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Safer Internet Day — How Google.org grantees are building a safe space for underserved communities to thrive online

Since we last marked Safer Internet Day one year ago, the world closed its doors to protect the vulnerable and many of us went online for everything from socializing to homeschooling; the ‘new normal’. The Internet was also a lifeline to those in need of help during the pandemic, from those seeking mental health support, to women suffering from domestic violence.

Throughout the pandemic however, we’ve also seen a rise of hate online. In honor of Safer Internet Day 2021, we’re proud to highlight stories of a few of the brilliant organizations supported by Google.org through the €10M Google.org Impact Challenge on Safety in Europe, who have been tirelessly continuing their critical work tackling hate online and offline, building resilience with communities and, together helping to create a safer and more tolerant environment for underserved communities to thrive online.

BeLong To Youth Services (Ireland) — Creating a safe space for the LGBTI+ community

“Over half of LGBTI+ young people we surveyed indicated their home environment is not a good place to be during lockdown, with many experiencing homophobia and transphobia under their own roof” says Moninne Griffith, CEO, BeLonG To Youth Services. Indeed, the findings of their “LGBTQ+ life in lockdown” report make for hard reading; 93% of LGBTI+ young people in Ireland are struggling with anxiety, stress or depression during the pandemic. This makes the work of BeLong To more important than ever, and they have pivoted to digital youth work, online youth groups and online training for the youth work and education sector to respond to the need. This important work ensures safe spaces for LGBTI+ young people to come together, to be who they are and to receive the support they need.

Young people showing their support for Belong To and it’s work with the LGBTI+ community

Stichting ERGO Network (Belgium) — Targeting anti-Roma hate speech

A particularly vulnerable group across Europe when it comes to hate speech online is the Roma community. To move the needle on antigypsyism (i.e. anti-Roma sentiment), Stichting ERGO Network have deployed the people who understand it best — Roma people themselves — as trained peer educators to deliver youth-led educational activities and empower young people to recognise and counter it. Longer term, they are also working to galvanize stronger legislation against hate speech targeting the Roma community. When asked about why their work is so important, one peer educator put it succinctly; “the constant use of hate speech instills a negative state in society, feelings of hostility, mistrust, and intolerance, destroys social ties between citizens, which undermines socio-political stability.”

A pre-Covid study session held with young Roma and non-Roma activists in Budapest

HateAid (Germany) — Empowering victims of hate speech online

To be a victim of hate speech online is to feel silenced. HateAid is all too aware of this as they seek to empower victims with emotional support through counselling sessions, as well as practical support such as online deletion requests or legally securing screenshots. They also provide digital security training which helps with reviewing what personal information is held online and removing it, if necessary. “It is important to show offenders that hate speech has legal consequences” remarks Anna-Lena von Hodenberg CEO of HateAid, which is why a large part of the support offered by HateAid covers legal fees and court costs. This removes a significant barrier for victims from underserved communities such as people with disabilities, the trans community, BIPOC and women — especially those who engage in political dialogue online. Speaking of the ideal outcome, von Hodenberg is clear: “our goal is to build resilience amongst users who experience hate and to re-empower them to go back online so they don’t feel like they have been silenced by hateful sentiment.”

Anna-Lena von Hodenberg, CEO of HateAid

Fundacja Centrum Edukacji Obywatelskiej (Poland) — Using film to teach children about online safety

As children spend more time online as a result of the pandemic, the likelihood of coming across harmful or inappropriate content increases. Helping kids enjoy the benefits of the internet, while staying safe online, has never been more critical. “Adults often feel that they are digital immigrants and their children are digital natives” says Karolina Giedrys, Fundacja CEO. This generational shift is at the heart of the uncertainty when considering how to make the online world a safe place for children. In Poland, Fundacja uses film to bridge the gap by empowering adults to give children aged 7–13yrs the support they need to cope with challenges such as cyberbullying. The films play a key role in evoking feelings and emotions regarding the online world, and “empower children to develop the ability to react flexibly towards certain risks and challenges” says Giedrys.

Pre-Covid: Giedrys with children at one of the participating schools for Fundacja CEO’s program

SPEAK (Portugal)- Targeting prejudice through friendship for migrants and refugees

One group of people that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic are refugees; “many are facing longer delays in the processing of their legal status, fewer employment opportunities, and increased difficulties when trying to get access to health services” says Hugo Menino Aguiar, CEO of SPEAK, an organization striving to promote the social inclusion of migrants and refugees in their new communities. They do this by connecting newcomers and locals living in the same city through language and culture exchange experiences. Since moving all services online as a result of the pandemic, the organization has reached more people than ever before (200%+ growth), and with 92% of users feeling more connected during lockdown, it’s a model that works for the times we live in., “Friendship — that’s the answer” says Aguiar. “It’s a privilege to be able to connect them to their local communities online.”

A group of SPEAK language learners connecting online by practicing their Portuguese

All of the grantees featured above were successful applicants of the €10M Google.org Impact Challenge on Safety in Europe (with deeply insightful input from expert organizations Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Ashoka), where the best and boldest ideas from nonprofits and social enterprises are given a strategic package of funding, mentorship, and technical support. This program was launched as a part of Google’s broader commitment to helping everyone, especially underserved communities, stay safe online. As a part of this commitment and our continuous investment in this space, we also recently announced a new Google Safety Engineering Center for Content Responsibility in Dublin, a regional hub for Google experts working to tackle the spread of illegal and harmful content and a place where we can share this work with policymakers, and researchers.

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