Lebanon News

Student campaign against hate speech reaches finals

BEIRUT: Seven students from Beirut’s Haigazian University have won the chance to present their campaign to combat religious hatred and extremism before a panel of top executives in Washington D.C. in a competition with a $10,000 prize. The student team is led by Mohammad Bachir, 25, who is a senior marketing student at the university. “We thought, what would be something that actually benefits Lebanon? What is something that we actually go through?” Bachir told The Daily Star.

“As you know, Lebanon is very diverse when it comes to religion and there’s always been subtle discrimination and preconceptions about other religions that we grew up with in Lebanon, and that’s what we wanted to try to address.”

According to Dr. Priyan Khakhar, a professor of International Business and Marketing at Haigazian and one of the students’ supervisors, the campaign, called “RISE,” was structured around a marketing paradigm known as AIDA: Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action.

To raise awareness, the students began a social media campaign in November, generating content to share via Facebook.

“We tried to create awareness that hate speech is a problem in the beginning of our campaign. ... For example, we talked about hate speech and the Rwandan genocide in one of our videos. Ultimately hate speech, if not seen to, can lead to genocide,” Khakhar said.

To meet the criteria of the competition that the campaign be both online and on the ground, the students set up multiple booths at the Beirut Marathon and held events at their university.

The team took to the streets to discover how their peers viewed religion. “We filmed students around Beirut asking them how they describe themselves,” Bachir said. “We found that no one really highlighted their religion, so we wanted to bring that to light. When people are describing themselves, religion isn’t the first thing that comes to mind and we shouldn’t judge each other on that basis.”

To encourage “interest” and “desire,” the students secured approximately 20 celebrity endorsements and created wristbands, which proved to be popular among the campaign’s primary target demographic of 18-25 year olds.

The “action” part of the campaign centered on an online extension to the Chrome web browser called “Type Above Hate.”

By partnering with U.S.-based NGO HateBase, the campaign created a database of over 8,000 examples of hate speech in 72 languages. “If you download the Chrome extension, when you’re typing on one of the four major social media channels – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Youtube – if you use any of the terms that are on that database it will give you a notification,” Bachir explained.

The notification system is not intended to be a warning, Bachir said. “We want to try to get people to understand why the terms are damaging and why they count as hate speech. ... We’re hoping to educate them and hopefully from there, people will incentivize themselves to avoid using hate speech.”

The campaign has already drawn interest from educational institutions around Lebanon. In addition to Haigazian University, the team is in discussions with the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University, as well as two schools in Beirut and one in south Lebanon to implement the campaign.

The primary targets of the campaign are at-risk students, but the group also wants to engage others involved in the system.

“There’s a secondary group that we’re trying to target, which is the people that see this issue but don’t really address it. ... We all know this problem exists in Lebanon but no-one really speaks up against it,” Bachir said.

“We have to start with our primary audience and then go toward educators in tandem and hopefully from there toward parents.”

The RISE team and Khakhar will fly to the U.S. at the end of January. They will represent both Haigazian and Lebanon, competing against three other teams, from Brazil, Bangladesh and Germany, to win the $10,000 top prize.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 22, 2017, on page 3.

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