'Can we all just get along?': Challenging hate in 2019

MacEwan University professor Irfan Chaudhry offers his opinion on how polarizing online comments influence crimes of hate.

Important to challenge ‘voice of hate’ that can spark real-world violence

These are comments gathered from several different Facebook pages on the social media site. (Facebook/CBC Edmonton)

"Can we all just get along?"

This plea — following days of race-related riots in Los Angeles after a jury in 1992 acquitted four white police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King — has been etched in our collective conscious as a rallying cry to encourage understanding and empathy in times of chaos.

The riots in L.A. were a reaction not only to the acquittal of the police officers, but also to the sharing and re-sharing of the initial video showcasing police brutality on the African-American community — all caught on a video camera by a passerby.

The raw footage was later shared with a news outlet, which broadcast it to a national, and eventually global, audience. Using current social media language, it was in every sense a viral video.

Depending on demographic characteristics and personal experiences, viewers of the video would consume what they saw in a way that intersected with their identity and their place in the world.

This response would then confirm any preconceived notions held about their place in the greater social structure based on race, gender, age, etc., reaffirmed by their immediate peer groups, who arguably, would share similar experiences.

In the pre-internet era, such social interaction occurred offline, creating an echo chamber where like-minded peers would reaffirm perspectives.

Echo chamber moves online

Fast forward to the age of social media and this same interaction still exists, but our immediate peer groups now also exist online and are much larger, existing in a stream of likes, shares, re-tweets and comments.

In a digital society, we are exposed to endless threads of information (and potential misinformation).

We expose ourselves to ideas and perspectives we align with, often ignoring points of views we disagree with or that challenge our values.

While this might not sound like a bad thing, it leads to amplifying our echo chamber of ideas online, where we assume everyone thinks like us, ignoring other perspectives that challenge our own filter bubbles.

These horrific crimes are tied together ... one day they realized saying things online was not enough.

Through these filter bubbles, our own points of view become strengthened by like-minded peers, re-affirming biases, stereotypes and prejudices we hold towards certain groups and identities.

Unfortunately, far too many recent examples highlight what can happen when ignorance and fear festering online comes together offline in a violent and hateful moment:

  • The 2018 van attack in Toronto connected to an "incel" movement angry at women.
  • The 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting, where a lone shooter entered a mosque, shooting and killing six men who were observing their faith. The gunman was upset with Canada's stance on immigration and felt the country was letting in too many foreigners.
  • The Orlando nightclub shooting in Florida in 2016, where a gunman opened fire on an unsuspecting crowd at a gay nightclub.
  • A 2015 mass shooting in South Carolina, where a lone shooter fuelled by a hatred towards the black community killed nine African-American churchgoers.

These horrific crimes are tied together by the fact that the individuals responsible espoused hateful rhetoric towards certain marginalized groups, spewing and festering their hateful narratives online, until one day they realized saying things online was not enough.

Extreme end of spectrum

This fact cannot be understated. For example, a 2014 study by the Intelligence Report showcased that registered users on Stormfront.org, a popular white supremacy web forum, were disproportionately responsible for some of the most lethal hate crimes and mass killings since the site was put up in 1995.

The study also found that since 2009, Stormfront members had murdered close to 100 people. That includes Wade Michael Page who in 2012 entered a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and opened fire on worshippers, killing six and wounding four others. His radicalization was the result of prolonged exposure to white supremacist content posted on Stormfront and other online spaces.

While these examples highlight the extreme end of the spectrum in relation to how online hateful rhetoric can lead to offline acts of violence, it is important to remember that other acts of offline action are also fuelled by online polarizing narratives.

Exposing ourselves to our preferred filter bubbles amplifies our echo chamber of ideas.

Recent local examples include the yellow vest movement having their concerns about the economy quickly catapulted into protests against immigration, where the anti-immigration signs displayed at the protests pale in comparison to the xenophobic vitriol spewed online on various social media pages.

Similarly, two members of a self-described "patriot" group visited a mosque in Edmonton last month to "ask questions." They used social media to spread misinformation and broadcast their interaction on Facebook live.

This was another example of how exposing ourselves to our preferred filter bubbles amplifies our echo chamber of ideas, creating a space for people to reaffirm, re-establish, and re-energize their own biases, stereotypes and prejudice.

Combating hate speech

So, what can we do to try and counter these narratives of hate that begin to fester online?  

A 2015 report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on countering hate speech online might offer some guidance.    

The report suggests that development of critical thinking skills and the ethically-reflective use of social media are starting points to combat hate speech online.  

The digital world is altering our understanding of what hate speech looks like, and how we can confront this. By having more digital-literate users, we can start to chip away and challenge hateful discourse.

By countering forms of hateful discourse online, users are one step closer to creating a safe online space for dialogue and discussion and can start to challenge users who say hateful things online with one simple question: if you would not say it in person, why say it online?

It is integral for all of us to challenge hateful narratives both online and offline and ensure that the voice of inclusiveness and common ground overpowers the voice of hate.

It's important once again to ask, can we all just get along?

About the Author

Irfan Chaudhry is a hate crimes researcher and the Director of the Office of Human Rights, Diversity and Equity at MacEwan University. He was a former race relations specialist for the Racism Free Edmonton Project, and was also instrumental in creating the StopHateAB.ca website, a 3rd party hate incident reporting platform that documents hate incidents in Alberta.


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