Activities to tackle hate speech

Written by: Mark Walker | Published:
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Sadly, cyber-bullying and online hate speech is now a part of modern online life, especially on social media. Mark Walker describes some activities that we can use with students to tackle potential problems and raise awareness

Although social media has greatly facilitated contact between people, it has provided new opportunities for online bullying and the propagation of hate speech. So how can students be taught about these problems in the classroom and about the consequences of their own actions?

The Council of Europe’s “No Hate Speech” movement was established to increase awareness of online hatred. They support workshops on this topic helping disseminate methods to tackle online hate. This article describes some activities that can easily be used with students to raise awareness of this growing menace.


We all know the traditional nursery rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones” and most of us are well aware that contrary to what it says, words can and often do cause a great deal of hurt and pain.

Last year Childline offered advice to around 11,000 children on the issue of cyber-bullying (NSPCC, 2016). Absenteeism due to bullying is a major problem, with 16,000 11 to 16-year-old children missing school because of it (Brown et al, 2011).

Traditionally bullying was limited to the playground or the classroom, and mainly took the form of verbal abuse. However, today students have mobile phones, Facebook accounts, and are avid users of social media. Not only are friendships now conducted online, but bullying is as well.

Cyber-bullying is the targeted abuse of an individual using online methods. It can be seen as being analogous to traditional playground bullying. Another form of intolerance is hate speech, which is abusive or offensive language targeted at a minority group because of their racial, religious, sexual or any other affiliation (Keen & Georgescu, 2016). Hate speech is not merely an online problem, but the growth in the internet has given it an easy-to-use conduit, and led to its proliferation on these media. Cyber-bullying and hate speech are closely connected, and often occur simultaneously.

Online bullying can not be dismissed as a “virtual” problem. Bullying in the playground or classroom can be fairly apparent but online abuse is hidden. Teachers have little way of knowing what is happening in their students’ online lives.

Additionally, the potential audience for online messages is great. A single posting can potentially reach an audience of millions. Students may not realise the impact of their comments, feeling that the online world is not real, or that they are somehow anonymous there. Students may not be aware that the impact on people of online written comments can actually be greater than that of spoken words.

Hate speech and cyber-bullying matter to all of us. Even if you are not the targeted “victim” of hate speech, it can still have a profound effect on you. Maybe you will be the target next?

Hate speech engenders an intolerant society. It sustains an increasing cycle of discrimination, reinforces stereotypes, embeds prejudices and can lead to active discrimination. There is a delicate balance between freedom of expression and hate speech; we all have the freedom to say what we wish, but never to intentionally offend.

The ‘No Hate Speech’ campaign

The Council of Europe established the No Hate Speech movement in 2012 in order to tackle this growing problem (No Hate Speech 2016). Initially its aim was to raise awareness of the issue. It runs a specific No Hate Speech website where comments can be reported. It also works with partner organisations in different European countries to combat online hate.

Recently it ran a series of workshops with the aim of teaching educators about online hate speech and cyber-bullying. This article summarises methods taught on these seminars that can be used in the classroom to raise awareness of the problem among students. These methods force participants to think about their attitudes and consider the consequences of their actions. They are ideal to use in the classroom with late primary or secondary age students.

Finding meanings

A first task is defining key terms. Can you come up with a definition for notions such as “minority”, “LGBTQ+”, “immigrant”, “refugee”, “gender”, “faith group”, “hate speech”, “trolling”, and “cyber-bullying”?

This was done in small groups with each group being given three or four words to create a definition for. We were urged not to use dictionaries or online sources. These and similar words are surprisingly difficult to define exactly. However, the attempt makes you aware of their vagueness.

Once we had collectively developed a definition, we wrote it on a piece of paper which was then pinned on a wall with those from other groups. Then the definitions were discussed together as an entire group. Why had we found this task challenging? Had our views on these words changed? It is surprising how often we see and use words like “immigrant” or “refugee” without thinking what they mean and what they imply.

The second task we were given was to describe in a few words a situation where we had felt, first, that we had been a target or victim of hate speech, second, a perpetrator or ally to hate speech and, third, where we had witnessed or been a bystander.

We were asked to do this personally, and later we could share our thoughts with the group if we wished. This made us aware of the problem and helped us to realise how frequent such discrimination actually is. How had we felt in each case? What could we have done differently? What did we feel about it now?

Judging comments

One thought-provoking activity we were given was to attempt to list the severity of a number of offensive comments. We were given a small pile of comments and working in groups we had to place these in a diamond shape depending on how severe we considered them to be. Which were the worst and which the least problematic?

The most severe comments were to be placed at the tip. Could we explain why we put comments where we did? Why are some comments worse than others? After discussing within our groups we shared ideas together.

For example, was a comment posted on a Facebook page worse than one posted between friends? What about if a politician wrote something homophobic? Was that necessarily worse than something said by bullies on the street?

Although comments may be similar, context, potential audience size, and the situation of the person making the comment can greatly influence its impact. Sample comments focused on disability included:

  • A private email between friends: “Lets kill disabled people!”
  • Facebook petition: “Ban disabled people from public life.”
  • A politician in a tweet: “People in wheelchairs are a drain on society.”
  • One friend to another: “You’re disabled you are!”
  • Overheard on the street: “Wheelchairs take up to much space on the bus.”
  • A government minister: “Disabled people are a drain on society.”

Facing the bullies

We were asked what we thought “bullying” was. Several of us offered suggestions. We were questioned as to who we thought were “bullied” people. When was a “joke” not a joke any more, but bullying? Where were the limits?

Each corner of the room was allocated an option shown with a small written sign: one corner was “do nothing”, another labelled “respond”, another “report” and the last corner “something else”. We were told to listen to a series of scenarios and move to the corner of the room best corresponding with our views.

  • Your inbox becomes full with abusive emails. Although anonymous, they are targeted at you personally.
  • A photograph of yourself online has been edited in an offensive way.
  • People at your school are spreading a nasty story about you on social media. People are starting to ignore you.
  • A pupil is bullied in the playground because of the clothes they wear. Your friends are the worst offenders.
  • Your best friend shows you the homophobic websites he is visiting.
  • A student was attacked by bullies on the way home. The teacher asks for information. You get texts telling you not to tell.
  • Your friends are laughing about someone from your school on social media and sending “joking” comments.

Once moving to our corners we were then asked why we chose the corner we did. This activity made us think about ways to respond to cyber-bullying. What is the correct course of action? When should it be taken?

Views on the internet

In the next activity we were told that one end of the room was “agree totally” and the other was “disagree totally”. We had to place ourselves in the room between the two points depending on our viewpoints to a number of statements. How strongly did we agree? Then we had the chance to talk about why we had stood where we had. They gauged our views on aspects of online life:

  • The internet should be monitored by government.
  • There are no limits to freedom of expression.
  • Parents are responsible for sites their children visit.
  • Websites spreading hate should be banned and closed down.
  • Policing the internet is the responsibility of computer and social media companies.
  • Spreading hate should be a crime.

The line of discrimination

In the next activity we all had to stand in a line next to each other. We did this outside so we had more space. We were told we would listen to a number of questions. After each question we had to take a step forwards, unless we felt our answer was “yes” in which case we had to stand where we were.

The questions centred around: have you ever been discriminated against/bullied because of the way you speak, the place you live, the colour of your skin, the religion you have, the way you dress or look, the friends you have, the family you have (and so on)?

After hearing a dozen or so comments we were all stood in different positions. Those at the front and those at the back were asked how they felt. The activity really made it clear that many of us experience discrimination, and brought home the personal effect of discrimination.

The tree of hate

The causes of discriminatory language are many and varied. Plus the effects of a single written piece of hate speech can be wide.

We were asked to find an example of hate speech or discrimination that we had encountered recently. Then on a large piece of paper we had to draw a tree. The example of hate speech that we had found formed the trunk and was written here in bold big letters. But what were the causes? And what effects did it ultimately have? In groups we were to decide this and then write what we thought in the roots and branches of the tree.

In our group we chose the example of the poster Breaking Point used by UKIP in the European Union Referendum as our example of hatred. What caused this poster? We came up with ideas such as a fear of immigration, people’s job insecurity, welfare cuts, and a lack of understanding of other people. The effects of this poster were wide; you could argue it influenced the entire EU debate leading to the vote for Britain to withdraw, but it also resulted in an increased fear of foreigners, intolerance of migrants, and an increase in hate attacks.

How can we combat hate speech?

We can combat the problem of hate speech and cyber-bullying through raising awareness of the problem, by sensitising the public to the problem, and through reporting hate ourselves when we find it online. The best of way of combating the problem is by educating society in general and creating a climate in society where such actions are considered inappropriate. Hate speech is actually a crime, so people targeting minority groups could face prosecution.

The Council of Europe has established a website where hate can be reported. However, the role of the website is more of a supportive one, at the very least providing a place where concerned individuals can turn to. We can all play in a role in attempting to make people think about the consequences of comments they make, and this might make them less likely to make abusive or offensive comments in the first place.

  • Mark Walker is a research assistant working at Sheffield Hallam University.

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