How to deal with hate speech online

We also share the reports with the public. / Facebook

The last two decades saw an intensification of the extreme right in most countries. Throughout these years, these circles carried out the construction of a coherent and successful worldview, which was given an additional boost by a global communications transformation – the expansion of web2 platforms and social media. With the spread of web2 technologies, public opinion also became polarized, as people were increasingly oriented and influenced by the reshared posts of those who had similar interests. This not only makes it difficult to call out and rebut prejudices, but also makes it easy to build powerful subcultures around xenophobic feelings and anti-Semitism.


A further reason for the rise of exclusionist public discourse is that xenophobic, anti-Roma, anti-Jewish, and intolerant speech has become one of the forms of rebellion, a language of anti-establishment discourse, especially among young people. As traditional media shrank and social media grew from strength to strength, the written and unwritten norms of public discourse prevailed even less than before. In the online space, those who appear as mere promulgators of marginalized opinions “on this side”, are often the celebrated taboo-breaking heroes of communities “on that side”. Moreover, the tone of the conversation is colored by the sense of anonymity social media makes possible, enhancing the principle “the louder you are, the more visible you are”. Countless studies prove that there is a far greater chance of deviant behavior and verbal aggression in instances of anonymity. Anonymity favors the turnout of trolls. Research on trolls showed that above average use of the Internet characterizes them, and often sadism has a strong presence in their personality profiles.

Most of us encounter some kind of hate speech fairly frequently in social media – from the use of harmful stereotypes to downright hate and verbal aggression. So, what can the average user do when they see this kind of behavior? How should they respond? Is it even worth arguing with strangers on the Internet?


Dissuading racists or helping the passive majority find a voice?

Though engaging in conversation with people who tout antisemitic or extremist views may seem fruitless sometimes, it does serve an important goal. In the case of arguments in the online space, the task is not to dissuade racist commenters and trolls, but to win the support of the passive majority. Many people look at the degeneration of public debate with apathy or fear, and choose to “observe” quietly as events unfold. It therefore makes sense to approach the arguments in such a way as to formulate an alternative position acceptable to the silent majority. The goal of any reaction to an extreme comment could be to present this alternative point of view – so that it does not appear as if only the extreme point of view existed. Stimulating the quiet observers into action, to enter the fray can be of key importance. We may call upon our shared values, the empathy and solidarity strong within us.

In certain comment sections it is enough for a single person to start commenting, formulating the more nuanced, more tolerant opinion, to mobilize others. This “dynamic of the silent mass” is a well-known phenomenon: there are wide-spread evidence that one person can move an entire crowd – like when after an accident, someone has to start taking action to activate the rest. However, if no one offers a counter position to extremists, they will be the only visible and thus, seemingly, the dominant opinion.

One way to reach out and involve the silent majority is to pose alternative narratives of positive symbols and national values – a shared national history, rather than mutually exclusive, intensely opposed narratives. It can be similarly effective to emphasize common values (e.g. nonviolence) that are difficult to reject publicly. A large number of people can be convinced through presentation of positive examples. At the same time, it is worth noting that when it comes to stories that question our prejudices, we are very creative in avoiding the message: labeling them as propaganda, or as the “exception” that proves the rule.

So positive examples may not after all be the best means of addressing really hardboiled racists.

Another effective strategy to convince the readers and silent masses is the strategy of “amplifying” trolls and hate-mongers: this would entail prodding them along to take their argument to its end, until it becomes clear how extreme it is.


Winning people over

People making an effort to counter extremist views will often address the other side from a hierarchic, condescending position. Experience tells us this does not lead to results, instead enlarging the divide. It is therefore better to engage the other side from a corresponding status, treating the other as an equal. A complete rejection of the other opinion and simply calling the opponent dumb will not make a successful strategy. A demonstration of the exact opposite and an explanation to go with it is far more to the point: rather than labeling them, giving the other person a sense of what feelings their words elicit, and their consequences.

Those communicating in the online space mostly use the “we” and “they” position. The reason for this is that people like to talk as if they were speaking in the name of the majority. This is an important tactic used in arguments by the extremists, leaving counterarguments to usually be made from reactive position, in the name of the minority. Yet antisemitism is, or could be offensive to non-Jews too. A counterstrategy could be to involve, “draw upon” the silent majority, but also a switch to a “you and me” form of address, that is, for opponents to use the first person singular, each for themselves, speaking their own opinion. This makes the opinion more credible, decreases conflicts, enables a better understanding. Credibility is very well supported by the “I started out different, but have now changed, because I understood/I saw/…” position – it is no coincidence that around the globe, meetings with reformed neo-Fascists are among the best ways of combatting the radicalization of youth. Some participants say that personal histories as techniques of argument can work particularly well against trolls, personal attacks, and extreme opinions.

If you’d like to win over people, try avoid being superior or patronizing. Also, violating the identity of the opposite side or mocking them only fuels the negative feelings many people have towards people in the role of rights activist, wise guy, or demanding idealist.


Practical tips for online discussions

  • You can choose the places where you want to argue. You must however realize that the Facebook algorithms reward and disseminate more widely a post that receives more reactions – irrespective of the content of the comments. An argument under an extremist post may boost its dissemination.
  • In any given comment thread, the dominance of an opinion is established in 12-24 hours. If you intend to influence this – because, for example, the post in question is by a highly followed politician or public figure – be quick and assertive!
  • Not everyone is visible. Comments are read by far more people than those who enter the fray. The dynamics are swayed in large measure by spirals of silence – when someone chooses not to express their opinion for fear of becoming isolated with their opinion – allowing the opinions of the extremists to become dominant. Show yourself and invite others in by, for example, adding questions and suggestions. “I am sure that others here will also disagree with this opinion that feels so hurtful to me”
  • Assert your position, and in a given situation, also your vulnerability (e.g. that as someone involved, some comments are painful), give an account of something that happened to you or in your community, and may elicit sympathy.
  • Don’t allow yourself to get angry! It is easy to get caught up in extreme emotions, but you have already lost, if you fall in this trap. If you do not fall prey to provocation and just say good bye, you have not lost, but rather made it clear that you have nothing to discuss with the provoker. Among most readers of the argument this will give you the moral victory. Have strategies, sentences ready for backing out!
  • Avoid a patronizing tone and professional jargon! Even if you are right, those following an argument may find your superiority frustrating. If you want to reach out to many people, try to use arguments they can identify with – rather than arguments they must yield to. And don’t call your opponent dumb – this immediately cuts off the possibility of conversation.