Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties


Countering Online Hate Speech

March 30, 2016
Posted by: Jeremy Russell, Communications Manager

Almost two years ago some friends and I organized to flag for removal a Facebook page called “Death to Israel.” We felt the page was clearly anti-Semitic and in violation of Facebook’s community standards. I was surprised when Facebook declined to take it down. The page had, I thought, clearly crossed the line, and I wondered why Facebook didn’t see it.

Fast forward to the “No2H8 Workshop on Fighting Online Hate & Extremism,” which I attended in February at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto. Without any prompting from me, Facebook’s Global Head of Policy Management, Monika Bickert, told the audience exactly what the issue was that allowed that clearly hateful page to persist. At Facebook, she explained, hate speech is narrowly defined as applying only to “protected groups” (race, gender, sexual orientation, national identity, etc.). Countries, she said, are not a protected group.

Facebook has made a determination that speech against a country is shielded unless it is graphic in nature or condones violence or terrorism. Obviously this leaves open some gray areas. In a very real sense, Facebook has simply set the bar too high. To the company’s credit, this was done to avoid censorship. However, the decision has allowed bad actors to exploit the platform.

Aware of the issue, and of the harassment that many face online, Facebook is seeking to encourage and support “counter speech,” which is the idea that it is better to respond to hate speech rather than to censor it. Facebook wants to get people talking, acting and thereby enact societal change, and it is willing to invest time and money into seeing this happen. And this is how the “No2H8 Workshop” fits into the equation.

The workshop I attended opened a three-day "No2H8 Hackathon," the goal of which was to develop design parameters for community organizations to create effective, scalable, social media campaigns to fight online hate and extremism. The hackathon was sponsored by Google, as well as Facebook, and was organized by Affinis Labs. Discussion focused on successful campaigns and ways to induce more positive conversations in online communities.

The winning idea, a website called “Activate Your Squad,” guides people in ways to leverage social capital (e.g. online friends) to counter hate with positive messages. The technology specifically allows individuals who are harassed on Twitter to call on allies in an instant. It also empowers them with prefigured messages (video demonstration here).

This is all very reminiscent of the action my friends and I took to report that hateful Facebook page. I'm glad that people are now seeing the need to empower individuals like us to respond faster and more effectively, and I see this as a very positive development. However, I must concede that, as Christina Farr stated in her Fast Company article on the No2H8 Hackathon, “I’m far from convinced that startups can tackle online harassment without the larger tech companies…”

Any kind of lasting societal change in the way social media is abused is going to take a concerted effort by all involved.

For the record, Facebook did eventually take down that page. About six months after the request was declined, I received a second message saying that the page had been removed. I’ll never know exactly what happened, but I was glad to see it gone.


PHOTO: No2H8 Hackathon logo.