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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 2, October 2005

Helping kids deal with online hate

by Anne Taylor

Young people are often naïve and easily brainwashed by racist propaganda because they don’t have the experience or facts at hand to refute the lies and myths being fed to them. – B’Nai Brith Canada

School authorities are usually aware when print-based hate propaganda is distributed in or near school property; and apart from the James Keegstra affair in the mid-1980s, hate propaganda has not been a huge problem for Canadian schools.

But things are changing. Hate-mongers can now reach millions quickly, cheaply, and in a multitude of ways through the Internet. They can bring unsuspecting kids to their web sites by tagging the sites with unrelated key words that are picked up by search engines. They can recruit new blood by infiltrating sites and chat rooms that are popular with kids. They can use the Net’s interactivity to gather personal information and foster relationships. And by doing these things, they manage to create the illusion, in certain online communities, that hate is legitimate and widespread.

More worrisome for educators and parents is the underground nature of online hate. Yes, it’s there on the Net for all to see, but Media Awareness Network’s survey of 6,000 Canadian students in 2001 showed that of the 20% of students who had encountered a hateful web site, only 4% told an adult about it. MNet’s survey also showed that 85% of 9- to 17-year-olds were online alone "all" or "most" of the time—meaning that kids can be encountering hate and absorbing its messages entirely without parental knowledge.

The spectrum of hate

Hate propaganda is, in fact, the far end of a whole spectrum of harmful online content that can engage young people and, with repeated exposure, desensitize them to virulent images and messages on the Web.

Sites like fugly.com or bored.com engage in racist satire and ethnic or gay bashing in a cool, supercilious, in-your-face manner. Such sites, and their so-called humour, are a challenge for young people, who are just figuring out their own sense of worth and sexuality. This is particularly so for those who find themselves on the margins of teen society, whose personal sense of inferiority can make them particularly receptive to disparaging or degrading messages about "the other." As educators are well aware, this climate of unkindness may also reverberate in young people’s own online communication, where a sense of anonymity and disconnectedness tends to minimize apathy and up the ante for aggressive, insulting communication.

A fine line

There’s a fine line between the nasty messages of these kinds of web sites and those of organized hate groups like SixthSunRising, the Ku Klux Klan, or Stormfront. Hate, in the criminal sense, is not always easy to recognize. It can pop up in all kinds of places—web sites, chat rooms, blogs, e-mail, games, and music. A number of white-supremisist groups host music sites, like Resistance Records (pro-white CDs, Love Your Race) to attract young people surfing the Net. Others encode their blogs or chat rooms with key words such as hockey, Christmas, games, and basketball, that will guarantee a daily supply of young surfers. Clearly, filters can’t protect young people from this insidious activity.

Developing personal filters

What can help to protect them is knowledge and a sharp eye—filters in their own heads, so to speak—so that they can recognize online hate and see it for what it is, whenever and wherever they encounter it.

As their use of the Internet grows, the risk of students accidentally encountering hate material increases. So it’s more important than ever for young people to understand that the Internet has no gatekeepers and that anyone and everyone can post their views. The ability to discriminate between biased, prejudicial material, and fair and accurate information has become a basic life skill.

Curriculum connectors

Deconstructing hate messages and reading between the lines is a critical thinking exercise that fits squarely into language arts and social studies curricula. It can involve: an analysis of bias, language, logical fallacies, symbols, and the difference between fact and opinion; a scrutiny of propaganda techniques (such as the use of religious sanction and scientific authority, national pride, or fear-mongering); teaching kids practical skills for authenticating online information and an examination of our own history and the roles that propaganda, discrimination, and the scapegoating of minority groups have played.

Related resources at www.media-awareness.ca

• For secondary lessons on propaganda, logical fallacies, and online hate, check out "Online Hate" in MNet’s Lesson Library.

• For Teachers section, for background essays, go to Media Issues, Online Hate. For Allies and Aliens, an interactive module for Grades 7 and 8, see Games for Kids.

• For MNet’s professional development workshop and self-directed PD tutorial, Deconstructing Online Hate, contact licensing@media-awareness.ca.

Anne Taylor, Media Awareness Network

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