Belgium is training young people as cyber-patrollers in a government-backed campaign aimed at combating hate speech as Europe sees a surge in online abuse.
The NO Hate campaign chose 31 people aged between 18 and 35 to be trained as internet activists, speaking out against online bullying and harassment as part of an anti-discrimination and anti-radicalization program supported by the Council of Europe.
“Young people are exposed more and more to hate speech on the internet — not only racist remarks, but also sexist and generally discriminating ones,” says Isabelle Simonis, Belgium’s minister of social advancement, youth, women’s rights and equality, who spearheaded the project.
“Perhaps that’s where radicalization starts,” she tells AFP.
Simonis says the idea is to “train young people to be able to act directly on the web” when they are confronted with hate speech.
The campaign has particular resonance in Belgium, which is still reeling from Islamic State-claimed suicide attacks at Brussels’ airport and a metro station in March, and which was the base for last year’s Paris attacks.
But the scheme targets all kinds of hate speech following months of virulent social media abuse during Britain’s bitterly fought Brexit campaign as well as a bruising US election race, which was won by Donald Trump.
‘Incitement to hatred’
Florian Vincent, 19, is one of the cyber-patrollers. “We don’t have a strategy as such, and we’re not employees. It’s not fixed work,” he explains.
“If we see hate speech while we’re browsing the internet, we are trained to respond to it.”
Vincent says the job of a cyber-patroller is to counter hate speech in whatever context, “whether it’s an ordinary person posting something on Facebook or if it’s on a politician’s or a celebrity’s website”.
Cyber-patrollers are trained to use facts to verify what online harassers may be saying.
He has already put his training to work with a woman who was spouting aggressive anti-refugee sentiment on Facebook.
“I said that she had the right to have her own opinion, but sometimes the way in which she expressed it was an incitement to hatred and that some of her statistics were wrong,” he explains.
“It’s really about making people who are using hate speech understand that there are alternative and better ways of expressing their point of view,” he adds.
According to Unia, an independent Brussels-based organization that promotes equal opportunities, there were 365 reported instances of hate speech in 2015. Of that number, 92 percent were online, and 126 of them occurred on Facebook and Twitter.
‘Not all a joke’
Online threats are not only becoming more common, but they are also becoming more serious. In 2010, there were only 36 serious cases of harassment on social media that were reported to Unia.
By 2015, the number had increased nearly fourfold to 126.
Simonis says the program isn’t designed to create an internet police force.
“It’s for reinforcing a sense of citizenship amongst young people,” she says.
“I want as many young people as possible to be discerning when online and capable of convincing and educating others.”
The Belgian government plans to extend the training to minors, although cyber-patrollers under the age of 18 would need to have a responsible adult present so they are not alone when dealing with threatening hate speech.
Vincent thinks the project is a valuable tool against discrimination and should be rolled out in schools.
“We need to demystify it, make it clear that online harassment is real harassment,” he says.
“Not everything that is said on the internet should be taken as a joke.”