Exploring Efforts to Reduce Online Hate at RightsCon 2019

Should you respond directly to hatred online? And if so, how should you do it? These are just a few of the questions that staff at the Dangerous Speech Project (DSP) discussed with an audience at RightsCon last week. RightsCon is a yearly conference on tech and human rights. This year, the conference was held in Tunis, Tunisia and drew over 2,500 participants from 130 countries, bringing together representatives from tech companies and government agencies as well as activists and leading experts from civil society.

The panel featured Logan Smith, the man behind the popular anti-racism Twitter account @YesYoureRacist with nearly 400,000 followers. DSP Senior Research Cathy Buerger also shared findings from her research on online anti-hatred efforts, based on interviews with the people who organize them. These efforts are interesting in their own right but also for the opportunity they present for studying their effect on online hatred.

Logan is best known for his effort to expose the names of white supremacists who participated in the deadly Charlottesville riots of August 2017, but he opened the panel by explaining that his success on Twitter was accidental. His account emerged in 2012 from a habit he had of searching odd phrases on Twitter when he was bored. One day he searched “I’m not racist, but,” and found numerous examples of people following the phrase with a racist statement. He started the account as a lighthearted effort to point out the hypocrisy of these people. His simple method – retweeting the racist tweet with the comment, ‘Yes, you’re racist” – was popular, and his following grew over the years.

He continued with this approach until August 2017, when he tweeted photos of white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville and asked his followers to identify them – which they did, sometimes accurately and other times not. Logan explained that this approach was no longer about simply calling people out, it was about demonstrating the consequences of publicly supporting white supremacy. He wrapped up by explaining that today his focus has shifted from responding to individuals’ expressions of “casual racism” to combating institutional racism, a problem he sees made worse by Donald Trump’s presidency.

Cathy then explained her research on other efforts to respond to online hatred and the many different approaches they take. She focused primarily on one example, the Swedish Facebook group called Jagärhär, or “I am here,” which has around 75,000 members and has been replicated in 14 countries.

Founded by journalist Mina Dennert in 2016 in order to respond to the racism that she was seeing online, the group strategically uses Facebook’s commenting algorithm to drown out online hatred. Group moderators direct members to specific news articles posted on Facebook that have a lot of hatred in the comments. Member post positive comments and also like comments from other group members, driving them up in the “top comments” rankings.

Cathy pointed out that the group is not a free-for-all. Dennert created rules to govern their efforts, including the following that are shared across the 15 groups:

  • No personal attacks, condescending comments, insults, or threats
  • Comments must be politically neutral
  • The group is all about reducing hate speech in social media and improving conversations in online spaces

Additionally, instead of replying directly to a hateful comment, which could drive it up in the comment ranking, members are encouraged to post independent comments and tag their comments with “#jagarhar” so other members can find and like the comments easily.

Cathy concluded the discussion by pointing out crucial questions that these efforts raise. How can we ensure that this work isn’t causing more harm, for example by amplifying the hateful messages to new, susceptible audiences? How can the people doing this work protect themselves from harassment and threats? When these projects stir up an online mob, can those leading response efforts keep the crowd under control? What is the right response to people who spout hatred?

We at the DSP believe it’s important to bring more attention to innovative anti-hatred projects so that researchers can study them. Grappling with hatred online often raises more questions than answers, but those questions can and should be studied – by tech companies and civil society – to find out what works best.