Combating online hate speech

From homophobia and racism to political and religious extremism, “hate speech” on the Internet is raising concern. YouTube and other Google products such as G+ have strong Community Guidelines and offer effective tools, featured in the below video, to flag inappropriate content. Yet a recent event with the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee in London’s YouTube Space demonstrated that perhaps the best way to fight hate is through positive counterspeech.

Free speech is vital to democracy. Drowning out ideology with reason represents a powerful weapon. It is only on open platforms like YouTube—not in jihadist chat rooms or the extremist echo chambers of the ‘dark internet’—that susceptible or curious minds will find countervailing points of view.

In 2010, columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller set out to combat discrimination against young gays and lesbians. They started small. Savage filmed a homemade YouTube video called “It Gets Better.” It soon swelled into a global phenomenon. In Britain, “It Gets Better… Today,” led to a hit single that climbed the UK independent charts - garnering more than 50 million views.

Our London event aimed to achieve something similar with online extremism. We explored how two British YouTube creators, Ben Cook and Jack Howard, partnered with Oxfam on an online campaign to help refugees. Michael Stevens of Vsauce proved that YouTube can educate and inform, as well as entertain. And a community worker who helps people that are vulnerable to radicalisation, launched his YouTube channel, Abdullah X, to fight online recruitment of foreign fighters and terrorists.

The internet can be a tool of radicalisation, so it is vital to seize it as a force of good. Though the removal of the really bad stuff, like violence, continues to be essential, too little focus so far has been placed on the importance of counter-messages. As one participant in London said, “We must embrace new technology and make the right messages more digestible so we can flood the internet with positivity.” Building a community around counterspeech is difficult. It may take time. In the end, though, it wins.