Messages and effects

So far, this chapter has examined the differences between four audiences and the goals of counterspeakers for each. It has also described some tactical issues faced by counterspeakers. This section now turns to the limited counterspeech research literature and highlights some key findings. It presents these through the lens of the final two counterspeech dimensions — the messaging or content employed by counterspeaker and the effects on audiences, which are presented as five key findings.

Changing online norms

As scholars of media and persuasion studies have found over decades of research, it is difficult to change opinions on core beliefs through communication. This is also true for those holding prejudiced and hateful attitudes. Those who are members or supporters of hate groups, and especially those willing to share their views online, are often deeply committed to their positions. As a result, responding with views that challenge their message is unlikely to change their views. But what counterspeech appears to do, especially when it gains momentum through growing numbers of counterspeakers, is to change the online norm and reduce the tendency of people espousing hate to continue the practice in forums with less support and more opposition (Miskolci et al. 2020). For those creating and sharing hateful messages, one attraction of going online and especially of participating in forums with like-minded views, is the support, reinforcement, and sense of community. When this changes, the new environment can become uncomfortable and confrontational and more akin to the offline world in which prejudicial views are largely unpopular. In the offline world, the ‘spiral of silence’ theory posits that people tend to avoid sharing their opinions when such views are perceived to be unpopular due to fear of social isolation (Noelle-Neumann 1974). In a similar manner, it appears that some notable percentage of those engaging in hate speech online disengage when they sense a change in general sentiment in the online forum in which they were participating (Miskolci et al. 2020).

Furthermore, when counterspeech is introduced, others who were not part of the counterspeech efforts but are likely to oppose bigotry and hate are more likely to engage and post comment in line with the counterspeakers (Foxman and Wolf 2013; Miskolci et al. 2020; Costello et al. 2017). This may include members of the public who come across online forums with a mix of hate speech and counterspeech. It may also include vulnerable audiences who may be on the fence but ultimately swayed in the direction of what appears to be the more popular sentiment. Various studies show that those entering online spaces are influenced by the norms already present (Kramer et al. 2014; Cheng et al. 2017; Kwon and Gruzd 2017; Molina and Jennings 2018). This has been described as ‘emotional contagion’ in which exposure to the volume of positive or negative expression results in posts in the same emotive direction (Kramer et al. 2014).

While counterspeech, as mentioned earlier, generally involves a response to existing hate speech, there is some concern that reacting to hate speech through counterspeech might draw attention to the original message and inadvertently amplify it. To prevent this, pre-emptive counterspeech has been proposed to condition the conversation context in a way that disables possible future hate speech (Lepoutre 2019). This could involve interventions before critical events such as forums known to draw hate speech.

Constructive approaches are more effective

Kesearch on the nature of counterspeech finds that ‘constructive’communication is more effective at garnering engagement than disparaging responses that involve name calling and insulting hateful speakers (Benesch et al. 2016) and attempting to invoke shame or combativeness (Bruneau et al. 2018). On the one hand, a constructive approach is about tone, so casual and sentimental tone and the use of humour when appropriate can disarm the serious nature of hateful rhetoric, making those espousing it open up and feel more comfortable engaging. On the other hand, constructive approaches include particular types of content such as personal stories and calling attention to the negative consequences of hate speech (Bartlett and Krasodomski-Jones 2015; Frenett and Dow 2015; Benesch et al. 2016). A constructive approach requires a combination of critical thinking and ethical reflexivity to understand the context and underlying assumptions, biases, and prejudices of hateful speakers in formulating effective responses (Gagliardone et al. 2015).

Self-reflective and hypocrisy messaging are particularly effective

When it comes to counterspeech content, it is often assumed that messages that rehumanise targeted groups are most effective (Bahador 2015). This can involve individualising the target group members by challenging assumptions of homogeneity or countering stereotypes by showing, for example, that out-groups thought to ‘hate us’ actually have affection for our side (Bruneau et al. 2018). However, research by Bruneau et al. finds that the most effective messaging for reducing collective blame and hostility towards an out-group, in their study looking at anti-Muslim sentiment in the US, involved messaging that exposed the in-group’s hypocrisy (Bruneau et al. 2018). This was done through an ‘intervention tournament' in which subjects were randomly assigned to ten groups (with nine treatments involving watching a video with different messages and one control group). The ‘winning’intervention involved collective blame hypocrisy messaging, which highlighted hypocrisy as individuals blamed Muslims collectively for terrorist acts committed by individual group members but not white Americans/Christians for similar acts committed by individual members. Exposure to this type of messaging resulted in reductions in collective blame of Muslims and anti-Muslim attitudes and behavior (Bruneau et al. 2018). This finding appears to lead to change because it triggers cognitive dissonance, in which individuals first support a position and then are made aware that they advocate for action that contradicts that position. One way to redress this dissonance, therefore, is to change one’s prejudiced position to create cognitive consistency (Festinger 1962; Aronson et al. 1991; Bruneau et al. 2018).

Source credibility matters

The importance of source credibility in persuasion is not unique to counterspeech and has been advocated as far back as at least Aristotle, who saw the credibility of the speaker to the audience (‘ethos’) as a central component of effective rhetoric. A key part of the critical thinking needed to construct an effective counterspeech message campaign, therefore, involves having messengers who are credible to the targeted audiences one seeks to influence (Briggs and Feve 2013; Brown 2016; Munger 2017). In many cases, this requires a deep understanding of the local context as hate speech is only impactful and dangerous within particular contexts, and different speakers also hold different levels of credibility in different locations. In one study of white nationalists, for example, it was found that more response was garnered when the speaker was conservative, suggesting it was someone with some similarities to them (Briggs and Feve 2013).

Fact-checking can moderate views

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, hate speech against groups is almost always based on dis-or misinformation. That is because the entire groups targeted for hate are almost never wholly guilty of the purported negative actions or characteristics allocated to them. To remedy various types of misinformation, including hate speech, counterspeech based on fact-checking appears to be an obvious solution. While there is some concern that under some circumstances, challenging the views of those holding misinformed hateful views can bring more salience to them (Lepoutre 2019) or even backfire and strengthen them, there is growing evidence that such cases are rare, and fact-checking, in fact, makes peoples beliefs more specific and factually accurate (Porter and Wood 2019; Nyhan et al. 2019). As a result, fact-checking could be helpful amongst the arsenal of other tools used in crafting counterspeech messages. More than likely, as other research has shown, those with deeply held beliefs will be less likely to moderate their views based on fact-based corrections. However, others who are not as deeply committed, or who hold other values that contradict the underlying values of hate speech, may be susceptible to being affected by such counter-messages.

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