Researchers aim to fight hate speech by listening, not censoring

A new educational pilot project aimed at combating and raising awareness of online hate speech has recently been launched by researchers at Concordia University and Brock University.

Rather than shutting down hate speech, the project is developing material aimed at critically analyzing and addressing hateful attitudes.

The initiative, titled “Project SOMEONE,” was created to “sensitize youth, educators, and the broader public – both within and outside of Canada – to patterns of online hate with the goal of building resilience against hate speech and radicalization,” according to the project’s website.

Tieja Thomas, a co-principal investigator of the project at Concordia University, said she and her colleagues saw a need for programming to help people develop critical thinking and digital literacy skills.

“We really saw that there was a gap in thinking about ways of helping people understand and maybe prevent hate,” she said. “A lot of the resources we provide are built on the understanding that hate is a natural emotion.”

Funded by Public Safety Canada’s Kanishka program, a federal program that invests in research on terrorism and counter-terrorism, the project began researching and developing its materials in 2014.

One project under the initiative is called Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project, a set of school curricula for teachers to use to generate classroom conversation on hate and hate speech. Another is The Dark Side of Social Media, a documentary on how hate speech and hateful ideas are spurned by social media discussion.

Project SOMEONE is also currently working with community organizations, such as elementary schools and older adult communities, to utilize its materials, Thomas said.

She added she hopes the project will help combat radicalization by giving the tools for people who encounter hateful ideas online to step back, and seek out the motivations behind those ideas and counter them with other points of view, instead of simply agreeing with them.

“Rather than aiming for consensus or trying to silence any type of hateful viewpoint, we seek to understand it and to give individuals the tools to engage hateful commentary or hateful opinions in ways that can lead to increased understanding for all of the parties involved in that situation,” Thomas added.

Michael Kennedy, a co-author of the Campus Freedom Index, an annual report ranking freedom of speech at universities, said critical and reasoned discussion is the best way to kill hateful ideas.

“If you don’t allow that forum to happen, then what you’re doing is you’re suppressing those hateful ideas into the underground where we can’t really control them, we can’t really follow them, [and] we can’t refute them directly,” Kennedy said.

Wayne Sumner, a University of Toronto professor specializing in philosophy of law, said he thinks Project SOMEONE is a great idea.

“That seems to me to be potentially a much more effective way of dealing with hate speech than trying to criminally prosecute, especially on the internet,” Sumner said. “It’s designed to raise critical awareness, critical thinking . . . to try to neutralize especially speech that’s intended to radicalize.”

Project SOMEONE’s website has various multimedia content, such as comics and videos, for public use.

“If we continue along with patterns of censoring or rejecting things we don’t like or that maybe hurt us, then everyone’s going to be in the corners and no real dialogue is happening. And without dialogue, we’re not really moving forward,” Thomas said.

Several universities offer several “safe space” initiatives to combat hateful attitudes and speech. Carleton’s Equity Services offers a “Safe Space Program,” which involves a workshop aimed at reducing homophobia and heterosexism on campus and increasing “positive spaces” for the LGBTQ community on campus, according to their website.