now extend to digital spaces. If reasonable restrictions are to be observed on certain grounds, what grounds should those be, and who should get to
decide them? These questions would make for a very robust debate with high school students.

Activity 6: Involve your students in creating a set of guidelines that will help them identify hate speech, monitor their own digital safety, be respectful when interacting with classmates online, stand up for peers who are being subjected to hate speech, and figure out when to request adult intervention. Make available copies of documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), UNESCO’s Countering Online Hate Speech (2015), and Shashi Tharoor’s Anti-Discrimination and Equality Bill (2016) for
reference, particularly if you have older students who can learn to wade through the official language of these well-crafted documents in small groups or individually. They are available at no cost, and can be easily
downloaded from the Internet.

Conclude by highlighting that hate speech grows from stereotypes,
fears, familial conditioning, political propaganda, media narratives, and also individual experiences that are exaggerated and presented as universal truths. It can affect people’s self-esteem, make them hate themselves,
go to extreme lengths to fit in, even commit suicide. Therefore, being unaware and shrugging off responsibility by saying “It was only a joke” is not a viable option. Schools must be spaces for every individual, without
exception, to learn, enjoy, and grow.

Writer, educator and researcher

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