Combatting Online Hate Speech – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Combatting Online Hate Speech

In their recent paper and presentation, “Silencing the Silencers: The Ethics of Feminist Trolling to Combat Online Hate Speech,” Associate Professor of Philosophy Karen Frost-Arnold and William Smith graduates Molly Doris-Pierce ’15 and Carly Petroski ’15 explore ways to prevent online hate speech and harassment on the social media app Yik Yak.

The trio presented their collaborative research project at the Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (FEAST) conference, hosted by the Association for Feminist Ethics and Social Theory.

“Marginalized groups, especially women, are often targets of online harassment,” Frost-Arnold explains. “Many people feel powerless in the face of online harassment. But we argue that there are things that people can do to make social media spaces more welcoming and less hostile to marginalized people.”

The paper, written last spring, was accepted to the FEAST conference as a special panel to address the topic of “silencing,” as it ethically evaluates subtle and overt strategies for combatting hate-speech, according to how effective they are and how well they promote self-determination for oppressed people.

“Focusing on Yik Yak as a case study, we discuss two types of strategies for dealing with online hate speech and harassment: officially sanctioned methods and feminist trolling tactics,” says Frost-Arnold says.

‘Feminist trolling,’ a term the trio introduced in their paper, refers to the idea of sowing discord, from a feminist perspective, among commenters posting hate speech.

“We show that officially sanctioned methods (like reporting a hateful yak or down voting it) have real limitations,” Frost-Arnold says. “And we argue that feminist trolling has some real advantages. Briefly, feminist trolling uses transgressive silencing to control or reshape a conversation away from hate speech and harassment. We show how feminist trolls can help improve the conversational space of social media sites like Yik Yak.”

Petroski and Doris-Pierce, formerly co-presidents of the Women’s Collective along with Clover Quigley ’15, had been considering issues of hate speech and harassment on Yik Yak at the same time Frost-Arnold was conducting her own research (with Petroski, her research assistant). Together, they began an exploration of ways to transform Yik Yak into a more positive space, which evolved into “Silencing the Silencers.”

In their presentation at FEAST, they engaged with the audience about ways to improve social media on college campuses, and Frost-Arnold says she has received lots of encouraging feedback since. “Everyone has said what an amazing job Molly and Carly did. They were incredible co-authors, and I feel lucky to have worked with them,” she says.

Travel funding was sponsored by the President’s Office and the Philosophy Department.