First International Counterspeakers’ Workshop

The DSP is proud and delighted to have hosted a private meeting of people who respond regularly to hateful or harmful speech online – to trade ideas, war stories, and best practices. Our First International Counterspeakers’ Workshop, held in late November in Berlin, drew 15 people from around the world who ‘counterspeak’ online in a wide variety of ways.

Some work in groups, often large ones, like Mina Dennert, founder of the Swedish group #jagärhär (or #iamhere), whose 75,000 members respond collectively to misinformation, hate, and harassment on Facebook. Leaders of other groups inspired by #jagärhär also joined us: Alena Helgeson of #iamhere Canada, Phillip Kreißel of Germany’s #ichbinhier, and Veronika Pavlíková Klindová of Slovakia’s #somtu.

Many other counterspeakers go it alone, such as Dylan Marron, who created the podcast Conversations with People Who Hate Me, in which he tries to find common ground with people who’ve attacked him online. Iyad el-Baghdadi uses his Twitter account to respond to hateful, anti-democratic, and terrorist content, while Logan Smith of @YesYoureRacist uses Twitter to call out both implicit and explicit racism on that platform. German journalist Hasnain Kazim decided on January 1, 2016 to respond to every xenophobic or hostile message he got from readers. After compiling hundreds of examples, he published some of them in a new, fast-selling German book called Mail from Karlheinz; Irate Messages from Authentic Germans and How I Answered Them (our translation). His responses are often funny or provocative and he does not necessarily try to find common cause with his interlocutors; Kazim said he has no desire to seek common ground with neo-Nazis, or with the caller who told him “we should finish with you Muslims what we started with the Jews”.

Even when responding to people who reject their messages, many of the counterspeakers said, there is an opportunity to influence other people who witness the exchange. This is a chance for significant impact, since the ‘audience’ is generally much larger than those who post hateful content. Some counterspeakers spoke of their work as “planting seeds” that may eventually grow to influence hateful speakers or online communities generally.

Most of the participants had never met any of the others at the Berlin gathering, which was generously hosted by the Alexander Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, or any online counterspeakers, and several said it was both useful and deeply moving to meet each other. Their (volunteer) work can be lonely and dispiriting, after all. Each participant explained why, in spite of this, they respond to hatred online. Some mentioned rising nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and misinformation, and others spoke of creating and protecting hospitable social media environments.

A principal goal of the workshop was to establish a list of best practices for counterspeech – a framework for understanding strategy, tactics, security measures, and guiding principles. Many participants agreed that, when possible, finding common ground is instrumental in guiding a conversation away from attacks and toward a good-faith exchange. Others had developed rules for when to engage others, and when not to – for example, some refuse to respond when the other person is a member of a hate group. They all said counterspeakers must try to protect their own physical safety and emotional equilibrium.

The workshop also included two outstanding talks on findings from neuroscience and social science that are useful for designing more effective counterspeech, by Mike Niconchuk, senior researcher for the NGO Beyond Conflict and Lindsay Blackwell, a scholar of online abuse and a researcher for Facebook.

We at the DSP plan to write and publish a manual for doing effective counterspeech online, based on the ideas exchanged at this workshop and based on counterspeakers’  experiences from around the world. We hope the manual will be useful for experienced counterspeakers as well as for newbies. In the meantime, follow the hashtag #counterspeakers on Twitter for related info.