A digital pact to counter online hate

We need a common understanding that paves the way to a Digital Pact that the government at all levels should promote in partnership with other stakeholders.

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 5 min.

When we talk about new technologies, we are really in the middle of a big and messy new transition. People spend a disproportionate amount of time online, mostly watching silly and unproductive videos in the social media and they rush to throw quick comments on complex issues that actually require much broader reflections.

In these dynamics, hate speech is emerging as a worrisome new trend, in Nepal and elsewhere.

While it is not entirely a new phenomenon, since social media took over our lives it has almost become a “normalized” behavior.

It can take different forms: insults, denigration or even ironic comments that while apparently unharmful, instead reveal well rooted preconceptions and stereotypes. Compounding this alarming problem, there is also the coming of Artificial Intelligence that is also potentially capable, if unchecked and unregulated, of disrupting our existence.

On this latter issue, on July 6-7, the United Nations organized AI for Good, Global Summit hoping to create a forum of discussion to ensure that this disruptive new technology can be truly harnessed for the good rather than for the worse.

The UN alone cannot solve this conundrum.

Yet surely its moral persuasion power can enable a conducive environment for governments to agree on some common and binding rules that will ensure that AI could be harnessed for scientific breakthroughs rather than alienating the lives of millions and millions of world citizens.

But we also need to involve the people, locally.

Countering hate speech

Look at the issue of finding ways to counter hate speech.

A number of new initiatives have been proposed by the United Nations. The most recent one has been a new policy paper published on July 5 entitled Countering and Addressing Online Hate Speech: A Guide for Policy Makers and Practitioners that relates to another important policy blueprint promoted by UNESCO in partnership with the United Nations Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect (OSAPG) that had a focus on the role that education has to fight hate speech.  Yet, at the end of the day, these are tools to be discussed, analyzed and acted upon locally.

AI and hate or harmful speech are complex issues, hard to fully understand in terms of their long term implications on our lives. While we are already starting to feel their impact, the truth is that both require extensive discussions not only among policy makers but also among citizens. Involving and engaging the latter is paramount if humanity wants to ensure a future for the next generations.

Up to now, we are not too sure that we will make it, considering also the devastating effects on our lives of climate change and biodiversity loss. I am wondering what could be done locally in Nepal to start a debate on these issues that, in their powerful destructive capabilities, must be necessarily tackled together. It is essential that the Government of Nepal builds on the policy ideas being formulated by the UN and come up with some “discussion framework” on how to deal with the negative consequences of new technologies.

The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, is even pushing for a Global Digital Compact. It is a new blueprint aiming at “outlining shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all”.

Can we hold discussions on how to translate, adapt or change these propositions to the local context? I am quite “obsessed” with the need to establish a new type of policy making, a different approach that involves and engages the citizens.

In the realm of new technologies, Nepal is producing a crop of experts, programmers, entrepreneurs some expanding their already grown businesses while others focused on building their own startups.

Everyone would agree that there is expertise also thanks to many youths who studied overseas and then decided, boldly, to come back home.

Perhaps the Federal Government, too busy and probably too lacking in terms of technical know-how, should simply create a conducive environment for the experts to talk and find positive ideas. It should not just be a closed conversation among tech nerds.

All those interested should be involved. The role of educators and common citizens is also indispensable and they must also be included.

Think about online hate speech.

It is really about the way we approach social media, what we read and how we react.

For example, the capacity of self-control is essential in the way we respond to a post that makes us unsettled or irritated. Formal and informal settings should be used to teach how to deal with these situations, countering also the normalization of negative online behaviors that is not OK in any case and it can also be punishable by law.

What is really needed is a sort of common understanding that could pave the way to a Digital Pact that the Government at all levels should promote in partnership with other stakeholders.

The UN could also help.

The policy document on the role of education to counter hate speech was also launched at sub regional level here in Kathmandu just a few weeks ago. Agencies like UNESCO, together with the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator who is taking a big role in the discussions over countering hate speech, could provide technical resources and facilitate the discussions not only nationally but also locally.

While we are dealing with global and national problems, let’s remind ourselves that localized forms of hate speech could, for example, be disruptive as well if someone moves, intentionally or unintentionally, his/her harmful online behaviors to real life. We know that it is indeed possible and it is already happening, with tragic consequences, in many nations, starting from the USA.

Prevention is better

Thankfully it is still not the case in Nepal but prevention is better than cure. The blueprint published by UNESCO and OSAPG is crystal clear on this aspect. It says: “The effectiveness of the approaches needs the development of comprehensive strategies focused not only on mitigation and response but also on prevention, addressing the root causes of hate speech through interventions at every level of education, in both formal and non-formal settings, from pre-primary and early childhood to higher education, in vocational education and through lifelong learning opportunities.”

So we need to start thinking about some rules that, even if voluntary and non-binding to begin with, can nudge people, especially youths towards ethical standards on how they use social media or any future mass adoption of AI tools. It is granted that schools have a big role and they can be the vehicle for promoting behavior changes but first we need political leaders and civil society to take the lead.

Even mayors could do this.

Imagine community gatherings, also at school levels, where discussions are focused on educating the youths on how to use social media. For example, in all my training sessions, I ask participants how much time they spend online, using social media. Their responses are mind-blowing with an average of three to five hours a day.

Think about how this time could have been used in more productive ways, considering that really a minority of the answers included time online to learn and read trustworthy news. Now AI is coming and the education sector needs to be aware of what it means and what the consequences can be.

We need to start thinking about some rules that can nudge people, especially youths, toward ethical standards on how they use social media or any future mass adoption of AI tools.

That’s why we need rules but the only way to agree on them is by reaching a common understanding, creating awareness and enabling discussions. These two are the ingredients for a shared form of policy making where the users of social media and the overall citizenry, can express their opinion and propositions.

This is probably the only way to create a buy-in and ensure that better practices, primarily online but also in real life, can be established and become the norm on how we deal with social media and new emerging technologies.

To start with, what do I imagine?

Ideas lab at school levels, essay competitions on how to rein in the disruptive and harmful aspects of social media and new technologies, debates on which voluntary rules should be followed, consistent engagement with parents and so on.

The end goal?

Ensuring that youths can emerge from their interactions with new technologies, not only stronger, healthier, more knowledgeable but also, importantly, more positive about their future.

Simone Galimberti is the pro bono co-founder of ENGAGE and pro-bono co-initiator of the Good Leadership. Views are personal.