Google: Fight Online 'Hate Speech' With 'Positive Counterspeech'

Ongoing incidents of "hate speech" online around the world have Google thinking about ways to fight its impact. One way, wrote a Google public policy manager, is to fight back with positive comments.

The presence of "hate speech" online, where a person or group posts hateful and ugly comments about other persons, countries, religions or groups, has been around on the Internet since its widespread use by the public started about 1994. Hate between humans and cultures is sadly nothing new in our world.

But to help fight "hate speech" online, there are things that can be done. In that vein, Google is promoting additional ways to counter such messages, such as fighting back online with "positive counterspeech."

That's the idea being circulated by Verity Harding, Google's public policy manager in London, who raised the concept in a March 26 post on the Google Policy Europe Blog.

"From homophobia and racism to political and religious extremism, 'hate speech' on the Internet is raising concern," wrote Harding. "YouTube and other Google products such as G+ have strong Community Guidelines and offer effective tools … to flag inappropriate content. Yet a recent event with the U.K. Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee in London's YouTube Space demonstrated that perhaps the best way to fight hate is through positive counterspeech."

One example Harding described occurred in 2010, when columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller set out to combat discrimination against young gays and lesbians. "They started small," she wrote. "Savage filmed a homemade YouTube video called 'It Gets Better.' It soon swelled into a global phenomenon. In Britain, 'It Gets Better… Today,' led to a hit single that climbed the UK independent charts—garnering more than 50 million views."

By fighting online hate speech with positive counterspeech, others have also been successful, wrote Harding. "Our London event aimed to achieve something similar with online extremism. We explored how two British YouTube creators, Ben Cook and Jack Howard, partnered with Oxfam on an online campaign to help refugees. Michael Stevens of Vsauce proved that YouTube can educate and inform, as well as entertain. And a community worker who helps people that are vulnerable to radicalization launched his YouTube channel, Abdullah X, to fight online recruitment of foreign fighters and terrorists."

What's critical, wrote Harding, is that using hate speech online to hurt others is not only wrong, but also destructive. But those who respond with positive counterspeech can help to turn back such hate and make other people more aware of such tormentors so that they, too, can join the fight against online hate speech.

"Free speech is vital to democracy," wrote Harding. "Drowning out ideology with reason represents a powerful weapon. It is only on open platforms like YouTube—not in jihadist chat rooms or the extremist echo chambers of the 'dark Internet'—that susceptible or curious minds will find countervailing points of view."

By all of us being aware of the realities of what can be out on the Internet, we can each do something about it, she wrote. "The Internet can be a tool of radicalization, so it is vital to seize it as a force of good. Though the removal of the really bad stuff, like violence, continues to be essential, too little focus so far has been placed on the importance of counter-messages. As one participant in London said, 'We must embrace new technology and make the right messages more digestible so we can flood the Internet with positivity.' Building a community around counterspeech is difficult. It may take time. In the end, though, it wins."

Google has long worked to stop hate speech online on its platforms. In June of 2013, Google announced that it had banned adult-oriented, sexually explicit apps from being offered by developers for its Google Glass devices, just days before what appeared to be the first such app was to be announced by a vendor. The ban was established as part of the company's Glass Platform Developer Policies. Those policies also clearly forbid apps that portray violence and bullying; depictions of gratuitous violence; hate speech against any other person, persons or group; impersonation or deception; or illegal activities.