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Digital Parenting | 17 Nov 2020

Tackling the rise in hate speech during the pandemic

During Anti-Bullying Week, Emma Robertson, co-founder of Digital Awareness UK, the digital wellbeing agency, reports on the disturbing rise in hate speech during the pandemic and advises parents and kids on what they can do to protect themselves against it.

As we’ve been in the midst of a global pandemic, another pandemic has been making waves online: the unrelenting spread of ‘hate speech’.

This is something we at Digital Awareness UK are campaigning to stamp out in schools as part of Anti-Bullying Week.

In 2020, we’ve seen young people in their millions passionately take to social media in support of  causes they believe in, following campaigns like the Black Lives Matter movement. But these efforts have sadly been met by a marked increase in posts encouraging harmful ideologies, such as anti-immigration, homophobia, xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.

One study found a 70% increase in online hate speech amongst children and teens in online chats and a 900% increase in hate speech directed towards China and the Chinese on Twitter. So advice to families on how to stop the sharing of hate speech online, and how to support children if they come across it, couldn’t be more pressing.

What is online hate speech?

Hate speech isn’t just anything hateful that’s said online – it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Hate speech is any form of online communication – like a video, meme or comment – that encourages people to be hateful or violent towards others based on a ‘protected characteristic’, such as their race, religion or ability.

Is it really that common?

In short, yes.

Earlier this year, TikTok, the popular video-sharing social media app, reportedly removed hundreds of thousands of videos that encouraged hateful ideologies, such as neo-Nazism and white supremacy.

But sadly, online hate speech is nothing new. In fact, we surveyed 20,000 11-18 year-olds in partnership with the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference back in 2018 and found that 70% of them had seen racist or homophobic memes on private group chats.

Hate speech leaves protected groups feeling disempowered, isolated and scared

We think it’s increased so dramatically this year because lots of divisive issues, such as the US elections, are being debated in the media, fake news is spreading like wildfire, and we’re all using technology much more to communicate, study, and work than we were pre-pandemic.

So we’re being exposed to all these things a lot more than usual. The unfortunate consequence of this is that it normalises discriminatory behaviour. Hate speech leaves protected groups feeling disempowered, isolated and scared.

So what can be done?

While it’s essential that internet companies such as TikTok do everything in their power to combat hate speech, it’s often not the technology that’s the problem – it’s the people who post these awful views. This is why it’s so important to do all that we can to stamp out discriminatory behaviours.

We find that online hate speech often occurs due to three things.

1. Stereotypes – an image or belief someone has about a specific group of people.
2. Unconscious bias – how we form stereotypes without even realising we’re doing it.
3. Prejudice – having an opinion on something that’s not based on reason or actual experience.

This might be a lot for your children to get their heads around, but it’s important that you try to encourage them to challenge their own stereotypes, biases and prejudices to help make them more open minded and inclusive.

One of the best ways of doing this is to lead by example and show them how important it is to learn about and understand people who look, sound or think differently to us.

In doing this, you are wiring their brains to recognise that not only is it never OK to incite hatred towards someone just because they are different from us, it doesn’t make sense to do so either.

It’s also essential that people, both young and old, understand the many practical steps they can take to protect themselves if they are the victims of online hate speech.

Our Top Five tips

1. Report hate speech to social media or messaging apps. They might be able to remove any hate speech and possibly delete the accounts of those who’ve shared it.

2. Escalate to your child’s school. If the incident involves other students from your child’s school, teachers may be able to offer support.

3. Report to the police. In the UK, serious incidences of online hate speech could be considered a hate crime in the eyes of the law. So you might want get the police involved if you are concerned that someone could come to harm.

4. Be an ‘upstander’ – someone who stands up for what is right. We can do this by encouraging our children to do something as simple as reporting hate speech to a social media app.

5. Talk. Communication is of course the most important part of managing any challenges your child may face on or offline. So letting children know that they can come to you to talk about their worries without fear of judgment or criticism (where possible!) is key.

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