How to hack hate speech in Nigeria


Last updated: February 15, 2019

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  • At the first-ever Hate Speech Hackathon, sponsored by Mercy Corps, young Nigerians came together for three days of brainstorming and coding in Lagos. The winning idea? An app called “Speech Track” that uses artificial intelligence to detect hate speech and turn it into a puzzle game to educate users. ALL PHOTOS: Mercy Corps staff

Hate speech in Nigeria is a pervasive problem, flaring cultural and political tensions among the country’s more than 300 ethnic groups. And as hate speech spreads online, it inflames ethnic rivalries and heightens instability in a country that ranks 157th out of 180 on the Human Development Index.

“Hate speech in Nigeria is a complex problem with no easy answers,” says Faye Mooney, Mercy Corps’ communications and reporting specialist for Nigeria. “The proliferation of online hate speech has emerged as a divider in communities, reinforcing and exacerbating existing differences, and in some instances, even triggering violence.”

We work with communities and local governments in Nigeria to help build proven, lasting solutions for peace. But to combat hate speech in the digital space, the Mercy Corps Nigeria team knew they would need a new approach — something that could bring together journalists, broadcasters, tech experts, the private sector, and youth organizations.

Responding to hate speech through innovation

So Mercy Corps created the Hate Speech Hackathon, a three-day event in Lagos that convened some of the country’s most creative thinkers for one challenge: develop an innovative, scalable project that responds to the problem of hate speech in Nigeria.

In one week, the team received nearly 500 applications. Out of the applications, 11 teams of three were organized based on their diversity and the range of ideas. The teams submitted projects ranging from tech-based solutions and apps to community outreach projects.

“If we don’t stop the spread of hate speech, it may stop all of us,” says Sadiq Adebisi, 45, a participant from Ogun State in southern Nigeria. “History has shown that hate speech is the seed that germinates into conflict and builds up unnecessary rivalries and suspicions among various groups. If it’s not nipped in the bud, it could destroy our hard-earned development.”

The winning hacks

Mercy Corps used the Hate Speech Hackathon to bring together diverse stakeholders like journalists and tech experts to hack solutions to hate speech. “The hackathon was about bringing in people with skills and ideas that are typically outside our existing networks as an INGO,” says Mercy Corps’ Faye Mooney.

The winning team, Team 1, proposed an app that detects and predicts hate speech using machine learning and bots to gather information from news sites, social media, and internet comments. Called “Speech Track,” the app then turns the language into a puzzle game that educates users about the dangers of hate speech.

The team received a $2,000 prize for winning and is working with Mercy Corps’ Technology for Development team to develop a related app that grew out of the idea.

“It was an exciting time working on the project idea,” says Omolara Oshin, 42, a participant from Ogun State. “It was a time of sharing information, tinkering with various ideas, and piecing all the puzzles together to form a unique whole.”

The second place team, Team 11, created a project called the “Student Enlightenment Tour” — a campaign that would tour around the southwest region of Nigeria offering students a hate speech guidebook published in English and Yoruba. The tour would aim to sensitize students to hate speech and offer ways to report it. Proposed alongside the guidebook was an online educational and interactive forum where students would have access to a hate-free forum and interact with one another while accessing hate speech resources.

“My hope for the future of Nigeria is an optimistic one, though we will be faced with challenges from various quarters,” Oshin says. “The Hate Speech Hackathon created a platform for people from diverse career paths to come together and chisel out solutions, utilizing different concepts and innovative ideas.

“However, it must be noted that for our ideas to be absolutely effective, Nigerians also need to look inward. My desire is for Nigerians to feel safe in their country, no matter where they call home — for an Igbo man from the East to feel safe in the core Northern part of the country, for there to be unity in our diversity, and, especially, for love speech to replace hate speech.”

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