Changing the Conversation Around Online Hate

  • April 4, 2018
brittan heller sxsw

By Brittan Heller | Director of Technology and Society

I’ve been working on online hate and harassment for over a decade. At the start, I had to persuade people this was actually a problem, and not an effort to curb free speech because it was uncomfortable. But over the past year, there’s been a significant shift in perception and people no longer need to be convinced – now the question is: How do we fix this? 

An effective approach to cyberhate will require that the problem be clearly defined.  Is the problem that controversial content, hateful speech, computational propaganda, and harassment exist online? Is it that the architecture of the internet means this content spreads so far and so fast? Or is it that this hate exists at all?

Separate is the question of accountability for cyberhate. From recent responses, including some public missteps, it appears major technology companies believe their responsibility stops at the border of their platforms. Other platforms may believe the problem is that their users are viewing hateful content they don’t want to see, and so those platforms respond with controls and filters to help users block such content.

There are no easy answers. At ADL’s Center for Technology and Society, we’re trying to reframe the questions so that we can begin to put solutions in place.  This means getting at root of the problem: intolerance and bias in our society, magnified by polarization. In fact, it is not a platform-based problem; it’s a problem for all of us. That’s why we need to rethink how tech companies prioritize input from their users.

The good news is that stakeholders are now looking at the social implications of technology with increased interest and heightened creativity. Recently, I represented ADL at South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive. During that week, I spoke on a panel about hate speech and its international impacts at the EU Pavillion. I also led a meetup for individuals trying to make positive social impacts using virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and extended reality (XR) technology, and participated in discussions with science fiction writers to provide new perspectives on tech-related social issues and with educators wanting to tip the balance on cyberharassment. It was encouraging to see people questioning and rethinking  conventional approaches to serious challenges.

The ADL Center for Technology and Society is trying to harness this innovative spirit to reduce bias and increase tolerance in online environments. Through this, we hope to create the internet we want to see. Most recently, we created the Belfer Fellowship to help stimulate fresh ideas and provide new insights into how to build stronger, more inclusive communities,  online and to find innovative ways technology can be used to fight hate offline. Working with video game developers, we are looking to find ways to reduce bias and increase diversity in the gaming industry and its products. And we’ve joined forces with UC Berkeley’s D-Lab to create the Online Hate Index and push the boundaries of science to transform our understanding of how online hate speech functions. Just as ADL has a holistic approach to fighting hate in schools and communities, we are now working on multiple fronts to make the tech  world more civil and respectful. The power of creativity to create social change that was evident at SXSW is the same power we want to harness to push tech’s boundaries in our continuing effort to ensure justice and fair treatment for all, both online and off.