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Facebook prohibits hate speech. Ideological debate, on the other hand, is encouraged. Given increasing intensity surrounding topics such as race, free speech, gender, and sexuality, how do we discern between what is controversial hate speech and what is contrarily a difference of opinion? How does that, in turn, shape the way we react?

The difference between fundamental disagreement and pure hate speech can be difficult to pinpoint. When this ambiguous language appears online, things can get even messier, given the public nature and quick type-and-enter posts and comments. These aspects of online engagement create a discourse that can be overwhelming to navigate. Yet, there are trends and guidelines one can use to engage conscientiously in these virtual forums.  

Students use similar mental frameworks to define what material constitutes an “inflammatory” post online. Benya Kraus, Diversity & Community Affairs Officer on TCU Senate and a Tufts junior, labels material on public forums, especially at Tufts, as controversial or inflammatory depending on the “amount of attention it’s gotten,” which she measures with the number of comments, likes, shares, and the presence of derogatory words present in the comments. Eric Snyder, another junior at Tufts, gave a similar description. “It’s easy to spot it when you see it,” he said, noting that certain trigger words will often label something as controversial within the Tufts community. Claudia Mihm, also a junior, agreed. “Anything that expresses views that are commonly opposed,” she said, has the potential to be inflammatory.

Kraus, Snyder, and Mihm all expressed some wariness about getting involved in these types of posts through commenting, particularly given the depersonalization of an online platform. Paul Joseph, Professor of Sociology at Tufts, explained that online forums allow certain ideas to receive validation that perhaps shouldn’t be given the amount of attention they receive. “You can legitimate people or positions that deserve to be banished to the sidelines,” he said.

Social media can allow potentially violent ideas to be given as much credibility as nonviolent ones. In conjunction, the credibility of the source is hardly vetted or questioned. Since anyone is free to post online, the author’s credibility is not of paramount importance—individuals don’t have to prove their qualifications to say things, unlike on traditional journalistic editorials.

Joseph noted that the reality of digital engagement today often has us “focus on the performance”—things like grammar mistakes or issues in form—rather than the actual content of what is being said. He cited the presidential debate as an example, expressing that he believes the rules of the debate allow for viewers to compliment Trump’s performance while allowing him to avoid criticism of the actual ideas he expressed. By focusing on the performance, Trump and his ideas still get airtime, but remain somewhat insulated from criticism that could dismantle them.

While focus on form can’t dismantle hate speech, the use of anger in response to controversial or violent content is more nuanced. Anger was considered by some students to be potentially ineffective, if not harmful, forms of engagement, especially when it takes the form of a personal attack. There’s “danger when your anger turns blind,” said Kraus. “How do you channel that anger?” She believes that people often should feel angry about the content they are seeing, but asks people to consider whether they are using their anger as a “bridge” to “unite” others, or whether it is splitting people apart. Unproductive engagement for Kraus occurs “when the language starts turning into personally attacking.” Joseph echoed this sentiment, noting that best practices for engaging with inflammatory material include the guideline “don’t attack the person, attack the position.”

Senior David Ferrándiz disagrees. “I defend the short-term expressions of ‘You’re fucking stupid and this is why,’ because even though we do need to clarify the ways in which systems of power uphold violent configurations so that we may collectively dismantle them, it’s not the exclusive role of the oppressed or marginalized groups to teach,” he said.

Posting a comment like the example Ferrándiz brings up can create a sense of support. Senior Jessica Howard said, “There is something worthwhile to letting other people know that there are people who don’t agree with the original content and that when you put things out there, you have to take responsibility for the potential of backlash, especially online and in blogs where people can just write and not expect there to be consequences.”

These consequences can—and will—come regardless of an original poster’s intention. Senior Rasika Sethi, a queer woman of color and an international student at Tufts, explained, “[The poster] might not think it’s harmful, because they’re just expressing free speech, but it can be really painful for people from marginalized communities. You’re triggering a huge wound with your words. Everyone has a responsibility to take care of how they’re speaking. The word is so important. Be careful with it.”

Sethi continued to explain how those who comment on problematic posts can often alienate others, even if they stand as allies against hate speech. She notes that specific academic vocabulary can be a barrier to dialogue and can alienate people from participating. “[Scholastic terminology] might be useful for people who don’t experience oppression or maybe people who do and want to pinpoint it, but I would describe oppression not through jargon but through personal stories. [Using academia] can leave already marginalized people feeling excluded from the conversation,” said Sethi.

In order to combat harmful rhetoric, Mihm expressed that she first has to “judge whether [she’s] qualified to challenge” the content in the post. Mihm explained that she often feels she doesn’t have the “proper vocabulary to write a response that would spark a conversation.” To work around this feeling, she will often attempt to lift up the words of others by sharing relevant articles or highlighting quotes she finds importance, in order to show her support.

Perhaps this is what Kraus is attempting to do: she said that she “look[s] at the conversation that’s already going on, and if there’s a narrative that [she] think[s] is missing,” that’s when she decides to add her voice. While such engagement takes energy and adds to the space that the content itself takes up, if the result is creating a “net positive,” as Mihm put it, then it’s worth it. “There needs to be a counternarrative…to that violent space that person has taken up,” shared Kraus.

She also acknowledges that remaining cognizant of the space one’s own contributions are taking up is important as well. “I try to make my point get across in as inclusive a way as I can,” she said. “It’s not because I’m prioritizing comfort of the poster, but I think when you are able to have as inclusive a dialogue as possible I think that’s when things can actually change.”

Joseph agreed. “Based on who the person you are talking to, you have to find common language that focuses on the language not the person.” Ultimately, you have to “talk in a way that encourages buy in,” he said. However, this is complicated. Kraus added that one has to consider if one is being “inclusive for comfort or for change.”

Still, transitioning online conversations into real actions can be difficult. Ferrándiz and Kraus both stated that it’s important to ground online arguments into substantial actions outside the screen in order for them to be productive.

“Online platforms are not always, but can be, an important tool to gain exposure to critical modes of thought and action, and advance conversations diagnosing violence and proposing…solutions,” Ferrándiz said. Kraus agreed: “In order for real change to be made it has to manifest in real life too,” she said.

Sometimes, these challenging conversations are best had in person rather than online. Having a more private and personal forum for discussion “necessitates some sort of compromise because you’re forced to recognize that this other person you’re talking to is a human,” shared Snyder. “There’s a performing aspect that comes with the public forum,” noted Mihm, also explaining that smaller discussions can lead to “education and learning from each other and [become] less about fitting in.”

There are endeavors on campus that work to facilitate productive discourses and positive change, and these are being taken off of the web.

One such student organization is the Union, a group looking to create a formal setting for public discourse on international, national, and Tufts-centric issues. “By virtue of not having discussions in person, a lot of things online can be ignored, misinterpreted, or blown out of proportion,” said Nimarta Narang. She, along with Manal Cheema and Elizabeth Ahrens, are the co-directors of the organization formed this semester. Cheema explained that a big problem could be that discourse online can simply get lost in translation and transmission. “An actual conversation…worth having becomes lost after it gets condemned because it was introduced poorly [online],” she said.

The Union aims to have eight debates with timed sessions to talk and audience participation in the form of questions and comments. On part of the Union’s formula aiming at effective conversation. “By having paper speeches, the speakers can present their arguments fully … in a structured way as to not let it digress away from the actual topic at hand,” Cheema said.

Besides emerging campus groups, there are also existing leaders on campus who are here to facilitate in-person discussion, although their roles as such might not always be visible. Senior Tafari Duncan is the student chair for the Committee of Student Life, a student-faculty committee that makes important decisions and changes to student policy at Tufts. He explained that a lot of the policies in the student handbook are decided by the CSL. “One of my challenges as the student chair for the CSL, which is supposed to be involved in student life and change policy, has been to get students involved in the process. For example, when we were amending the code of conduct, I realized this is a huge deal because we were literally rewriting, in some cases, the rules. I tried to reach out to students on the class pages and through attending clubs…yet no one brought up anything to me.”

Duncan doesn’t think this represents a lack of student interest. Political discourse is thriving on social media, both on campus and on a national scale. What’s preventing action, according to Duncan, is the sentiment that there is no outlet for people to express those controversial opinions and get policy change. “A lot of people assume that [student government] can’t help them,” Duncan said.

Though students expressed the importance of taking these conversations into the world beyond online forums, this does not always happen. “Sometimes the only place where these conversations are happening is online,” Kraus said. “Engaging online can be so powerful.”

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