Sir Elton John is wrong to suggest a social media boycott

Should we heed Sir Elton John’s call and boycott social media?

In June, Sir Elton John accused tech giants of spreading homophobic hate speech online. In response, he called on his fans worldwide to boycott social media.

Now, with Montreal Pride (Aug. 9-19) around the corner, let’s agree with Sir Elton John on the necessity to react to hate speech.

“Enough” is, indeed, “enough”!

We have to stop hate speech in all its forms: homophobic, xenophobic, racist, bigoted or any form of speech that encourages, tolerates or validates violence against groups perceived as different.

But instead of boycotting social media and observing and criticizing from afar, let’s start engaging actively in transformative conversations that will weaken hate speech.

For starters, a global boycott of social media is inconceivable in 2018 reality. Social media already reached 2.46 billion users in 2017. This number is projected to hit 2.77 billion in 2019.

To force social media giants’ owners to take action to stop the spread of hate speech on their platforms, Germany and the European Commission enforce rigid lawsSocial media giants have no choice but to actively search for ways to identify and remove online hate speech to avoid paying huge fines.

For instance, Facebook shared 25 pages of takedown rules for hate speech and took action on 2.5 million posts for violating these rules. Twitter implemented its hateful conduct policy as of November 2017 and recently announced a new feature to report hate speech against people with disabilities.

Yet, hate speech still prevails.

Tarleton Gilespie, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research New England, explains that “content moderation is hard,” and errors happen. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, admits that Artificial Intelligence will only be reliable in detecting hate speech in five to 10 years, and even then, challengeswill persist. Steve Huffman, Reddit CEO, declares that “enforcing a total ban on hate speech is nearly impossible since hate speech is difficult to define.”

So let’s try something in addition to punitive action. Let’s explore the reasons behind offensive attitudes and behaviours and address them.

In many cases, what is perceived as hate speech is in reality fear speech, and we must tackle this fear. Some people feel threatened when they foresee a change coming that could shake one of their core constructs, their identity, their culture, their religious beliefs or their values. Instead of trying to understand this change, they fight it aggressively.

Social media did not invent hate speech. Most conversations happening on social media often reflect those happening offline. Homophobia, xenophobia, racism, bigotry and other forms of hatred are invented by human beings, not by technology. They transcend offline environments and are widely spread online by social media users.

We don’t have access to offline hate conversations, but online conversations are public. By paying close attention to the content and arguments shared online, we have a front seat to what these hate groups think, and how they fuel hate discourses. These groups thrive in contexts of real or imagined power imbalance. To end hate speech, we need to ensure power balance. This will happen when bystanders are involved.

While social media giants are seeking solutions, such as hiring thousands of content moderators, creating intuitive flagging systems and teaching machines to identify and remove hate speech, social media users also have a moral, ethical and social responsibility to contribute to the solution.

Let’s boost the power of this artificial intelligence by adding our human intelligence to the mix.

Hate speech is never OK; cyberbullying is never justified. We can make this stop. Our voice matters, so let’s make it heard, and let’s do it today!

This post was co-authored with Dr. Ann-Louise Davidson and published in Montreal Gazette.

Ann-Louise Davidson is an associate professor at Concordia University. She holds a Concordia University Research Chair in Maker Culture, and is associate director of the Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology.

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