Educating in the Age of Online Hate and Disinformation

Much of my 30-year career as a social justice educator has focused on encouraging students and colleagues to look beyond the actions of bigoted groups and individuals and to focus instead on the ways systemic inequality is embedded in society. So it’s come as a bit of a surprise to me that one of the things I’m doing in my work now is to encourage––implore really––my students and colleagues to directly examine the actions of bigoted groups and people. 

Understanding the complex nature of systemic inequality is critical and remains central to our work as educators, but shifting our attention to the growing dangers organized bigotry poses to our students has become imperative. Hateful rhetoric has proliferated in many of the online spaces that our children inhabit every day, and as political polarization deepens, conspiracy theories spread, and anti-democracy, white nationalist, and other bigoted groups grow bolder, it is more critical than ever that educators understand the magnitude of and know how to address these threats. 

Youth as Targets

Schools all over the country have seen a rise in the number of racist and antisemitic incidents occurring on their campuses, according to a recent report on hate crimes from the U.S. Department of Justice. This rise can, in part, be attributed to the fact that kids are being targeted, and we need to understand the ways their online environments are shaping their perceptions and actions.

Bigoted groups have become skilled at using social media and online forums to lure young people into their ideology. A 2020 study, “Youth Exposure to Hate in the Online Space,” published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that “the more time youth spent online the more likely they were to be exposed to hate in the online space.” These groups bombard children with messages designed to normalize hateful rhetoric and draw them into harmful content. What often begins as provocative jokes or memes can quickly send students deep into in an online sea of hate and disinformation through the power of algorithms. 

Groups like these that want to grow their base intentionally target adolescents who are attempting to figure out who they are and where they belong. Students who lack a sense of belonging are particularly vulnerable to messaging aimed at bringing them into a community, even a hateful one, and bigoted groups try to connect with them as a way to increase their memberships and, ultimately, their power.

All educators, especially those with responsibility for community well-being and discipline, should learn to recognize the signs of exposure to bigoted and anti-democratic rhetoric and develop the skills necessary to help young people contextualize and resist harmful information. 

What Can We Do?

Schools and educators need to be prepared to respond to incidents, but it is critical to work proactively to help students resist the lure of these groups as well. 

Tap into available resources. There are many practical and research-based resources from organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center that are committed to protecting young people from being targeted by hate groups. Among the organization’s many resources, its recent Building Resilience and Confronting Risk guide, created in partnership with American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, is designed to help parents, caregivers and educators understand how extremists exploit online communication to target children and young adults.

The Western States Center (WSC)’s “Confronting White Nationalism in Schools” toolkit provides information about how groups are targeting youth online and actionable strategies for navigating a variety of incidents. It includes sample scenarios ranging from hate symbols appearing anonymously on campus to students parroting anti-democracy talking points in assignments or advocating to start a school chapter of an outside organization which advances bigotry. Each scenario includes tips of what to do and not to do, examples of campus success stories, and even sample language for communicating with students about incidents. 

Teach the hard lessons. We may be scared and perplexed by the polarization we see around us, but we cannot shrink from our responsibility to teach our students how to understand and navigate it. It can feel harder than ever to talk about racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and misogyny, but we need to continue to talk openly and honestly about these hard issues with students and give them opportunities and skills to practice discussing divisive issues. 

We should expand our teaching to include the history and impact of hate groups. This includes both the historical ebb and flow of KKK and Nazi organizing as well as the more recent, rapid growth of bigoted and anti-government groups, such as Patriot Front, Oath Keepers, and Proud Boys, all of whom are making news and impacting communities on a weekly basis. By understanding the historical and contemporary social context of these groups, young people can better understand the harm they cause, and why it is important to resist their message. 

Center compassion and belonging. Schools must place compassion at the center of this work. Our classrooms and club meetings should be places where all students are welcome. These environments are also critical spaces to care for Black, brown, LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim, and other youth who are targeted by bigoted groups. 

Too often, social justice issues are perceived as furthering divisions, but we should hold firm to the commitment that they are a vehicle to bring people together.

When we don’t center compassion and belonging, we run the risk of alienating white students, particularly white boys, making them much more susceptible to the rhetoric of bigoted groups––who recruit them by convincing them that social justice work demonizes them, casts them as the problem, and blames them for society's ills. These students need to hear from us that they inherited a system that is the problem, and they can be part of the solution. 

When school leaders or educators are considering disciplinary actions for students who espouse hateful views, they should enter the conversations with curiosity about what the student has heard and compassion for the confusion and distrust they may be experiencing. Teachers and administrators should be versed in restorative justice practices and focus on calling students into the conversation rather than calling them out. 

Teach digital literacy skills across all grade levels. We need to teach students how they are being targeted and how to identify sources of bias and misinformation. This can start with teaching the basics of digital literacy—how to find reliable information, how to use critical thinking skills to evaluate information, and how to use what they find safely and responsibly. 

I recently used the Stanford History Education Group’s Civic Online Reasoning materials with my students. These free online lesson plans and videos help middle and high school students learn to evaluate sources like a professional fact checker. My students said they felt empowered and compelled to interrogate information. 

As educators, we’ve long been trained to recognize signs of physical danger and abuse. Now, to truly keep children safe, our training and our work must extend into understanding the ways kids’ online environments are shaping their perceptions and actions. This is not how I thought I'd be spending my time, but I can’t think of anything more important to talk with my students about right now. 

Sheri Lyn Schmidt

Sheri Lyn Schmidt supports social justice education initiatives and teaches in the humanities department at Parker School in Waimea, Hawaii. She previously was co-facilitator of the Equity and Inclusion Institute at the Nueva School in San Mateo, California, and also served as director of equity and social justice at The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut.