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Hate speech training in Europe over 5 years  

Facing Facts launched its first online course on hate speech in February 2017. With only 12 participants signing up for the cohort, it was nowhere near the success our latest course during the spring of 2021, which attracted more than 100 registered participants.  It’s not only the number of participants, the delivery methods, and the activities that have improved and inevitably changed over the years, but also the topics that influence and interest our learners the most. As the field of hate speech evolves, so do our own online learning methods. In this blog, we reflect on how learners’ needs and interests have evolved over the significant developments in policy, law and practice on hate speech since 2016, and how we endeavour to incorporate this ever-changing context into our online learning programme development.  

By Julia Mozer

Experiences from the latest cohort 

The latest Facing Facts Online course on hate speech was developed and delivered within the EU-funded WE CAN project. Running between 7th April and 12th May, with more than six tutorials throughout the course and a final closing webinar with speakers from INACH, I am here international and the No Hate Speech Movement, the course aimed to both equip participants with the knowledge and tools to tackle hate speech and to help them connect to further opportunities and professional relationships. 

There were notable changes in how participants engaged with the content compared with  2017.  

One of the main developments was an increase in the awareness of participants of the necessity to address and tackle the issue. While in 2017, more time was spent on developing an understanding about the nature and impact of hate speech, how it affects individuals and communities, by this time the emphasis shifted to the role of different stakeholders: where they complement each other and where the gaps are.

Both the group composition as well as the discussions signaled the evolution of the hate speech field, that has moved from having to evaluate whether hate speech is a problem, towards focusing on what can be done about it.

Mirroring this reality, our participants included not only CSOs and activists, but also university staff, policy-makers from Ukraine, Romania, Greece, Albania, and Portugal, IGOs like the OSCE, and even a politician from the Netherlands. 

Participants wanted to critically reflect on the role of social media companies, as well as on the role of governments and legislators – while also acknowledging the immense responsibility and effort that tackling hate speech requires. Legislative proposals such as the Digital Services Act (DSA) in the EU or the Online Harms Bill in the UK, the principles of necessity, proportionality, transparency and accountability were discussed much more than in previous cohorts. The fact that many policy-makers and experienced CSO representatives joined the cohort helped to shape the discussion on possible solutions at a more systematic level.   

“Having had the chance to read so many testimonials regarding my colleagues experience with hate speech in the discussion forums allowed me to see different perspectives on the matter and understand, at times, the level in which hate speech affects the victim from a psychological point of view. I was very glad to e-meet like-minded people, most of them already active in combatting and preventing hate speech.” 

The topic of safety 

Online safety – meaning both emotional and technological safety -has always been a core part of the course. In 2017, safety issues were addressed as  “Module 0”, referring to the fact that even before we start developing an understanding of hate speech and the various counteractions, we need to make sure it is done in a safe and sustainable way. In 2021 safety sparked particular discussion  in response to some of the expert advice embedded in the course that encouraged participants to use aliases to confront haters. Many participants were concerned this means ‘fighting fire with fire’, namely that activists shouldn’t have to hide behind anonymity; and that speaking up against hate speech has more power when delivered from a credible and transparent account. However, they  also agreed that with extremist and violent groups it can be dangerous to engage with real profiles. The importance of safety was never questioned – but the methods and ways of ensuring safety were explored in depth, eventually coming to an agreement that everyone can choose the safety tools and tips that match their activities and preferences. For example, someone doing hate speech monitoring might not need an alternative profile as much as a person doing counter-speech with radical groups.   

The most practical thing for me was to learn how to report hate speech on social media, how to make online presence safer.” 

Reflecting the changing environment in the content 

Given the past year of lockdowns and a global pandemic, hate trends have changed – and so have our activities. While the course focuses on hate speech, it approaches it from a broader perspective of online harms: harassment, misinformation, conspiracies and terrorist content can all include, often overlap with, and provide the context for hate speech. More than ever before, conspiracies and misinformation, while rarely constituting hate speech, contribute to creating an online atmosphere that breeds mistrust, and a polarised world of ‘us versus them’. A new activity has been created to address this topic specifically, titled “Down the Rabbit Hole”, which explores how conspiracies work, why they can be attractive to many people, and above all – how they can be challenged. The activity complements the existing part of the course that discusses misinformation, false news and the role of bots in introducing more divisive tones into online conversations, particularly around election times.  

Participants were grateful for making these connections, particularly between misinformation, disinformation and hate speech, and having a holistic approach to explore the relations between them.

Connecting hate speech and hate crime has also been a much appreciated new component, walking participants through the escalation of hatred and how it can translate into violence. Facing Facts has been working on improving the recognition and the responses to hate crimes since 2011, and the Facing Facts Online platform offers many courses on hate crime as well as various bias indicators. Our approach to hate speech has been increasingly articulate about making the connections between hate crime and hate speech more pronounced in order to foster solutions with a systematic approach.  

“It was a very well organised course! However, if I have to choose, the module on counter speech was very very informative and I enjoyed it!” 

From 2016 to 2021 – Where we are now 

In conclusion, what has changed over the past 5 years, since our first Facing Facts online hate speech course? And what has changed in our learning methods? At the policy level, hate speech has certainly gained prominence: while the Code of Conduct on illegal hate speech is still in place, hate speech also appears in various action plans of the European Commission, including Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, the EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion and participation, the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy and the EU Strategy on victims’ rights (2020-2025), and most recently the Strategy for rights of persons with disabilities. Hate speech is also referred to in the Digital Services Act, while disinformation is addressed through the Democracy Action Plan.  

All these developments translate into our training too: we no longer have to prove that hate speech is a problem – it is clear for policymakers and activists alike. The discussion thus shifts to exploring various solutions and how they can work together, as well as the role of stakeholders from Member State to EU level, where their cooperation is beneficial – and where it might be lacking.  

It is also clear that while removing illegal content is important, it will remain only a band-aid unless efforts are made to go well beyond only addressing it on social media platforms. Anti-bias and unconscious bias trainings can help to tackle the stereotypes and prejudice people hold before they escalate into hate speech. In setting the norms of how we function as a society, the role of public figures and politicians needs particular attention, especially if they employ hate speech to create hostile environments for minorities, often purely for their political gain. Finally, our actions need to go beyond the platforms when hate speech overlaps with disinformation in traditional newspapers and tabloids, reaching and misleading a large number of people. Our approach needs to be systemic, multi-level and multi-stakeholder involving everyone in the information eco-system and combining both legal and education tools. 

Most stakeholders recognize by now that tackling hate speech, whether online or offline, needs a holistic approach. Perhaps this is also why there is an increased awareness and acknowledgment of what has been our mantra from the beginning: that everyone has a role to play in tackling hatred – from activists to researchers, from CSOs to policy-makers, and from governments to social media companies. Only by living up to our respective roles, engaging with each other on the ever-changing challenges, and approaching hate speech in a systematic way can we effectively tackle the problem. 

You can still join the Facing Facts Online course on hate speech that just started on the 20th October! Click here to read the course description and here to register directly. 


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