HALIFAX – Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter may have provided the combustion for the explosion of hateful views, but more online policing isn’t the solution, says a leading scholar on the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity.
“Policing the internet is extremely difficult because it’s an open source,” says Stephen D. Smith, a professor at the University of Southern California who is also executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, and holds the UNESCO chair on genocide education.
“It feels like that’s coming a little too late because the behaviour is now established … We aren’t going to be able to roll that back.”
Instead, Smith believes educators have an obligation to help students develop new skills aimed at recognizing and responding to online hatred.
“A literacy hasn’t really developed within this generation on how to deal with this,” says Smith, who was to deliver a lecture on the topic Wednesday at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “It’s still an experiment. We’re only 10 years into this.”
While the internet can provide a healthy marketplace for ideas, too often it devolves into an ugly echo chamber for like-minded people, he says.
“What we have is a lot of opinion and a lot of online yelling … but very little dialogue,” Smith says. “That polarization is part of the combustion. The more polarized people become, the more they proliferate that point of view within their own group.”
The election of U.S. President Donald Trump — dubbed the first Twitter president — has exacerbated the problem, Smith says.
“There’s no question that what has happened with the political system in the United States, with the election of Donald Trump, has been an enabling force for those who feel they can now say things that are hateful and hurtful and, in some situations, violent,” he says.
“That’s deeply troubling.”
Smith says one of the best ways to counter hatred online is to use the same digital tools exploited by racists and bigots.
For example, online storytelling has proven effective in conveying the powerful stories of those who have suffered from extreme forms of hatred, he says. The foundation’s Visual History Archive allows users to search and view more than 54,000 video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of genocide.
The archive, which once focused on Holocaust survivors, has expanded to include testimony from the victims of other crimes against humanity, including genocides in China, Cambodia, Guatemala, Rwanda and the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic.
Smith says online testimonials have been used to educate students about hatred, but his approach includes asking students to produce a video explaining what they would do in their own community to combat hateful behaviour.
“It’s a process by which they’ve gained insight from the stories they heard, thought about what that meant and then made a commitment to do something about it,” says Smith, who founded the U.K. Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, England.
“It takes them from, ‘Hate is a bad thing,’ to ‘Here is what I’m going to do about it.'”
The goal, he says, it to develop better critical thinking skills.
As for Facebook and Twitter, Smith says the social media giants must do more to deal with the most egregious examples of hatred and violent rhetoric. However, he says that won’t solve the problem.
“It’s not solely the responsibility of the platform. We all have responsibility when we get online.”
Follow @NovaMac on Twitter