Building dignity in online war of words

Q&A: Anne Walsh
It’s hard to imagine a time when the internet wasn’t always there, waiting to serve, provide information, entertain and inform, a global space for creativity, communication and participation. 

Online, we can create, share and use media content in a many ways and with very little effort.

And it is perhaps the fact that precious little effort is needed, which can make the Internet such a double-edged sword. Since most of us no longer write letters, the lengthy process of considering the words we choose, the order in which we place them and perhaps even mulling over the impact they might have on the recipient, has all but vanished. Now messages can be sent in the blink of an eye, with little time given to thinking about their impact.

Of course, this kind of spontaneity can be a good thing if we have happy information to convey. But if it’s late at night and we are in a bad mood with someone, or are just feeling plain mean and looking to take it out on someone, this lack of reflection can be deadly. And those who unwisely chose to send revealing pictures of themselves via the Net, often end up realising that the Internet is not just for Christmas but life.

Online items have the life span of indestructible plastic and once let loose on social media can play into the hands of those whose life’s work seems to be taunting and abusing others online. The fact that they will probably never have to meet the object of their hate only makes the whole thing easier for such unscrupulous characters.

What has become known as Hate Speech online has become a major form of human rights abuse and can have very serious problems for people, both on and off-line.

Young people are directly concerned as victims, targets, active and passive agents. But hate speech affects all of society and the Council of Europe’s initiative to curb this trend is up and running in the 28 EU member states.

The No Hate Speech campaign in Ireland is a tribute to the country’s youth participation and co-management and was born from a proposal of the youth representatives of the Advisory Council on Youth. For many rural youth who often do not have access to many of the facilities that city dwellers take for granted, the advent of social media and the Internet has been a godsend. It has levelled the playing field. The lack of transport no longer prevents rural youngsters from making contact, gaining information and communicating with a wide circle of friends. But this contact is, for the most part, virtual and requires little in the way of accountability.

Bertie Neskirky is a young man from Borrisoleigh in rural North Tipperary, who is avidly working on the NYCI’s No Hate Speech campaign during his gap year.

“Our goal is to get the message out there that Hate Speech online is not acceptable and to increase tolerance. There is an online pledge to sign and a way of reporting any abuses. These days, young people who live in rural areas are not so isolated any more. They can access a whole wealth of information and entertainment easily. But they can also fall victim to on-line bullying or come across Hate Speech on Twitter or wherever from somebody else. But now there is something they can do about it, something that we can all do.”

Hate is a tricky word and is hard to define legally. It can mean extreme dislike of something or someone. Or it can indicate the wish to do harm.

Hate Speech, as defined by the Council of Europe, covers all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin.

The campaign started in 2013 and will run until March 2015, and the NYCI of Ireland coordinates the National Campaign in Ireland.

Anne Walsh is intercultural and equality project officer with the Natioal Youth Council of Ireland and recently attended the launch of the No Hate Speech Movement.

Anne how did this first conference go?

It was fantastic, brilliant. For me the highlight was the young people who were there, talking about their experiences. That was really something. They have a great campaign up and running and because of social media, all those videos, blogs, posters and other pieces that they are creating will be seen by many thousands of people. Subscribers are encouraged to sign a pledge that encourages them to be aware of their own language and also facilities for reporting online abuse.

How important do you think this project is Anne?

Oh, it’s very important. Young people can sometimes be in the front-line of abuse since they are major users. It’s changing our ideas of what is acceptable. Under reporting has been identified as a key barrier to combating hate speech online. Now the No Hate Speech Campaign gives young people across Ireland a space to share experiences and feel they are being heard. They have begun to challenge stereotypes and dispel myths and assumptions across a variety of online and social platforms. It gives them the power to take ownership back. And they don’t have to know all the answers either, just throw out their voice to be heard, help to create a positive and safe space for everyone online.

Have you been supported by the Council of Europe?

Yes we have and they have been fantastic. The Council initiated the scheme but like us, national committees operate their own national online platforms. This is a time that we might not get back. We have the opportunity to tackle this thing, do something about it. A lot of those people who might practice hate speech on Twitter are often ill-informed And though people should not respond to dangerous trolls, there’s an opportunity to speak up and use counter speech to refute their positions. It is a huge credit to our young people all over the country that they have embraced this important project. I am very proud of them.


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