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Our humanity, not our tech, is the key to fixing online hate

To mark Safer Internet Day 2016, let’s take stock of what we’ve learned so far and what we can do with the knowledge we’ve gained so far about online hate….

SID2016It has taken a couple of decades but, collectively, we’re definitely getting smarter about online risk and how to avoid and address it. We’re also getting smarter about how people of various ages, cultures and interests experience and create digital spaces, and four important realizations spreading across the world are that…

  • The online risk that affects the most people, regardless of age, is usually boiled down into two words, “online hate” (a just-released survey by the UK’s Safer Internet Centre found that 82% of British 13-to-18-year-olds say they’ve witnessed online hate of some kind and 24% have themselves been targeted, pspychologist and international youth online risk researcher Sonia Livingstone reported in her blog post for Safer Internet Day today).
  • It’s a spectrum of hateful online behavior, or “hate speech,” from what parenting educator Annie Fox calls “social garbage” to online character assassination to relentless, targeted multi-pronged attacks that include doxxing (making private information public) and other speech that threatens physical harm.
  • This hate speech does not only affect youth. It affects all of us – people of all ages – including its witnesses, sometimes called bystanders (“Bystanders are significantly affected by the bullying they witness or hear about, so much so that they may be at an increased risk of self-harming behavior,” wrote Prof. Ian Rivers at Brunel University.
  • Broader wisdom: There is much that all of us, including parents, can learn from what targets of online hate have learned, regardless of their age, and two standout lessons are one gleaned from research in many countries – the vital importance of resilience to everybody’s well-being in this increasingly transparent networked world – and the fact that what we’re learning about online hate is teaching us things about the offline version.

Because online hate is not really about our technology. It’s about our humanity – and that’s the central lesson we can help our children learn. If we can get that straight, then we’ll increasingly see thousands of years of social norms development finally spilling over into digital spaces. Why? Once we understand that those people we interact with online are indeed people – fellow human beings – we humans will stop dehumanizing one another online, and greater civility will follow.

That’s what Zoe Quinn found in a survey she ran of several hundred “former trolls” – people who had decided to stop harassing other people online. Quinn, a victim of severe online harassment who founded Crash Override Network, a helpline for fellow victims) asked the respondents, “What made you stop, what made you grow out of it?” she said in a speech I wrote about here.

She tapped into something we’ve known for hundreds of years about war too – that it’s easier to hurt people when they’re dehumanized, when the target is “a theory of a person” rather than a real person, as she put it.

The human being on the phone

She told of this conversation she would have over and over after being doxxed (having her phone number made public online). She’s always make a point of answering the phone, and you’ll see why….

So a person would call, she would answer as she would any phone call, and they’d ask, “Are you Zoe Quinn?” and she’d say quietly, “Do you … uh … not know who you call when you [tap those numbers into your phone]?” and they’d say, “Do you know your number is all over the Internet?” and she’d say, “Yeah, I’m aware of that…. And you can almost hear the wheels turning,” she tells her audience (you can hear the audience chuckling as she says this),, “and they’re like, ‘I’m sorry’.”

That apology was almost always the first thing she heard. “Anybody who didn’t double down on the garbage immediately apologized, because it didn’t go the way they thought it would. I suddenly had a voice. I wasn’t just words on a screen.”

No alternate reality, here

The Internet is not a game, something separate from our very human life. Another insight Zoe shared is that the cruelty and harassment is “not really about the target.” It wasn’t about her. “It’s a basic empathy failure.” It’s also “a performative thing,” like in a game. The people under attack are not only concepts of human beings or avatars, they’re like a goal in a raid that a kind of hate tribe or collective is carrying out. Sometimes it’s just “about belonging to something, somewhere.” The digital version of cliques or gangs.

These are priceless insights into how to help our children thrive in their networked world. We can help them see that, online too, they are among fellow human beings. They deserve to develop the resilience and social literacy skills that will increase their safety and that of their peers and communities – and help them turn the Internet into a change agent’s power tool.

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