Prototyping for change: Results from the SELMA “Hacking Hate” Hackathon

In this section, we outline results from the SELMA “Hacking Hate” hackathon. We hope this may inspire social media providers – and other public and private stakeholders – to more actively draw upon the views and creativity of young people when prototyping for change.

What kind of hackathon?

Despite the reference to hacking, planning a hackathon doesn’t require IT knowledge or coding skills. In a broader sense, a hackathon is an event which aims to solve problems in a creative way with a group of people who come together for a defined duration of time to work on specific issues. Typically they work in small groups on defined problems.

There are many convincing reasons to do a hackathon for education purposes. First of all, it is an opportunity to learn new things and create something new in a team. It’s a hands-on approach where learning by doing will result in unexpected learning outcomes. The collaborative aspect is central to the idea of a hackathon and even though there might be competitive elements, team bonding is a goal in itself. A hackathon also offers the chance for informal learning outside the classroom/the curriculum with less pressure and more flexible outcomes. Therefore participating in a hackathon might be a unique experience for those learners who aren’t regularly winners.

For example, the SELMA "Hacking Hate" hackathon was a two-day event that brought together young people, teachers, and other professionals to work on innovative tools and solutions to "hack" online hate speech. All participants submitted ideas to prevent or remediate online hate speech before the event. During the hackathon they were coached by experts from various fields, had time to further develop their idea, work on prototypes and present their products to an international expert jury. Innovative ideas developed during the hackathon are also featured in the SELMA toolkit.

How does it work?

Practical preparations

For the SELMA hackathon we published a call for participation about six months before the event. As we were looking for teams of underage participants from across Europe this timeframe was necessary for preparation.

Depending on logistics and necessity of travelling or looking for a venue for the hackathon the preparation time will vary but planning at least three months in advance of the event seems necessary from our experience.

In the call for participation we published:

  • basic information on the event (date, place, format),
  • requirements for the team (in our case a team of young people aged 15-18 plus an accompanying adult (e.g. teacher)),
  • content description for the submitted ideas, and
  • prize of the event (if available).

We used an online tool for submissions and shared the call with relevant partners who helped us with distribution.

From our experience, with a themed hackathon the call for participation should address a concrete problem, ideally drawing upon the online experience of young people in order to make it relevant to them.

In order to choose the participants for your event we recommend to use an evaluation scheme with criteria for the decision. For the SELMA hackathon we used the following criteria:

  • How creative is the submitted idea?
  • How innovative is the submitted idea?
  • How mature (i.e., how far developed) is the submitted idea?
  • How realizable is the submitted idea?
  • How much impact (e.g., societal) could the idea potentially generate?

You might want to adapt the questions to your needs, but using a tool for selection will help to make a decision if you have more applicants than you can work with in your event.

If you’re working with minors please think about getting consent from their parents and examine if you need a risk assessment for the event. For the SELMA hackathon we invited an accompanying adult for each team as both our contact person in preparation of the hackathon and as supervisor and coach during the event.

Think about the design of your hackathon and strategic partners for cooperation. There are different forms of hackathon events with either hacking, training and hacking or training activities. Based on the SELMA hackathon experience, where we combined hacking and training, we can recommend a mixture of input sessions, time for conceptual work and prototyping as well as time for exchange with professionals from different areas of expertise. You could either reach out to institutions working in the field of hate speech or you could invite experts – from inside or outside you organisation – with the relevant IT/tech knowledge as to support the development process from idea to product.

If the participants of your event don’t know each other and haven’t met before you could think about a preparatory online or offline meeting to get to know each other, talk about the goals of the event and discuss questions participants might have. In any case we recommend to publish a briefing document with the event programme, tasks for preparation and practical information.

If your hackathon event is meant as a competition you could think of a prize or you could commit further expertise to realise marketable products developed in the hackathon. Please don’t give priority to the competition and make sure that participants feel comfortable as a group during the event.

Last but not least: Think about ways of letting the world know about your event. You can promote it on your website/social media channels and contact important stakeholders. Plan different PR activities ranging from a press release to a social media hashtag to guarantee visibility before, during and after your event.

Designing the programme

For the SELMA “Hacking Hate” hackathon we put together a two-day programme combining hacking and training in order to give participants both input for their products and time and support to develop their initial ideas into prototypes.

In a short welcome session we explained the programme for the hackathon and introduced participants to the SELMA concept model and its Social and Emotional Learning approach. If time permits you could use a (Warm up) activity or questions from the SELMA toolkit (focus ‘SEL’) to make your participants aware of the emotional effects of online hate.

At the beginning of the SELMA hackathon all teams introduced themselves and shortly presented their idea to hack hate online. During the event there were some ice-breaking and feedback sessions to mix teams, yet the main idea was to enable the teams to work on their initial idea and start to develop prototypes with the support of the accompanying adults, experts from various fields and SELMA staff. In our case, the participants handed in their ideas beforehand so we decided it would be best if they would stay in their teams and continue to work on their products, but of course you could choose a less structured approach by allowing participants to work in ad hoc teams and changing throughout the event.

Although our teams reflected on the topic of hate speech before entering the hackathon a “Food for Thought” session performed by a theatre group confronted participants with hate comments and involved them in form of a mini role-play. Without announcement the theatre group played a provoking scene and asked participants to participate in it, e.g. reading out hateful comments or witnessing the scene as bystanders and thinking about ways they could intervene. In doing so the scene made young people feel potential effects of online hate speech on a first hand basis. Although the scene was meant to be provoking, it also encouraged discussion to offer potential solutions to online hate speech. As mentioned above, the SEL approach calls for emotional involvement and you could draw on similar activities from the toolkit to achieve a similar effect. It might seem unusual to include a role-play activity in a hackathon programme but in our opinion it supports the emotional learning process and might also influence the product outcome.

Our hackathon programme included an “Ask the expert session” where several experts from various fields coached the young people and helped them to address specific challenges around their submitted idea. At the beginning of this session all experts introduced themselves, their professional background and the kind of expertise they brought in and how they could support the teams to push their ideas to the next level. Then the teams had time to formulate questions they wanted to discuss with each of the experts. All teams had the opportunity to speak with all experts during a professional speed dating phase of approximately 15 minutes per expert. The timing allowed some flexibility to expand or shorten the time according to the needs of the teams.

After the input sessions all teams had time for reflection to defining the goals of their products. Participants were encouraged to think about the following questions:

  • What is the online hate speech problem you address?
  • How is your idea/solution/product going to resolve the issue?
  • Who is the target group?
  • Show us a prototype?
  • What do you need to make it happen?

During this slot participants primarily worked on their own to specify their idea/product. When they needed support they could ask the accompanying adults or members of the SELMA team for help.

On the second day we had one short input session of 30 minutes about how to successfully pitch their idea.

Then the teams had time for the prototyping/product development. In our opinion this session should be ideally at least a half-day session to give them time to work and move from idea to product. Whereas the first day of our hackathon was quite structured, the second day offered open spaces. It depends on your audience and their experience how much you should structure your hackathon event. The more time you plan for the prototyping/product development session, the likelier it is that your participants will develop finished products. However they might not have the final product at the end of the hackathon. The teams will have moved several steps forward but if they are working on complex issues, solving these problems might need time and they might also need help from other experts. Try to support them on their journey after the hackathon.

The SELMA hackathon ended with a competition in which participants pitched their ideas. All teams had time to prepare a short presentations and present their improved ideas/products in front of the international expert jury, consisting of members of the SELMA Education Task Force and a jury spokesperson. After the presentations the jury retreated to discuss the presentations based on the evaluation scheme mentioned above and select a winning team. In an Award ceremony the jury announced the winners and all teams received certificates and had the opportunity to take pictures of their teams. For us it was really important to emphasise that all participants were winners because they all developed ideas to stop hate speech online.

What kind of outcomes to expect?

As we hosted a themed hackathon on ideas to tackle online hate speech all of the developed prototypes dealt with online hate speech. However, we didn’t limit the call to technological solution to the problem and also invited participants with ideas to stop online hate speech with offline activities. The span of ideas was diverse and ranged from education platforms to Artificial intelligence software as the following overview shows:

  • Brainy Titans (Italy): A reporting app that will be linked to educational actions for those that have been reported.
  • Digital Vikings (Denmark): An online portal in which young people can gain knowledge on hate speech and, at the same time, earn points to be used in popular games. An ingame ranking system based on players' behaviours will be developed too.
  • Hatebusters (Greece): An educational app that will give young people the opportunity to think deeply, get informed about hate speech and motivate them to take action.
  • L.A.D. (UK): Artificial Intelligence software that will provide counselling to victims of online hate speech.
  • Hate Defuse (UK): A website to educate young people about online hate called ‘Hate Defuse'. The website will contain information, blogs, video as well as peer-mentoring advice.
  • Stop Bullying (Germany): Sketches performed by pupils for pupils to show how hate speech can hurt the feeling of others.

During the course of the hackathon, all teams elaborated their initial concepts and made it more concrete. For instance, the team with the idea of a reporting app defined the processes how reported persons could be educated and how sanctions could look like if they kept on using hate speech. Other teams such as the theatre group were inspired by the media aspects of the other teams and started to think about ways to use social media services or their school website for their purpose. So even though the teams didn’t work together, they influences each other.

As mentioned earlier, drawing upon the online experience of young people will help them to address a concrete problem they could work on. Therefore you could use a media analysis unit from the SELMA toolkit to identify potential problems and solutions to tackle online hate speech. For instance the approach of team Hate Defuse pointed out that most websites contain too complicated information and don’t appeal to young people. For this reason their approach included peer advice and age appropriate content.

The SELMA winning team were the “Digital Vikings” from Denmark who developed the idea of a fair game platform that will be linked to popular multiplayer games. According to their plans gamers with good online behaviour will get rewards in the game, those with bad behaviour will be punished and their comments will be silenced as the following chart shows:

The jury decision made clear that this innovative concept has a great potential impact and could influence how online gaming platforms are designed. According to the jury spokesperson the idea tackles a very topical problem related to online gaming: “We like the idea that gamers get rewarded for good and positive behaviour. We also like that the team developed this idea based on their own personal gaming experiences. To us, it was clear that this is the right idea at the right time.”

The team from Aarhus now plans to reach out to the gaming industry to convince them to realise their idea to hack hate for good.

The importance of feedback and follow-up support

Although many interesting and promising ideas were developed in the SELMA hackathon, none of the teams have finished their products yet. In order to implement their plans they need follow-up support after the hackathon event. From experience with earlier projects we know it needs a lot of dedication and weeks or months of hard work to offer solutions to online problems. A good example is the klicksafe cyberbullying first aid app which was also developed during a hackathon event. In the aftermath of the hackathon, the team kept working on their prototype with support from the German Safer Internet Centre and an elder brother who studied computer science. In this case personal contacts made it possible to finish the project and turn it into a success story. In other cases you might need to reach out to other partners who could help you to realise your plans. You could also involve national Safer Internet Centre (find it here: or another institution or media company.

Organising a hackathon is a great way of empowering young people to come up with ideas to hack hate and educators can guide them on their journey (even if they don’t have IT knowledge) by encouraging them to keep going, by offering feedback and suggestions for improvement and by looking out for strategic partners.