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Published on December 3rd, 2015 | by EJC


Countering online hate speech through media and information literacy

This article is an excerpt from UNESCO’s report ‘World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: UNESCO Publishing United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Special Digital Focus 2015. Republished with permission.

Citizenship education focuses on preparing individuals to be informed and responsible citizens through the study of rights, freedoms, and responsibilities and has been variously employed in both peaceful societies as well as societies emerging from violent conflict. One of its main objectives is raising awareness on the political, social and cultural rights of individuals and groups, including freedom of speech and the responsibilities and social implications that emerge from it. The concern of citizenship education with hate speech is twofold: it encompasses the knowledge and skills to identify hate speech, and enables individuals to counteract messages of hatred. One of its current challenges is adapting its goals and strategies to the digital world, providing not only argumentative but also technological knowledge and skills that a citizen may need to counteract online hate speech. A new concept of digital citizenship is being proposed by some organizations, which incorporates the core objectives of media and information literacy aimed at developing technical and critical skills for on line media consumers and producers and which connects them with broader ethical and civic matters.

Relevant here is global citizenship education (GCED), one of UNESCO’s Education Programme’s strategic work areas for 2014-2017 and one of the three priorities of the UN Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative. GCED aims to equip learners of all ages with those values, knowledge and skills that are based on, and instil respect for, human rights, social justice, diversity, gender equality and environmental sustainability. GCED gives learners the competencies and opportunity to realize their rights and obligations to promote a better world and future for all.

Within this wider perspective, UNESCO and many others, working under the umbrella of the Global Alliance for Partnerships on Media and Information Literacy, promotes user empowerment. Media and Information Literacy (MIL) is an umbrella concept that covers a package of literacies on- and offline. It includes the development of the technical skills and abilities required to use digital technologies, as well as the knowledge and abilities needed to find, analyse, evaluate and interpret specific media texts, to create media messages, and to recognise their social and political influence. Multiple and complementary literacies are seen as essential for the exercise of rights and responsibilities in regard to communications.

The emergence of new technologies and social media has played an important role in this shift. Individuals have evolved from being only consumers of media messages to producers, creators and curators of information, resulting in new models of participation that interact with traditional ones. Teaching strategies are changing accordingly, from fostering critical reception of media messages to include empowering the creation of media content. There is a strong trend in MIL itself continuing to evolve as a concept, augmented by the dynamics of the internet. It is beginning to embrace issues of identity, ethics and rights in cyberspace.

Certain knowledge and skills can be particularly important when identifying and responding to online hate speech. The present section analyses initiatives aimed both at providing information and practical tools for internet users to be active digital citizens. Projects and organizations covered include:

- ‘No place for hate’ by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), USA;

- ‘In other words’ project by the Provincia di Mantova and the European Commission;

- ‘Facing online hate’ by MediaSmarts, Canada;

- ‘No hate speech movement’ by the Youth Department of the Council of Europe;

- ‘Online hate’ by the Online Hate Prevention Institute, Australia.

Even though the initiatives and organizations presented have distinctive characteristics and particular aims, they all emphasise the importance of MIL and of educational strategies as effective means to counteract hate speech. They stress the ability of an educational approach to represent a structural and sustained response to hate speech, considered in comparison to the complexities involved in decisions to ban or censor online content or the time and cost that it may take for legal actions to produce tangible outcomes.

Many argue that the package of competencies within MIL can empower individuals and provide them with the competencies they need to respond to perceived hate speech rapidly as it appears. This can be particularly important given the emphasis that social networking platforms place on individual reporting of cases of abuse, incitement to hatred, or harassment.

Individuals involved in these initiatives tend to recognise the importance of normative and legal frameworks as a reference for their efforts. Most of the initiatives include education about legal instruments and procedures used to prosecute perpetrators of online hate speech, and many encourage a complementary view between legal and educational aspects.

A common denominator of the analysed initiatives is the emphasis on the development of critical thinking skills and the ethically reflective use of social media (based on human rights principles) as starting points for MIL skills to combat online hate speech. The expectation is that these MIL competencies can enhance individuals’ ability to identify and question hateful content online, understand some of its assumptions, biases and prejudices, and encourage the elaboration of arguments to confront it. The initiatives discussed here also have an important role in showing that identifying online hate speech is not necessarily as straightforward as it may seem to some.

The initiatives analysed tend to be directed towards a diversity of audiences that are involved and affected by online hate speech. The participant organizations studied here particularly focus their efforts on vulnerable groups and on those prone to either being targets of hate or being recruited by hate groups. Children and youth are one of the main audiences targeted by these initiatives. Parents, teachers and the school community also tend to be considered an important audience due to their role in exposing and protecting children from hateful content. Other groups also targeted include those with the ability to shape the legal and political landscape of online hate speech, including policy makers and NGOs, and those who can have a large impact in the online community exposing hate speech, especially journalists, bloggers and activists. A summary of the different audiences targeted in the analysed initiatives can be found in Table 1.

 Table 1

The goals of each project are closely related to the interests and needs of the initiative’s intended audience. For instance, MediaSmarts has developed an online video game for children 12 to 14 years old, designed to increase their ability to recognize bias, prejudice and hate propaganda. In the video game, when the children come across varying degrees of prejudice and discrimination in the form of jokes, news or videos, they are asked to identify how such messages can promote hate and then to develop strategies to deal with these messages, either by ignoring or confronting them.

The ADL has focused much of its outreach and educational efforts on teachers and parents, providing them with essential information on how to discuss hate and violence with children, and how to encourage young people to take pertinent action. The No Hate Speech Movement organizes training sessions for bloggers and youth activists in which they can discuss their experiences with online hate speech and share best practices on how to combat it. The sessions aim to promote a grassroots understanding of hate speech and to raise awareness on the impact that bloggers and activists can have in tackling hateful content. The project ‘In Other Words’ has sought to influence policy makers and civil society to monitor various types of media. It advocates the use of accurate information about minorities and vulnerable groups in media representations, encouraging monitoring to avoid the dissemination of stereotypes, prejudice and other discriminatory discourse.

Despite the particularities of each initiative’s content and audiences, they share three broad educational goals: to inform, to analyse, and to confront hate speech. These three aims can be seen in a continuum encompassing progressive goals with specific objectives, each one focusing on different aspects of the problem and providing specific alternatives to respond to hate online. A summary is shown in Table 2.


The first educational goal focuses on conveying information on hate speech include raising awareness about online hate speech, its different forms and possible consequences. They also provide information on relevant national, regional and international legal frameworks. Examples of these initiatives can be found in multiple formats, for instance the video ‘No Hate Ninja Project – A Story About Cats, Unicorns and Hate Speech’ by the No Hate Speech Movement, the interactive e-tutorial ‘Facing online hate’ by MediaSmarts or the toolbox developed by the project ‘In Other Words’.

The second educational goal is more complex and focuses on understanding, through the analysis of online hate speech. This analysis includes assessments and evaluations of the different types of online hate speech, including racism, sexism, and homophobia; and of the multiple forms in which it is presented. An important aspect of the analysis is the critical examination of hate speech in order to identify its common causes and understand its underlying assumptions and prejudices. This analytical process enables individuals to report and expose hateful content online. Examples of projects with this educational goal are the ‘No Hate’ discussion forum and the ‘Reporting hate speech’ platform. The discussion forum managed by the No Hate Speech Movement allows young people to debate what counts as hateful content and expose examples of online hate speech that they previously had encountered. The reporting platform designed by the Online Hate Prevention Institute enables individuals to report and monitor online hate speech by exposing what they perceive as hate content; tracking websites, forums and groups; and reviewing hateful materials exposed by other people.

The third educational goal identified in these initiatives focuses on fostering actions to combat and counter hate speech acts. Resources within this educational goal aim to promote concrete actions and responses to online hate speech. The actions proposed vary, depending on the focus of the project and the organization, being more or less combative and confrontational in nature; however, the main focus remains on empowering individuals to respond to and assertively combat hateful content. Examples of these initiatives are training sessions for bloggers, journalists and activists run by the No Hate Speech Movement; the teaching materials and lesson plans developed by MediaSmarts; and the media monitoring policies proposed by the project ‘In Other Words’.

Whereas some organizations and initiatives focus on the content of online hate speech, others emphasise its personal aspect by drawing attention to the victims or to the general impact on the community. Regardless of their focus, most projects consider the development of digital skills as an essential aspect for preventing, exposing, and combating online hate speech. The tools and strategies analysed exhibit a variety of approaches to developing such skills, from basic ‘how-to guides’ to more complex and specialised training. The great array of formats discussed and analysed in the different initiatives make it possible to reach and attract very different audiences.

Exhaustive evaluations of these initiatives, however, are still lacking, and it is difficult to assess whether and to which extent they are successful in combating hate speech or affecting groups that are most likely to engage in online hate speech. For instance, even though MediaSmarts’ initiatives and resources have received multiple awards and recognitions, there are no clear indications of who makes the most use of their resources and it is difficult to evaluate the results of their programmes. In the case of the project ‘In Other Words’, the expected results included the development of material for dissemination, but there is no information on how such material has been used since its publication or what audiences it has reached. Also in the case of the ‘No Hate Speech Movement’, which has developed different materials and resources (including videos, training manuals, educational tools, and the online platform to report hatred content), there are not clear and public guidelines on how to evaluate or report impact. While most of these initiatives are commendable and potentially offer powerful instruments to combat hate speech at a structural level, more information is needed in order to understand how individuals integrate newly acquired skills in their daily lives and what impact this has for their online activity. This need may be addressed as a possible emerging trend as responses to online hate speech evolve.

About the Organisation:

UNESCO is the United Nations agency with a mandate to defend freedom of expression and press freedom. Visit the UNESCO website: or connect via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube

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