What is counterspeech?

At the Dangerous Speech Project, we define counterspeech as any direct response to hateful or harmful speech that seeks to undermine it.

How does it work?

Just as dangerous speech can teach people to hate and fear others, counterspeech can influence them favorably, either by actually changing their beliefs or by persuading them not to publicly share their hateful or harmful thoughts. Either way, this can improve group discourse.

There has surely been some counterspeech ever since humans learned to talk. But the practice seems to have expanded dramatically online. Just as the internet has exposed people to far more hatred, disinformation, and dangerous speech from more sources, it has also provided far more opportunities to respond. Around the world, tens of thousands of people have spontaneously taken on this task: they respond regularly and directly to what they consider hateful or harmful content online.

We call them “counterspeakers.”

In our research, we have found many counterspeakers who have persisted at it daily or weekly, for years. Some do it alone, while others work in large groups, following their own codes of conduct. Group members also encourage each other to keep at it, an important practice as their efforts are generally unpaid, repetitive, and emotionally draining. Some groups have kept going consistently for more than seven years. Counterspeech can have a positive effect on discourse in several ways. It can convince people to stop posting harmful speech, by changing their beliefs or only their behavior. (The latter is possible since people can come to fear criticism or social sanction for publicly expressing a belief, even if they still hold it.)

Discourse may also improve without any change in the views or online expression of people posting hatred. Instead, counterspeakers can succeed by influencing the “audience” – the people who read their comments. That audience often greatly outnumbers the original posters and counterspeakers, and often many of them agree with the counterspeakers, but most of them don’t post. Counterspeech can encourage a silent audience to chime in and even become regular counterspeakers, thus gradually shifting discourse toward the views expressed in counterspeech, even if no beliefs change. Audience views can also change, of course, in response to counterspeech.

Does it work?

To answer this vital question we must ask: what does it mean for counterspeech to work?  must it change someone’s mind or only their behavior? And whose mind or behavior – the person to whom it responds, or someone else? Most counterspeakers we have interviewed say they need not influence the former; their efforts work, in their view, if they positively affect some of the (much larger) audience – the people watching or listening to exchanges of hateful speech and counterspeech.

Scholars have searched for this effect and there is evidence of it. A growing body of research indicates that civil counterspeech can encourage members of the audience to respond in kind.

Our work on counterspeech

At the Dangerous Speech Project, we search for effective ways to diminish dangerous speech and hate speech that don’t bring about other harms. One such response might be counterspeech, and it’s vital to study its effects, especially as censorship and takedown proliferate as methods of regulating online speech. Unlike those responses, counterspeech doesn’t rely on removing speech, and it can be practiced by almost anyone.

Our key publications include:

Further Reading