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Empowering educators and students to combat online prejudice and hate

By Danielle deBelle (she/her), Media Education Specialist, MediaSmarts

In the age of digital media, hate has found a new home

Our lives are now entwined with digital media and social platforms—they mediate every aspect of our daily routines. We use them to share our moments, connect with loved ones, and even perform our jobs. Yet, it’s impossible to ignore the alarming negativity and vitriol that flood comment sections, social media posts, and gaming chats. This worrisome trend has given rise to online spaces that normalize prejudice and hate, in some cases leading to radicalization. At the same time, schools are witnessing an increase in online harassment and a growing backlash against efforts to recognize and respect diverse communities and identities. Empowering our youth to recognize and combat hate online is crucial to counteract this disturbing reality, making virtual spaces safer and more inclusive for all.

"...the “majority illusion,” a cognitive bias that makes the loudest voices seem to be the shared values of a community, is especially powerful online."

The vulnerable road to radicalization

When we talk about hate, it’s not just an emotion but a mindset where individuals define themselves in opposition to another group. Hate and fear become part of their identity, triggering extreme emotions in response to the other group’s actions. During adolescence, seeking identity is a natural developmental process; we all remember how important it was to fit in, wear the right clothes, or listen to the coolest bands. But this stage of development can also lead to feelings of disaffection, in which family or cultural values appear worthless, and this in turn can make teens susceptible to hate messages. Youth in this situation will often seek a group or cause that give them values, an identity, and a surrogate family, a search that may be exploited by hate groups and movements to radicalize them.

How online hate is spread

Because of the networked nature of digital media, hate groups can bypass traditional gatekeepers like publishers or TV networks and disseminate extreme content on platforms with algorithms that often target those already sympathetic to their message. They also share “dog whistles,” seemingly reasonable content aimed at attracting new sympathizers and normalizing hate speech.

Online prejudice’s far-reaching impact

Exposure to online prejudice and hate has severe consequences beyond making people feel unwelcome or uncomfortable: studies have revealed that experiencing discrimination online can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. While overt racism and hatred are alarming, the more casual and nuanced forms of prejudice can be just as damaging in shaping cultures of hate and spreading disinformation. Even if young people do not actively participate in prejudiced speech, they often find their own views influenced by the values of their communities. With digital media’s connected nature, these smaller communities can significantly affect larger ones, leading to more rapid radicalization.

Becoming the noisy 10%

While it is important to take online hate seriously, it’s also essential not to treat it as more common or mainstream than it actually is. That’s because the “majority illusion,” a cognitive bias that makes the loudest voices seem to be the shared values of a community, is especially powerful online.

Researchers have found that in any community, online or offline, the social norms are shaped by the most committed 10% of its members. If those 10% express views of prejudice and hate, they can have an outsized influence on the community and contribute to the majority illusion discussed above. The online realm exacerbates this effect and makes it challenging to gauge how representative these voices are, because it’s difficult to estimate a virtual community’s size. As a result, a dangerous cycle perpetuates itself: young people witnessing casual prejudice may believe it reflects the community’s values, influencing their opinions or leading them to shy away from pushing back. However, this cycle can be broken, and young people can be empowered to become the “noisy 10%” who reshape their community’s values.

"...while almost 9 in 10 youth agree it’s important to speak up about racist or sexist comments, more than half don’t know how to do so."

Empowering educators to empower youth

Recognizing the urgency to equip students with essential tools and skills to navigate the online landscape responsibly, MediaSmarts, Canada’s Centre for Digital Media Literacy, has developed My Voice Is Louder than Hate. Based on research conducted with more than a thousand Canadian youth, this dynamic multimedia program aims to empower students in Grades 9–12 to confront and push back against hate and prejudice in their online communities. Focused on digital citizenship and media literacy, this resource equips students with the knowledge and skills to recognize hate material online and take effective action against it.

My Voice Is Louder than Hate has four essential components designed to provide an engaging learning experience for both students and teachers:

Teacher training workshop: To ensure effective implementation of the program, MediaSmarts offers a self-directed workshop for teachers. This workshop equips educators with the background knowledge and tools to deliver the lessons confidently and effectively and deal with any difficult conversations that may take place.

Teacher’s guide: Serving as a valuable companion resource, the teacher’s guide provides background information, resources, and guidance on presenting the program’s lessons. Topics covered include online hate, casual prejudice, dehumanization, and digital citizenship. The guide offers detailed instructions on how to approach and deliver the lessons with a focus on promoting emotional safety for students.

Two lessons: The heart of the program consists of two impactful lessons that leverage a multimedia platform to educate and empower students. The online interactive tool engages students with videos on countering online prejudice, multimedia learning opportunities, role-playing scenarios to address casual prejudice, and a tool for students to create their own content against hate.

Lesson 1: The Impact of Hate

In this lesson students explore how interacting through digital media can make it easier to hurt someone’s feelings and can make hurtful or prejudiced behaviour seem normal in online spaces. They learn how Canadian youth feel about and respond to casual prejudice online, and then use the online multimedia tool to create a digital story that will help people understand that online hate hurts everyone who witnesses it.

Lesson 2: Pushing Back against Hate

In this lesson students explore the benefits and drawbacks of being “full citizens” online. They learn reasons why Canadian youth sometimes do not push back when they witness casual prejudice online and then use the online multimedia tool to practise different ways of responding. Finally, students analyze memes as a medium and a way of responding to hate or other hurtful behaviour online, and then use the online multimedia tool to create a meme that they can use to push back against casual prejudice.

Creating a kinder digital world

MediaSmarts research study Young Canadians in a Wireless World, Phase IV found that while almost 9 in 10 youth agree it’s important to speak up about racist or sexist comments, more than half don’t know how to do so. Our evaluation of the My Voice Is Louder than Hate program found that after participating in the lessons, students felt more confident in their ability to recognize and respond to prejudice online. By equipping educators and students alike, we can build a generation that stands against hate and promotes a more inclusive and compassionate digital world.


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