Vitriol and Hate-Speech Online

Everyone in the room knew each other—our small university town of Bolivar, Missouri ensures a great deal of connectedness—and the conversation we were having was civil and dignified. Our civility was in stark contrast to the civility of the thing/online commentary we had gathered to discuss. Together we dissected and examined the increasing amount of vitriol and hate speech on the internet, which continues to be one of the many growing pains of the world wide web. After going through/reviewing message boards, comment sections, and entire websites, the living room we shared felt like a blessing.

One example of vitriol we discussed was a Reddit forum there is/in which there was a thread devoted to videos of black men dying. Another is named “Coontown” where users have conversations wondering if there are any places left that are “nigger free.” On the popular blog site Tumblr, one user posted how he was enjoying a walk while listening to music. He was told by an anonymous commenter that he was “disgusting for flaunting his male privilege,” and was eventually told to “walk into traffic.” Additionally, rather than being confined to the purview of digital space, there is a growing link between hate speech online and the growth of hate groups in the real world. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate group participation has actually increased 30% since 2000.

As our group sipped craft beer that cost more than the fast food we were eating, we found ourselves not just concerned with how this problem affects society, but how it affects each of us personally. During the first part of the discussion we simply got to know one another, we listened to each person’s experience intently, and often shared their grief. One of the participants, Elli, described how she had been the victim of a stalker and had been frequently harassed online before involving the police.

This was a situation in which there was no ‘for’ or ‘against’ sides, there was only a recognition of how dire our cultural situation truly is. That realization was in itself an “aha!” moment for many. The group was divided between folks like myself who were fairly liberal, and folks like Kylie who were fairly conservative. I usually attributed most hate speech to bigots in the Bible-belt south, places like the town in which I currently live. (I am originally from St. Louis, which although is in Missouri is not the south.) I think many educated people think similarly to how I did. What we all learned is that no one group, community, region, political party, race, religion or creed takes all the blame. In fact, by relegating hate speech to an omnipresent ‘them,’ we simply entrench the same categories that allows hate speech to flourish. This mentality has even been noted by organizations like Media Smarts and Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy.

Marshall summarized our group’s stance on that point succinctly at the end of the second portion of our discussion when he said that “the internet allows for anonymity, so anyone can say anything and nothing will happen. And when nothing happens, people will say anything to anyone.” But why? Our group threw out many reasons, but the one that we kept coming back to is the need for validation. If a person thinks that they can become part of a community through hate speech, that behavior is reinforced. It isn’t as simple as hateful people all congregating together, it’s a place where hate becomes a community. So people continue to hate, and their views get reinforced and become more extreme.

Call it what you like--group think, group polarization, or any number of things--but it is disturbing we do not do more to foster communities of love, rather than communities of hate. This brought us into the last part of the Living Room Conversation: solutions. Ever the voice of
reason, Zach proclaimed in defeat that, “this is too big of a problem for just one group of people to solve!” We all took that comment in stride, and agreed with the sentiment, but still tossed around ideas of censoring hate speech, or just imploring people to not venture online too much, neither of which seemed like particularly good choices. Alas, our group had become skilled at empathizing, but not enacting policies. Although towards the end we started to realize that empathy could make a difference. Through understanding hate as a human problem, rather than an ideological one, we could cross barriers that simple politics or religion would not allow. Maybe more Living Room Conversations are the change we need to create a more welcoming, inclusive, and truly open society. Together, with Living Room Conversations, we can show people they don’t need to foster difference to form a community.