Fresh Perspectives on Harmful Speech Online

If you’ve been on Twitter or Facebook lately, chances are good that you stumbled across something that might be classified as harmful speech online. Perhaps you read a Tweet that used offensive language to describe its recipient, or maybe you saw a Facebook post that was designed to demean another user.

Such messages, as well as communications far more sinister, can be considered harmful speech. A recent Pew study found that 4 in 10 Americans have experienced online harassment and 66 percent have witnessed it. With such a high prevalence, harmful speech begs to be better understood in our increasingly online world.

Today the Harmful Speech Online project at the Berkman Klein Center is pleased to introduce a collection of short essays authored by members of the Center’s diverse intellectual community. It seeks to illuminate fresh perspectives on harmful speech online, as well as new approaches to dealing with its occurrence and discouraging it in the first place. After placing an open call to our community for pieces on this subject, we were thrilled by the amount of interest and the breadth of topics contributors offered. Essays explore the inherent problems of responding to harmful speech online, offer international perspectives on the matter, and discuss a variety of approaches, interventions, and solutions to evaluate and pursue.

These essays offer poignant insights into the state of the conversation on harmful speech and online harassment. Many draw from research, while others are written in a less formal and more op-ed style; this indicates that the conversation around harmful speech online is not just for academics, but must also include and engage the public at-large. Further, some pieces are written in a style evocative of advocacy, whereas others are written for scholarly communities; in this dichotomy, we see that experts are both inherently opinionated and passionate as well as largely scholarly and academic.

This collection of essays written by colleagues, collaborators, and other members of our global community contributes another element to many years of research and to several projects at the Berkman Klein Center related to harmful speech online. The latest collaborative endeavor, a workshop exploring how algorithms and human behavior both independently and conjointly affect the propagation of harmful speech online and responses to it, convened over 60 experts from around the world for two days of discussion and collaboration. It followed multiple case studies and research papers published on the topic in fall 2016. The recent work by the Harmful Speech Online project has been inspired by previous explorations of harmful speech online through the lenses of youth and misogyny, as well as a robust ecosystem outside of BKC dedicated to research on the subject.

We hope that this essay collection will enable cross-pollination among practitioners by providing new ideas and perspectives for all to consider in the course of their work on this subject. We believe that as our lives and communications become increasingly digital, the attention we give to harms, abuse, and harassment, both real and potential, must be commensurate.

The full collection can be downloaded here.