Social Media and Hate Speech: How Can We Become #BetterTogether?

The remarkable advances in technology and social media have allowed us to grow closer to each other than ever before. An idea or message can cross thousands of miles in just the time it takes to click a button. These technological and social media advances allow us to do great good and achieve amazing things. People continents away have become virtual friends, and everyday our worlds are enriched by a simple search on the web, or by an article that a friend, or a friend of a friend, has posted on online.

But these very same technologies are also all too often used by those who wish to divide us, to sow the seeds of their hatred and spread misinformation and lies, to incite and recruit people to nefarious causes. 

Human Rights First and French NGO Coexister convened the #BetterTogether Inaugural Summit in Paris last month to address the problem of hate speech on the Internet and in social networks. The two-day meeting brought together civil society actors, technology companies, and French and American government representatives for sessions dedicated to the creation of coalitions and advocacy campaigns, the development of counter narratives against hate speech, and how to strengthen cooperation with big internet platforms.

American government representatives stressed that democratic governments must be actively involved in fighting religious and ethnic hatred, but that they cannot combat the problem alone. Uzra Zeya, Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) at the U.S. Embassy Paris, remarked “If we are to beat back this rising tide of hatred and promote tolerance and pluralism, we need civil society to join our efforts, raise its voice, and speak out against any and all manifestations of hatred and bigotry.” Civil society and religious leaders have a unique ability to inspire and mobilize their communities, as well as cultivate an environment in which it is socially unacceptable to engage in discrimination, bigotry, and hate. Governments, she added, can strengthen and assist civil society, and have a crucial role in building bridges between communities and organizations.

An audience member responds to panelists at the #BetterTogether Summit. [Human Rights First photo]

French officials noted that it is important to address hate speech online on two fronts: intervention and prevention.  France has mainly focused on removal of offensive content, a strategy which French Official believe has had positive effects in the fight against terrorism and child pornography. According to them, governments also have a role in better educating children against prejudice, racism, and hatred of “the other.” There is a need to work on both fronts -- repression and prevention -- a French official said, but the work of prevention takes more time. Further, French representatives asserted that it is in the interest of the secular state to promote a dialogue among religious communities to address shared concerns, to confront the “teaching of contempt,” and to promote a culture of respect and esteem.

The #BetterTogether Inaugural Summit also highlighted the role the private sector can play in helping NGOs build the capacity to engage with the public and effectively tell their stories. The resources and expertise of the technology sector, combined with the vision and compassion of civil society leaders, could result in any number of successful initiatives to fight against hatred and intolerance and cultivate a more pluralistic and inclusive society.

Moreover, the technology companies that develop, implement, and maintain these tools have a crucial role in how we can deal with this problem. It is up to these private companies to come up with and enforce terms of service in accordance with their own missions and ideals, to find ways to balance the freedom of expression with the kind of social environments they wish to cultivate.  

“This struggle requires sustained cooperation among all of us,” DCM Zeya said, “from students to CEOs. Civil society, religious leaders, business and tech leaders, and governments all have a deep social responsibility to speak out against all forms of intolerance and, in doing so, to build stronger community ties through partnerships and respect for diversity. The opportunity for our collaboration on this global challenge is ripe. We must join in partnership to work together against those who promote intolerance, and to condemn hateful beliefs and actions wherever and whenever they occur.” 

About the Author: Jerome Copulsky serves as a Franklin Fellow and Senior Advisor in the Secretary's Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

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Members of Coexister, Human Rights First, the French Foreign Ministry, DCM Paris Zeya (Center), and Jerome Copulsky S/RGA (third from right) at the #BetterTogether Summit. [Human Rights First photo]
Posted by Jerome Copulsky
October 14, 2016

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