Online harassment is occurring at alarming rates. People get ridiculed, sexually harassed and threatened online. And sometimes this harassment can lead to violent, extremist crimes.
Technology companies have come up with different responses to the problem, but Parisa Zagat from Facebook’s public policy team and the lead on its global counterspeech efforts, believes that removing offensive and harmful content from the web is not enough.
It's important to fight back with a positive message that resonates with people and that can roll back the tide of hateful content.
To do this, Facebook is turning to college students.
About a year ago, Facebook teamed up with EdVentures Partners and the U.S. State Department to help support their competition, "Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism". Through the competition, college students around the world come up with online campaigns to help counter extremism.
The idea is to create video and other content that can be easily shared on social media, and which provides opinions, advice and insight on the same issues that extremists exploit for their own ends.
"When we were first introduced to P2P we saw the power of the programming," said Sabeti Zagat, in an interview with Business Insider. "Young voices can be really powerful. They can push back against some of the hate and extremism."
But perhaps one of the reasons that Facebook was most interested in this competition is that they recognize coming up with effective counter-extremism campaigns for the whole world from their offices in Menlo Park can be a challenge.
"Whatever the issue is in a community, whether it's harassment, Islamophobia, violent extremism, young people can create messages that will resonate the best," Parisa said. "They know what that community is experiencing."
Students know best
This holds true when you look at the University of Nebraska Omaha, which entered the P2P challenge for the first time, completing their project in time for the domestic competition's deadline yesterday.
The group of honors students created The Refugee Perspective campaign. The purpose of the campaign is to help create positive messaging about refugees living in Nebraska. They created documentaries with refugees in the community to help share their messages. They have a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube account.
"The demographics here are pretty low diversity," said Professor Gina Ligon, the advisor to the students entering the P2P challenge. "We have a lot of college age students who have never been exposed to a refugee or even to someone from another country. There are really great kids here, but that's who white supremacists target, people who don't know any different."
So while there is little diversity, Omaha is also home to some of the largest populations of refugees from Myanmar and Sudan.
Ligon warns that this mix can be dangerous. So Ligon's students worked hard on their campaign to help build messaging specifically about refugees: "We thought we would be credible voices to those kind of students because we could help them to see that refugees aren't harboring terrorists in them."
An international competition
Since EdVentures Partners started the competition, it has been growing around the world. P2P currently has a presence in 60 countries with over 250 universities participating. They have a domestic competition and three regional international competitions, held in Germany, Ghana and Oman.
All these competitions culminate in one final competition held in Washington D.C. in February.
Facebook's involvement in the program includes not only funding parts of the competition, but also providing training and judging the competition, along with EdVenture Partners and the State Department.
"They call it G.U.I. — government, university, industry partnership," Ligon said. "We have been coming up with catchy things that young people might see, but then you have the expertise of the government who knows exactly what we can and can't do legally. And then you have industry like Facebook that knows how to optimize any kind of platform that we want to use to get out message out there."
Ligon and her students will find out on Dec. 16 if they have been selected for the final competition in February.
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