Detecting signs of hate speech and violence in the cloud

Between cyberbullying, data loss prevention, and data privacy compliance, school IT departments certainly have their work cut out for them. And to top it all off, there’s another source of toxicity that K-12 school districts increasingly need to manage on a daily basis: hate speech.

As one of the ugliest brands of toxic behavior, it’s surprising that hate speech doesn’t get the attention it truly deserves. For this reason, we’re here to help you understand exactly what hate speech is all about and how you can eliminate it in your cloud environment. We’ll show you how to spot hateful rhetoric, what to do once you’ve found it, and how to simplify the process with cloud security.

What is hate speech?

Hate speech, according to the United Nations, is any offensive discourse that targets a group or an individual based on inherent characteristics, such as race, religion, or gender. In a school context, hate speech could include any words or symbols directed at students or written on school property that express or incite hatred against a group of people or individuals belonging to a specific identity group.

In 2021, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a multiyear study of hostile behaviors in K-12 education. In addition to hate speech, researchers also studied incidents of bullying, hate crimes, and assault. GAO estimates that roughly 7% of students — over 1.6 million in total – are subjected to hate speech at school. Additionally, an estimated 5.8 million students have seen hate words or symbols written on school property.

According to the study, these include racial and homophobic slurs, anti-Semetic slurs and symbols, references to lynching or the Holocaust, as well as anti-immigrant rhetoric. In any case, hate speech is generally any language intended to emotionally harm or incite hatred against a specific group or individual.

For example, 85% of Asian-Americans agree that, as a group, they’ve experienced discrimination as a result of the pandemic. Rather than refer to the virus correctly as COVID-19, many have chosen racially charged rhetoric, such as “China virus” or “Asian virus.” It’s perhaps not a coincidence that since the pandemic began, there’s been a 900% increase in hate speech directed towards the Chinese and a 40% rise in toxicity among teens and children, according to research from L1ght.

Why is it important to eliminate hateful rhetoric? Simply put, because it could lead to significant consequences. Not only can hate speech create a toxic learning environment, but it can also lead to violence, self-harm, and long-term mental health problems for the victims.

[FREE WEBINAR] How Technology Fits Into Your Student Mental Health and Safety Programs, REGISTER HERE!

Your school district’s legal requirements

In addition to the obvious student safety concerns, it’s also important to consider hate speech from a legal perspective. In other words, how might hateful language put you in jeopardy of noncompliance?

Unlike most countries, there’s no legal definition of hate speech in the U.S. As tough as it is to believe, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Why? Because it’s been argued in courts that the First Amendment requires the government to protect debate on matters of public concern — even if that debate involves offensive or hateful language.

However, it’s still the duty of the school district to ensure that students have access to a safe and nondiscriminatory learning environment. Although the laws vary by state, many courts have held that school officials may prohibit any speech that disrupts the school environment or invades the rights of others.

According to the Department of Education, as cited by the GAO, incidents of harassment or hate when motivated by race, color, nationality, sex, gender identity, or disability can impede access to an equal education. In turn, these types of incidents may also violate certain federal and state civil rights laws. In Massachusetts, for example, hate speech may be considered a “bias-motivated incident,” which could therefore be a violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.

Regardless of whether or not your school district could be held accountable, it’s important that you take every step you can to eliminate hate speech. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it sets an example and demonstrates your commitment to providing a positive, equal, and healthy education.

Hate speech and toxic language in the cloud

In today’s day and age, toxic behaviors like bullying and sexual harassment aren’t only happening in the halls or on the school bus. Now, toxicity can spread much faster and easier with the help of digital technology.

Unfortunately, hate speech is no exception. With more digital channels opening up almost every day, hateful language is making its way across the internet at lightning speed. In fact, an analysis of over 50 million discussions in the U.S. and U.K. indicates that online hate speech has risen 20% since the start of the pandemic.

To understand why, let’s take a closer look at the situation.

  • Screen time: For starters, more people are online than ever before. Because people are using the internet more, there’s more exposure to online toxicity. By extension, it’s become normalized and accepted by many users.
  • Anonymity: Anybody can hide behind a username on the internet. Because of their anonymity, students often feel dissociated from the consequences of their actions. Even if they do use their real name, the lack of physical connection generates a feeling of false confidence in the abuser.
  • Cloud adoption: Since the pandemic, schools have raced to the cloud. Today, nearly all school districts operate in the cloud using either Google Workspace or Microsoft 365. Although valuable learning tools, cloud apps have also given students a new means of communication (hate speech included).

The third point is especially noteworthy. Why? Because many school officials overlook cloud apps as a tool for toxicity. In reality, they’re quite often a haven for cyberbullying, hate speech, and other bad behaviors.

Fortunately, that’s what a cloud security platform like ManagedMethods is for. Designed to detect signs of toxicity in your cloud data, including hate speech, this technology allows you to automate risk mitigation. Using preset policies, you can automatically identify incidents of hateful rhetoric as they’re created. Once a violation is detected, you or a designated staff member will be alerted so that you can initiate the proper response.

“I had an incident where some students started compiling racially motivated memes on a Google Slides deck,” says Russell Lindenschmidt, district technology director at Burlington School District in Colorado. “Using ManagedMethods, I was able to see which students had viewed and/or edited the deck and which did not. I then had data-driven proof to deal with the situation and help ensure our district remains in compliance with civil rights laws.”

[FREE WEBINAR] How Technology Fits Into Your Student Mental Health and Safety Programs, REGISTER HERE!

Do’s and don’ts when managing hate speech in the cloud

It’s an unfortunate truth that many school IT departments lack the resources and labor needed to keep tabs on their entire school district simultaneously. For larger districts with thousands of active users, it’s almost impossible. With a cloud monitoring solution like ManagedMethods, that job is a whole lot simpler.

However, even with automated monitoring software in place, there’s still some important factors to consider. Yes, it’s your duty to protect students from discrimination, bullying, and hate speech — but it’s also your responsibility to do so without violating student privacy. To help you start on the right track, here a few do’s and don’ts:

DO: Encourage students to practice empathy

Remind students that they should be respectful when engaging others online. Make sure they understand they’re dealing with another person on the other end of the screen. Social Emotional Learning (SEL), for instance, is an effective way to teach students self-awareness, self-control, and proper social etiquette.

DON’T: Set and forget your software

Cloud monitoring works by implementing policies, or rules, that dictate how users should behave in your cloud environment. When a rule is violated, that’s when you step in and mitigate. However, things change and so should your policies. If a new type of hateful language presents itself, create a policy to identify its occurence.

DO: Create a formal response policy

Attaching a standardized policy to your response process ensures that all school officials know their role and are prepared to fulfill it when an incident occurs. For example, designate someone — such as a guidance counselor or resource officer — who can step in and privately speak with a victim of hate speech or cyberbullying.

DON’T: Overstep your boundaries

It’s your responsibility to intervene when a student’s physical or emotional health is at risk, not when necessarily for the smallest little grievance. Your students don’t want to feel surveilled. Tailor your policies so that you’ll only be alerted to certain incidents, such as hate speech, sexual harassment, or violence. If you do overstep your boundaries, you risk making matters worse. Be sure not to out a student’s sexuality or gender identity or pile onto their emotional stress.

As long as you follow best practices and err on the side of caution, you and your school district can eliminate hate speech as responsibly as possible.

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