To What Content Does Counterspeech Respond?
Counterspeakers make their own choices about which content merits a response, so their decisions are subjective and varied. Some groups of counterspeakers appoint a few members to select content to which the rest respond. In all cases counterspeakers themselves decide not only which content, but also which sources or authors to contradict. For example, some counterspeakers refute state propaganda, even though it sometimes puts them in danger of retribution from vengeful, powerful governments and/or their supporters.
When asked what content they look for, most of the counterspeakers the DSP has interviewed say “hate speech.” Counterspeakers also respond to other types of content, in all cases because they think it is harmful, including dangerous speech, disinformation, and terrorist content, which is itself a varied category. These types of content, all of which can overlap with each other, are explained below.
When people choose to respond to hateful speech instead of just ignoring it, they often have a variety of motivations, and an overarching goal that they share with many other counterspeakers: to improve online discourse.
Many counterspeakers say that their posts and comments primarily target those who read hateful speech – the silent spectators – rather than those who write it. Some hope to change the views of spectators in the “movable middle” — people who read impassioned online discussions between people with opposing views, but don’t have strong beliefs on the topics themselves. Some counterspeakers also attempt to reach people who already agree with them but don’t yet dare to express those views online. Recruiting new like-minded counterspeakers would increase the amount of counterspeech, after all, and it’s easiest to do that without changing anyone’s views. Other counterspeakers (and some of the same ones) have another goal: to support people who have been denigrated or attacked by hateful speech. In doing so, they seek to mitigate the negative impacts of the speech on its targets. There are also counterspeakers who try to persuade those posting hateful comments to stop – either by educating them or by using social pressure tactics, such as shaming. Changing the mind or behavior of the original speaker with counterspeech seems to be more difficult than influencing the audience, but it is not impossible. In fact, online counterspeech has succeeded dramatically at it.
One well-documented example is that of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was raised in the insular, far-right Westboro Baptist Church that her grandfather had founded. Already as a teenager, she did all she could to spread his blistering hatred of homosexuality and gay people, and other dangerous speech from the church, including in a Twitter account that she started for that purpose. There, strangers’ online counterspeech slowly led her to question her ardent beliefs, until she left Westboro, was excommunicated by her family, and became a counterspeaker against her own former views. Phelps-Roper has published a book describing her experiences. In it and in a TED talk, she offers ideas for counterspeaking convincingly.
Strategies used in Counterspeech
Counterspeech takes many different forms, and counterspeakers use a variety of communicative strategies counterspeakers. Below, many of the most common or intriguing ones are described.
Before engaging in counterspeech, you should know of the risks involved. Counterspeakers are sometimes criticized and attacked for what they do. These risks are heightened for those who speak out against an authoritarian regime. If you are thinking of becoming a counterspeaker, it is important to learn how to protect yourself before you start.
PEN America, an NGO that works to defend freedom of expression, writers, and literature, produced Guidelines for Safely Practicing Counterspeech as part of a ‘field manual’ for dealing with online harassment. The guide recommends first assessing the threat, both in terms of physical and digital security. Safety risks depend on the context. Some factors to consider are: your location, to whom – and on what topic – you are responding, and how much of your personal information is available online.
The strategies you use in your response can also help protect you. Engaging alongside others can help, as it means you will not be a solitary target, and other counterspeakers can quickly support you if you are attacked online. Avoiding direct replies to an individual can also help avoid conflict. Instead, focus on counterspeaking in ways that can positively influence others who may be reading your comments – they are also the people you have a better chance of persuading. You can also ‘like’ counterspeech written by others.This amplifies their speech while limiting your personal exposure.
Research and resources from the Dangerous Speech Project
- Counterspeech. Dangerous Speech Project. www.dangerousspeech.org/counterspeech
- Why they do it: Counterspeech Theories of Change by Cathy Buerger (2021)
- Counterspeech: A Literature Review by Cathy Buerger (2021)
- #iamhere: Collective Counterspeech and the Quest to Improve Online Discourse by Cathy Buerger in Social Media + Society (2021)
- Counterspeech on Twitter: A Field Study by Susan Benesch et al. (2016)
Other academic publications
- ‘Empathy-based counterspeech can reduce racist hate speech in a social media field experiment’ by Dominik Hangartner et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2021).
- ‘Hate Beneath the Counter Speech? A Qualitative Content Analysis of User Comments on YouTube Related to Counter Speech Videos.’ by Julian Ernst et al. in the Journal for Deradicalization (2017).
- ‘Collective Civic Moderation for Deliberation? Exploring the Links between Citizens’ Organized Engagement in Comment Sections and the Deliberative Quality of Online Discussions’ (a study of #ichbinhier, the German #iamhere affliate) by Dennis Friess, Marc Ziegele & Dominique Heinbach in Political Communication (2021)
- ’Toxic Misogyny and the Limits of Counterspeech’ by Lynne Tirrell in the Fordham Law Review (2019).
Resources from other NGOs
- ‘Communicating During Contentious Times: Dos and Don’ts to Rise Above the Noise’ by Over Zero and PEN America
- ‘Best Practices’ and Counterspeech Are Key to Combating Online Harassment’ from the Anti-Defamation League (2016).
- Effective Counter-Narrative Campaigns, from Do One Brave Thing (2021).
- Guidelines for Safely Practicing Counterspeech, from PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual.
Facebook’s Counterspeech hub
The FFS thanks the below institutions for all their support in the creation of this output.