The key to ending online hate? Treat it like a virus.

It will take a crack team of scientists, programmers and philosophers to cure the online hate pandemic.

SARAH RUGER: I don't have the easy answer for how to have constructive dialogue online because though it's been a decade or two since the internet has existed -- it feels like my whole life -- but it's still a relatively new technology, new phenomenon and we're still trying to figure it out. I mean, it's as disruptive as the invention of the printing press was to our society and how we organize and it's going to take us time to figure out what healthy behaviors look like in that context. That's why it's so vital to bring together interdisciplinary scholars and research across philosophical and discipline divides. That's why we're so committed to supporting scholars who are asking those exact questions, you know, what does facilitate mentally healthy practices online? From a content moderation standpoint, what methods have lead to more civil communities and what have lead to greater breakdown? All of that study is playing out and will continue to do so. I think the best that we can do as individuals during that time is to tune in to content like this as much as possible.

There's some good advice out there for what we've found thus far. I was talking with a Princeton-trained neuroscientist who is now running a platform and research center that tracks the proliferation of hate speech online and what was so interesting about how he was talking about this is he was talking about incivility and hate online as almost a contagion, like a virus. Like the kind of thing that has a definite starting point and proliferates wildly through basically bad digital mental hygiene practices. And we've actually been thinking about the challenge of intolerance lately as a philanthropy, almost like you would in addressing a public health crisis so that really resonated with me. How do you get people together who are going to tackle a problem from a lot of different angles? How do you get neuroscientists together who can see how people behave when they're becoming intolerant or moving restoratively to a place of tolerance, how do you get them together with technologists who are designing the platforms, get them together with the conflict resolution theorists who are seeing the models that are working in highly fractured countries abroad, get them together with the philosophers who are asking normative questions about how we best flourish as human beings and get them all to come together and figure out what best promotes toleration and peace and what causes degradation into that virus of intolerance?

I think the more we study it, similar to how we study disease or other major systemic problems, the more we'll start to identify common themes, common factors that lead to the negative outcomes and the more that we can digest those common factors into a set of almost individual responsibilities or best practices that inoculate you from those harmful views and prevent you from escalating to the point of those behaviors that harm society and ultimately when we harm each other we harm ourselves as individuals.

  • If online hate is a contagion, as suggested by neuroscientist Joel Finkelstein, then perhaps the most effective course of action will come from treating it as a virus: Gather an interdisciplinary team of minds to study the mechanics of the virus and treat it.
  • The internet is as big a disruption to society as the printing press was. Sarah Ruger sees the road toward social peace as one where neuroscientists, technologists, conflict resolution theorists and philosophers all work together to create a digital culture that brings out the best in humanity, not the worst.