Preparing youth to deal with hate on the Internet

The Boston Marathon tragedy has raised questions about the role the Internet plays in radicalizing youth and, more generally, how it may be used to perpetuate hatred. In Canada, similar questions are being asked about the radicalization of four London Ontario students in the wake of last January’s attack on an Algerian gas plant. Sadly, just as hate is a fact of life offline, it also exists in the digital world. As Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, put it, "wherever you have contentious kinds of historic issues, or classic hatreds, we’re beginning to see it percolate online." With this in mind, it is in our best interest to better understand how hate groups are using networked technologies and those who are most at risk.

Youth – and in particular, young men aged 12-17 -- are most likely to commit hate crimes offline, and organized hate groups, both online and offline, consciously try to radicalize young people. Teenagers and young adults are prime targets for hate groups because many are looking for groups or causes that will give them a sense of identity. Identity seeking is a natural part of adolescence but, taken to its extreme, this can provide a toe-hold for hate mongers and hate groups of all kinds are skilled at identifying those youth most likely to be vulnerable to their message. As well as using online tools and environments as a recruiting tool, many groups also spread hate material in the hope of encouraging “lone wolves” who will commit hate crimes without a direct affiliation to any particular group.

Consciously or unconsciously, hate groups draw on a number of basic psychological mechanisms to attract and indoctrinate believers. Some of these techniques work to make people more interested in or sympathetic to the group's message, while others are used to make those who are already part of the group more committed. This approach, which inducts someone into the ideology of hate through a series of small steps, is called the slippery slope because each progressive step makes the previous ones seem more reasonable and justified. Young people, especially those who feel adrift or lack emotional support, are particularly vulnerable to hate groups' efforts to provide a surrogate family to their members. Similarly, all forms of hate material use dehumanization of enemy groups to make any actions taken against them seem not only justified but necessary.

One of the ways in which hate groups mask the true nature of their message is by presenting it as legitimate political debate – what some scholars have called “reasonable racism.” Young people, who are still in the process of learning about political issues and developing critical thinking skills, are particularly vulnerable to these appeals. For that reason, it’s important to teach them to recognize the elements that distinguish ideologies of hate from legitimate discourse: the characterization of one or more groups as “the Other,” a narrative of victimhood, the appeal to a glorious past, and an appeal to divine or natural sanction.

“The Other,” which is dehumanized and portrayed as being simultaneously inferior and threatening, is at the heart of all messages of hate. These groups justify their hatred by portraying themselves as being victimized by the Other; the ultimate example of this is often the accusation that the Other is responsible for the loss of the group’s proper place in the world at some time in the past. This place in the world is often justified by either an appeal to religion, in which the group is portrayed as chosen by divine favour, or by a garbled application of biology, anthropology, genetics – even quack sciences, such as phrenology (which studies the relationship between a person's character and the structure of the skull), live on in ideologies of hate.

Although hate groups’ messages have not changed over time, the ways in which they reach their audience has. No longer limited to printing flyers and posters or selling self-published books by mail-order, thanks to the Internet hate groups are able to distribute their message to a potential audience of millions. With the easy availability of blogging platforms and simple Web publishing software, hate sites have proliferated to as many as 14,000, according to a 2011 study.

While most hate sites are simple screeds, the more sophisticated ones mimic popular commercial websites with many offering audiovisual material and discussion forums and featuring professional-looking design and graphics. Most of these websites are not aimed at general audiences but rather are used for “narrowcasting” – targeting a specific group with content that is known to resonate with them. Narrowcasting also makes the target feel as though he is part of a community with shared ideals and values. One way hate groups do this is through the media most popular with youth, music and videos. Many teenagers turn to musical genres and subcultures to help define their identities and hate music producers take advantage of this by spreading songs and videos not just on hate sites but on file-sharing sites and mainstream services, such as YouTube and iTunes.

While websites and music can be effective in communicating this style of message, social media is tailor-made for it. The greatest advantage of social media is not that it allows hate groups to reach youth, but that it allows youth to disseminate hate material themselves. The ability of social media to help youth find friends and mentors is key to developing the sense of group identity that’s so important in building sympathy and loyalty.

Perhaps most pernicious are the sites delivering what scholars call cloaked hate: these sites, which present themselves as being neutral and educational, communicate a subtle message of hate where their true nature only gradually becomes apparent. To achieve this, cloaked sites put on as many of the trappings of legitimacy as possible – using a dot-org Web address, for example, or having an official-sounding name. We should not underestimate the ability of these sites to misinform young people. A 2003 study reports that when students in a first-year University class were asked to critically evaluate the site, a cloaked site created by the hate group Stormwatch, almost none were able to recognize that it was biased or identify the point of view of its author. As well as material produced by organized hate groups, youth also encounter hate in more mainstream settings. Some online environments popular with youth, particularly those that cater to teenage boys, can even be described as cultures of hate – communities in which racism, misogyny and other prejudices are normalized.

Fortunately, there are a number of concrete strategies that we can use in preparing youth to recognize and critically engage with hate when they encounter it online. As well as teaching young people to recognize the characteristics of an ideology of hate, we can also teach them to recognize and decode the various persuasive techniques hate groups use, such as employing misinformation, denialism and pseudo-science, building group solidarity through appeals to nationalism or religion, casting their members in a hero narrative, using scare tactics, and of course portraying their perceived enemies as a dehumanized Other.

Besides teaching young people critical thinking skills, we can also fight online hate by helping them to develop empathy: this can be done with the whole community as a preventative measure, or as an intervention with youth who are already involved in hate. It’s also important to make people aware of how rare hateful behaviour really is: research has shown that people are more likely to engage in activities like bullying when they believe that many people act this way, and are less likely if they believe that fewer people do. Young people can also be taught how to take positive steps to fight online hate when they encounter it, such as by reporting hate content on social networks or video-sharing sites.

As with so many issues, though, teaching kids to deal with online hate means teaching them media and digital literacy skills. Youth have to learn basic principles of media literacy to understand, for instance, that media are constructions that re-present reality: the media they encounter online, and in particular the sources they turn to when seeking information, were created by individuals who may well have a particular agenda in mind. Similarly, understanding that media contain ideological messages – about values, power and authority – which have social and political implications can help young people to understand why a song, video or game may have more impact than they believe. Understanding that audiences negotiate meaning can also make clear why what may be an offhand comment or friendly teasing to one person may be deeply hurtful to another. It’s also an introduction to the idea that different groups have had different experiences in history and have different relationships with mainstream society. Teaching youth the key digital literacy skills of evaluating and authenticating online information is essential to prepare them to recognize both overt and cloaked hate.

To prevent hate from flourishing we can all play a role in creating cultures of tolerance, respect and empathy for others in our schools and communities. However much we wish it, online hate isn’t going away. It can be a difficult subject for teachers, parents and community leaders to address but it is better that youth learn about it from us – before they learn from someone else.

MediaSmarts Anti-Hate Resources

Diversity and Media Toolbox: a comprehensive suite of resources for teachers, students, law enforcement representatives and the general public, that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet.

Facing Online Hate tutorial: This online workshop examines how the Internet is used to spread and incite hate, how radicalization occurs, and how youth encounter hate online both through traditional hate sites and “cultures of hatred”.

Responding to Online Hate guide: This resource assists law enforcement personnel, community groups and educators in recognizing and countering hateful content on the Internet – especially as it pertains to youth.

CyberSense and Nonsense: This interactive game for children ages 8-10 teaches important lessons about distinguishing between fact and opinion on the Internet and how to recognize bias and harmful stereotyping in online content.

Allies and Aliens: In this interactive game tweens and young teens become agents on an intergalactic mission for earth, while learning about prejudice and discrimination. These interactions help students to understand how such messages can promote hate.