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Hacking online hate – from mutual awareness to social change

Hans Martens, PhD Digital Citizenship Programme Manager Insafe Network Coordinator EU PArtnership AISBL-Belgium

In December 2017, European Schoolnet, together with partner organisations from Denmark, Germany, Greece and the UK, kicked off the SELMA (Social and Emotional Learning for Mutual Awareness) project on online hate speech.[1] It is a two-year project running under the European Union’s Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme (2014-2020)[2].

The objective of the SELMA project is to promote mutual awareness, tolerance and respect, through a holistic empowerment approach, which tackles online hate, most notably in schools but also in out-of-school communities that impact on well-being. The project will actively engage young people, teachers, education stakeholders (including Ministries of Education), civil society organisations and industry, building upon an empirical understanding of (online) hate speech. Activities include research, the co-creation of a SELMA Toolkit, and the dissemination of outputs, results and lessons learned.

From a pedagogical point of view, SELMA draws upon and combines a range of established frameworks:

1.Citizenship education: Learners need to acquire knowledge, understanding and critical thinking about global, regional, national and local issues and the interconnectedness and interdependency of different countries and populations (cognitive), to have a sense of belonging to a common humanity, sharing values and responsibilities, empathy, solidarity and respect for differences and diversity (socio-emotional) and to act effectively and responsibly at local, national and global levels for a more peaceful and sustainable world (behavioural) (UNESCO, 2015a). In response to hate speech, citizenship education more specifically encompasses the knowledge and skills to identify hate speech, while enabling individuals to counteract messages of hatred (UNESCO, 2015b). If translated to a digital world, where one in three users are children or young people, a rights-based approach to citizenship is often taken, pointing to the rights to online protection, provision and participation (Livingstone, Carr, Byrne, 2015). In this view, we need to “foster children’s right to protection from online harm whilst simultaneously empowering them to maximise the benefits of connectivity for their education, health, social connection, economic participation, civic engagement, and so on, both as individuals, and as members of their communities” (Third, Bellerose, Dawkins, Keltie and Pihl, 2014).

2.Media and information literacy: Media and information literacy (MIL) approaches have proved particularly effective in developing technical, analytical, critical and creative skills for media consumers and producers, while connecting them with broader ethical and civic matters. As such, MIL is typically positioned as a key requisite for democratic participation and full citizenship in an online environment (Carlsson, 2013; UNESCO, 2015b). To make this more concrete, in response to political/strategic hate speech, an investment in MIL can arm students against extreme messages through a source-critical approach: being able to identify conflicting and incoherent arguments, understanding how propaganda is constructed, and understanding how extremists reform current events to fit their own purposes. “A large part of the messages from extremist milieux consist of strongly slanted or false “facts” and news. An investment in media and information literacy in children and young people should therefore be able to strengthen their ability to see through such messages and could, in a nutshell, strengthen their resistance to extreme, pro-violence messages” (Swedish Media Council, 2013, p. 296).

3.Social and emotional learning: Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an educational movement gaining ground throughout the world. SEL programmes are based on extended developmental research and focus on the development of social and emotional competences (FAH, 2015). SEL programmes usually have a person-centred focus on skills developments and an environmental focus. Five groups of inter-related core social and emotional competencies are typicallyaddressed (Payton et al., 2008):

a.Self-awareness: accurately assessing one’s feelings, interests, values, and strengths; maintaining a well-grounded sense of self-confidence;

b.Self-management: regulating one’s emotions to handle stress, controlling impulses, and persevering in addressing challenges; expressing emotions appropriately; and setting and monitoring progress toward personal and academic goals;

c.Social awareness: being able to take the perspective of and empathize with others; recognizing and appreciating individual and group similarities and differences; and recognizing and making best use of family, school, and community resources;

d.Relationship skills: establishing and maintaining healthy and rewarding relationships based on cooperation; resisting inappropriate social pressure; preventing, managing, and resolving interpersonal conflict; and seeking help when needed;

e.Responsible decision making: making decisions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, appropriate social norms, respect for others, and likely consequences of various actions; applying decision-making skills to academic and social situations; and contributing to the well-being of one’s school and community.

By drawing upon citizenship education, MIL and SEL methodologies, the SELMA project will move beyond the existing range of awareness-raising campaigns on online hate speech which have been created and delivered across Europe already. It will address online hate speech through a holistic approach, considering it a pattern of behaviour rather than an isolated event, interconnected with the social and cultural contexts in which it takes place. The project will act – in an innovative yet evidence-based manner – on the context in which such patterns are embedded, enabling all involved to take responsibility and cope with causes and consequences. Therefore, it is not exclusively about preventing or remediating online hate speech, but also about building self-esteem, social skills and empowerment, respect for others, responsibility and a sense of ownership for the well-being of the community.

[1] The project consortium consists of European Schoolnet (Project coordinator) (, Centre for Digital Pædagogik (Denmark) (, Landeszentrale für Medien and Kommunikation (Germany) (, For Adolescents Health (Greece) (, South West Grid for Learning (UK) (, The Diana Award (UK) (