Hate speech and counter-speech

The media education of MLL is based on the child’s right to use media safely. We have compiled some background information on this page for learning about hate speech in class. You can find exercises to gain a deeper knowledge about hate speech and tools for countering hate speech with counter-speech.

Hate speech restricts the freedom of speech  

Hate speech is everything that incites, promotes and spreads hate and is based on intolerance. The purpose of hate speech is to divide people into us and them. It tries to silence and minimize the other side. It can be disguised as humour or memes which spread quickly on the internet. It often includes disinformation, or unreliable information that is spread for the purpose of doing harm. Hate speech is verbal or non-verbal discrimination against a person or a group of people. It can be based on ethnic origin, religion, gender, sexuality or disability. Hate speech tries to silence the voice of minorities and groups with less power in society.

Hate speech is often defended by appealing to the freedom of speech: can’t we say anything anymore? But hate speech actually restricts the freedom of speech, because it tries to silence and intimidate others. It can, for example, affect who we see speaking in the public arena. You can still say anything as long as you remember to respect other people. Sometimes hate speech can be a crime, such as ethnic agitation, stalking, discrimination, defamation, menacing and breach of the sanctity of religion. Laws alone do not eliminate hate speech, but this requires a conscious change in attitudes throughout society.

Online hate speech can be addressed by: 

  • taking a screencap
  • notifying the administration
  • filing a report with the police.

Hate speech or bullying? 

Hate speech and bullying are closely related. Not all bullying is hate speech, but hate speech can be bullying. Bullying is typically a group phenomenon and often related to a situation where someone is trying to obtain more power in a group. Hate speech on the other hand is more related to social structures and can be anonymous, targeting a stranger. It is aimed at a person as the representative of a group. It can therefore always affect a larger group, not just an individual. However, the same techniques can be used to combat both bullying and hate speech: inducing empathy, an appreciative group culture and treating others with respect.

Towards safer space 

Addressing hate speech always starts with the principles of safer space. This means coming up with common rules based on openness and non-discrimination and agreeing to follow them. Safer space prevents discrimination and hate speech. This requires the group leader, if there is one, to monitor and assess the activities. Each participant determines how safe the space feels for them, and any feelings of insecurity should be addressed constructively. The principles of safer space can also be applied in discussions held online and on social media.

Principles of safer space

Openness – allow people to determine their gender and culture themselves

Enable participation – make sure that everyone can participate in a way that suits them and is heard in the group

Address harassment – if you witness any harassment, make it clear that it will not be tolerated. Sort out the situation immediately.

Respect – give others enough space and respect their feelings

Be willing to learn – everyone messes up sometimes, but you learn from your mistakes and apologize

Counter-speech is the opposite of hate speech 

Counter-speech is humane, empathetic expression. The purpose of counter-speech is to show that every person is valuable. In everyday situations, counter-speech means standing by the target of discrimination. For example, if you hear someone making racist comments on a bus and you go next to the victim and ask them if they are okay. You offer them protection and take action to show that it is important to interfere with the situation. The concept of counter-speech was born on social media from the need to counter online hate speech by providing another perspective. Counter-speech can be a message or a story on social media, an image or a meme, a video or even a podcast. They act as ways to show compassion and to tell a story. Counter-speech does not try to create more opposition, but to find solutions and to show that a bigger group is standing behind the target of hate speech. Counter-speech tries to appeal to the larger audience and to reclaim the discussion space with positive speech. It demonstrates that there is strength in numbers.

Counter-speech tries to avoid providing a direct answer to hate speech. Research shows that people are influenced by highly emotional narratives – they evoke empathy. Narratives can help bring about a change in the way people think. The idea is to take a step back from hate speech and to think about the change that we hope to see. To share an alternative narrative.

How to use counter-speech 

  • Be brave: make the audience interested!
  • Try to be empowering and inspiring.
  • Come up with a message that could effect change.
  • Leave room for the viewer’s or listener’s own interpretation and thinking.
  • Summarize your message in a few sentences, this makes for a powerful message.
  • Do not produce hate speech yourself – counter-speech is about finding a solution.
  • Do not victimize others or portray yourself as a victim. Remember to empower the target group and to demonstrate a better solution!
  • Do not preach or provide a final answer to the problem. Change happens one step at a time.

Exercise cards to support teaching

The MLL exercise cards consist of action-based exercises that can be used widely in education and youth work. Each exercise card has an action-based exercise and a theoretical section that provides background.

The exercise cards provide exercises for young people on how to address hate speech.

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