Steps to creating safe communities

In a previous article I talked about Internet safety as a diversity and inclusion issue (which it clearly is). This post looks at the challenges to creating an environment where all people feel safe, as well as the huge benefits to be reaped when communities succeed in promoting diversity and inclusion. It’s not an impossible dream; there are steps we can take to ensure all people feel safe and secure on social media, online games, marketplaces, dating apps.

Fine Line Between Free Speech and Hate Speech

Any discussion of diversity and inclusion is invariably a flash point, as political discourse today illustrates. Our country values free speech, which is why it is enshrined in our constitution. At times, however, the line between free speech and hate speech can be infuriatingly thin.

That line is infinitely more complex and difficult to pin down in large scale global platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Cultural differences are profound and inevitable. And that, in turn, means that Facebook and Twitter aren’t single communities, they’re hundreds of thousands of micro-communities sharing the same platform. The challenge, therefore, is to create a diversity and inclusion policy that applies to each individual micro-community. I get that it’s difficult, but not insurmountable. More than that, it’s worth the effort.

Diversity is Always a Benefit

There are numerous parallels of the online and offline worlds, and what benefits the real world equally benefits the online one, and vice versa. Those benefits absolutely include of diversity and inclusion.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has looked at the economic costs of ethnic and racial gap in education and subsequent earning power. Their research estimates that reducing gaps in education will add $278 billion per year for the economy. Moreover, the “increased purchasing power that $278 billion represents would have a multiplier effect on the economy as a whole, raising the national GDP level.”

Diversity also has direct, beneficial impacts on cities. Take Sioux City, Iowa, which actively encourages immigrants to move there. Foreign-born newcomers accounted for more than 75% of metro Sioux City's population growth between 2010 and 2015, and they are leading the expansion of the economy

World Economic Forum found that diversity makes people more tolerant, and even willing to lend a helping hand during times of crisis.  “We found that people who lived in more racially diverse zip codes were more likely to offer help to those in need after the bombings.” And that, “people in more diverse countries were more likely to report that they had helped a stranger in the past month.”

The Forum also tested whether or not living in a diverse community affected online behavior in a positive way, and found that it did. Analyzing the sentiments of tweets across the 200 largest metropolitan areas in the US, Forum researchers found that “the likelihood that a tweet mentions words which suggest positivity, friendliness, helpfulness, or social acceptance was higher in a more diverse city.”

Now consider this: The most recent U.S. Census data show that segregation is still high: “Most white residents of large metropolitan areas live in neighborhoods that remain overwhelmingly white, and while black neighborhoods have become more diverse, this is largely due to an increase in Hispanic rather than white residents.” 

For large swaths of the US population, online communities represent the only opportunity to interact with people of different ethnicities or races, and therefore the only opportunity to learn that we’re all human. I can think of a more compelling to ensure diversity and inclusion in online communities. 

Recognizing Bad Behavior

While it’s true that regulating free speech can be problematic, there are red flags to recognize and lines we must never allow to be crossed. We can, with absolute certainty, say that speech has gone too far when it affects a person’s offline behavior. Some painful examples:

  • Online bullying that leads to teen suicide. A study led by Professor Ann John at Swansea University Medical School in collaboration with researchers from the Universities of Oxford and published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, found that young victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to attempt suicide or self harm.

  • Doxxing. I realize that many people consider doxxing a form of social justice, especially in the aftermath of the Charlottesville white nationalist rally. Doxxing forced Nazi sympathsizer Tony Hovater to lose his job and move out of his house. While few among us feel compelled to support Mr. Hovater’s views, tolerating doxxing is a slippery slope at best, and an ethical violation at worst.

  • Conspiracy theories. This too can be a thorny issue. Some conspiracy issues, such as a belief in UFOs, seem harmless enough, but others can have devastating consequences: Pizzagate, anti-vaccination conspiracies, and QAnon can have real world impacts on public safety, childrens’ health and democracy.

Getting There: Steps to Creating Safe and Trusted Communities for All People

First and foremost, it takes a community to make a community safe. Online communities need a consortium of users/players, policy makers, tech providers and the platforms themselves to work together to set expectations, define what’s acceptable and what’s not, and enforce those codes of conduct online.

We also need safety by design, specifically robust AI that detects nefarious behavior and shuts it down. Users need the ability to report abuse, and to expect the platform to address it straight away. And the platform -- or the tech provider -- should harness those user-reports to fine-tune its algorithms to get better at detecting violations.

The Upshot

At the end of the day, diversity of thought, opinion, demographics and backgrounds within any community will make that community better, which in turn increases its value and attractiveness to more people. To reap those benefits, however, community members need to feel empowered them to be themselves and share ideas freely without fear of persecution.