Live from the Internet Governance Forum

This week, I had the privilege of attending several panels and discussions at the Internet Governance Forum hosted in Paris, France.  This year’s theme, “Internet of Trust,” came at a very apt time on the eve of the 100 years Armistice celebration and the Paris Peace Forum, sentiments reiterated by several speakers throughout the 3-day event.  I was most interested in the discussion related to the dynamic coalitions, given my demonstrated support for comprehensive, multi-stakeholder engagement in processes as broad as the internet. However, the panel that most peaked my interest was the panel entitled, “WS80 Hack the Hate: Empower Society to Face Hate Speech – RAW.”  Initially, I did not see its connection to internet governance aside from the standard practice of censorship practiced online. However, I was genuinely engaged and fascinated by the discussions that ensued.

To start, an expert from the French think-tank organization Renaissance Numerique joined the audience to discuss a special website program called “Seriously.”  From his discussion, I couldn’t exactly grasp what the platform was designed to do, so I explored it myself. While the website is entirely in French, it is designed as an interactive tool to educate students on how to challenge hate speech online in something that the organization has branded “the Seriously method”.  The platform is designed in bright colors with easily clickable and interactive icons. I started by choosing a topic to address, in this case antisemitism. From there, the website gave me concrete facts, graphic images, and media items about the Jewish population in France and in the world that I could post directly to my Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram page.  The platform is clearly targeted towards youth; however, I would argue that therein lies the genius of its design. It’s really integrating a bottom-up approach to combating hate speech online to ensure that all identities and orientations have a place on the internet. The platform is still growing. Thus, there is a clear place where information about persons with disabilities, minority groups, and vulnerable persons can also be included to enhance the platform.  The adaptability and clear appeal to youth really drew me to this project and I’m excited to see how it grows, expanding into new topics and languages in the future.

I also found the gentleman on this panel discussing the situation in Ukraine very fascinating.  He discussed the notion of multiple spaces for discourse that exist in society today as a result of the internet.  Thus, our conversations are channeled into pathways within the broader context of the internet. We don’t really stray from our insulated bubble of like-minded thinkers, particularly when content is political or controversial.  Yet, the speaker provides the example of a Ukrainian slang video that engages with the East and the West of Ukraine. On this seemingly harmless issue, two opposing sides in a conflict are brought together over shared language. This simple video was able to identify and capitalize upon shared interests between two opposing groups, bringing them together in a virtual exchange.  The recognition of common interests can be crucial to overcoming violence and hatred. I think to the example of pro-choice and pro-life protesters coming together in the program “Search for Common Ground.” This program appealed to their underlying desire for less unwanted pregnancies, lessening tensions between the two sides. Often times, to achieve this common ground, social media influencers are used to center anti-hate campaigns, a fact iterated in Alexandra Walden of Google’s discussion on the use of media to promote anti-hate messages and bring individuals together in a virtual space by using social media influencers as the center of campaigns.  Thus, not only is this venture a civil society interest but local actors and corporations too have a place in this process.

As a Millenial, these are all concepts that I am fairly familiar with; however, it never occurred to me just how seamlessly the internet and combating hatred and extremism can integrate.  This can undoubtedly be expanded to include other vulnerable populations, particularly persons with disabilities. As it stands, I think to a blind social media influencer who brings awareness to the struggles of being visually impaired while spouting positive messages and acceptance.  Moreover, organizations such as Nike are beginning to acknowledge disability more, signing their first athlete with cerebral palsy in early October. These approaches are decidedly youth and locally-based. However, this approach manifests as a vital strength in changing discourse from the bottom-up.  Ultimately, as mentioned in the panel, we don’t need more laws governing what can and cannot be said on the internet, we need to spark a fundamental change in how individuals approach these topics. Thus, by using internet users to create a space where xenophobia, racism, sexism, and ableism are not accepted, we fundamentally change the space.  This panel was incredibly insightful and I am excited to see how this youth engagement and social media approach flourishes to create a more inclusive and sustainable global digital space.


Additional resources:

Search for Common Ground Project

Seriously Website

Transcript of the Hate Speech Discussion

Blind Social Media Influencer Molly Burke

Nike Signs First Athlete With Cerebral Palsy