'Dangerous speech' fuelled by fear in crises can be countered with education


Fear is the biggest motivator in spreading 'dangerous speech' in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, says Susan Benesch, Founder and Executive Director of the Dangerous Speech Project.

The pandemic has generated a new wave of hate across the world amplified by the internet and further exacerbating racism, antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance and discrimination.

Ms Benesch, a Faculty Associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, joined a virtual experts' meeting Education as a tool for prevention: addressing and countering hate speech organized by UNESCO and the United Nations Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect (OSAPG).

The virtual meeting from 13 to 18 May brings together more than 20 world renowned experts, including youth representatives, human rights experts and education specialists, to review existing evidence on addressing and countering hate speech, exchange good practices and develop a strategy to boost Member States' capacity to address the phenomenon on and offline through education. Speakers include Dr Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Ms Benesch created the Dangerous Speech Project to explore 'dangerous speech', which she defines as any form of expression that can inspire violence against groups of people, and to find ways to prevent this through education without infringing on freedom of expression.

“What is curious about the pandemic is that, in contrast to most situations where one group turns on another, now everyone is equally vulnerable and frightened and for very good reason. The fear of disease, which is an invisible enemy, is especially powerful. Because almost everyone feels afraid, this means even more people are susceptible to dangerous speech which creates a widespread risk that they condone or commit violence against others.”

Ms Benesch said the pandemic had not only inspired a surge of attacks against, among others, Asian or Asian-looking people scapegoated for causing or spreading the pandemic but that authority figures were also capitalizing on the need for information, guidance and reassurance to spread disinformation for political means.

“Unfortunately, it is easy for unscrupulous politicians to exploit fear to their own ends,” she said.

Through her project Ms Benesch works to find educational solutions to dangerous speech and other forms of harmful expression. Research shows that education can diminish early harassing behaviour. She advocates for public education on hate speech and counterspeech,  rather than censorship.

“Educate before it happens so that dangerous speech can be recognized. It can be used to make someone aware of why someone is using dangerous speech, that it is a lazy political tool that can be used for malevolent ends. We can teach, that in both developed and developing contexts, it is often easier to turn one group against another than fix the true source of discontent, be it building a road or improving healthcare infrastructure,” she said.

“People have a strong urge to belong to one or more groups and in order to belong they need to follow the norms of that group. These rules, though they are not written down anywhere, can be incredibly powerful and lead people to behave in harmful ways,” she said. “We need to change those norms in a positive direction. In addition, counterspeech can be an effective way of responding to dangerous speech so that it is undermined.”

At the same time, she said it was important that measures against hate speech not be used as a pretext to silence people, especially the same vulnerable groups that such measures should protect.

Youth in particular, must be engaged in ways that are meaningful to them, both on and offline.

“We need to speak to young people using the mediums they use and engage them through people they respect and will listen to,” she said.  

The virtual meeting responds to the UN Secretary General's United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech and is being organized in preparation for the Global Education Ministers Conference and Multi-stakeholder Forum on addressing and countering hate speech through education (date and venue to be confirmed).