Since its earliest days, the internet has been hailed as a uniquely open marketplace of ideas, and it has become an essential means for people to access information and services. The downside of this is that, alongside its many valuable resources, the internet also offers a host of offensive materials – including hateful content – that attempt to inflame public opinion against certain groups and to turn people against one another.
It is not always easy to discern when hateful content on the internet crosses the line from being offensive to illegal. The line between hate speech and free speech is a thin one, and different countries have different levels of tolerance. The line is even thinner in digital environments where hateful comments posted lawfully in one country can be read in other countries where they may be deemed unlawful.
Traditional government responses to online hate have been to police cyberspace as an extension of the state’s territory, ignoring the online/offline divide.
Online hate can have an impact in three interconnected ways:
- the harm done to its targets, either from personal harassment or from online spaces being experienced as hostile;
- the risk that those who encounter it may be radicalized by it, becoming more sympathetic and possibly even active; and
- the effect that it has on the values and culture of the online spaces in which it happens.
The internet has become a prime means of communication worldwide and this unprecedented global reach – combined with the difficulty in tracking communications – makes it an ideal tool for extremists to repackage old hatred, raise funds, and recruit members. As the internet has grown and changed, hate groups and movements have adapted, creating websites, forums and social network profiles, becoming active in spaces such as online games, and even creating parallel versions of services such as Twitter and Wikipedia.
There are two main strategies for addressing online hate and cultures of hatred in the classroom: teaching youth to recognize and deconstruct it, and empowering them to intervene by answering back to it.