Counter-Narratives and Combating Hate Speech Online

Between 6th and 7th April 2017, Counter-Islamophobia kit team member, Dr Amina Easat-Daas, attended the “Counter-Narratives: How to Support Civil Society in Delivering Positive Narratives against Hate Speech Online” conference in Balzan, Malta. The two-day initiative was organised by the Maltese Presidency of the European Union 2017 in collaboration with the European Commission. The conference was attended by 55 delegates from across 17 EU member states, and brought together representatives from international organisations. Non-governmental organisations. universities and think-tanks. Furthermore, speakers from technology giants Facebook and Google also participated in the conference.

Maltese officials recognised the proliferation of racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate speech online both nationally and across the European Union. The Maltese Minister for Justice, Culture and Local Government highlighted the country’s efforts to effectively amend the national penal code to allow for better protection of victims of online hate speech. He continued to stress that education was key in the wider fight against online hate crimes. The Attorney General of Malta, Peter Grech, also commented on the importance of tackling online hate-speech. Mr Grech and Paul Nemitz, the Director of Fundamental Rights and Citizenship of the Directorate General for Justice and Consumers at the European Commission, underlined that perpetrators of online hate speech were a vocal minority, but nonetheless stressed that it cannot be left to this vocal minority to direct the discourse on marginalised groups across the continent.

Over the course of the day’s proceedings policy makers, civil society activists and experts shared examples of best practice that they had employed in the fight against online hate speech in their respective contexts. For example, some speakers focused on the way in which, within their organisation’s campaigns the use of storytelling had been an effective strategy in countering online hate speech, such as Vasco Malta of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency or similarly by Leigh Foster and Chris Reardon of the UNHCR. Qualitative, personalised accounts put forward by those targeted by online hate speech were seen as a means of reframing the discourses surrounding victims and humanising the debate.

Others discussed the efficacy of challenging preconceptions that inform hate speech discourses online. For example, Elisabeth Schmidt-Hieber of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants described the organisation’s ‘Words Matter‘ campaign. The campaign problematizes inaccuracies in debates surrounding undocumented migrant groups and highlights the negative impact of discriminatory language in these discussions. On the whole, the ‘Words Matter’ campaign seeks to educate media and policy makers regarding the importance of language and its role in the production of prejudicial hate speech.

Similarly, Tanya Silverman of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue discussed her institution’s Emmy award ‘Life After Hate’ video campaign. The videos included those who had been active in promoting hate speech and highlighted the ways in which they had turned their lives around. The videos target those who might be currently promoting hate speech and hate crimes, to show that an alternative is possible. Tanya emphasised the importance of effectively identifying the audiences and tailoring the output style of counter-narrative campaigns to ensure that counter-narrative campaigns would not fall on deaf ears.

Whilst social media plays a central role in the promotion of online hate speech, speakers also underlined the efficacy of employing social media to create successful counter-narrative campaigns. For example, Katerina Jamborová, of the Czech Republic interior minister highlighted the work of Czech government’s ‘Hate Free’ campaign on Facebook, which seeks to promote positive narratives and circulate correct information about phenomena that may trigger hate speech. Similarly, Javier Saéz of the Fundación Secretariado Gitano discussed the success of the ‘Most Painful Tattoo’, which sought to counter discrimination of Roma populations in Spain. He also highlighted the importance of collaborating with grass-roots civil society actors to ensure a successful and well-informed social media campaign.

The final session of the conference showcased speakers from tech-giants Facebook and Google. Although Google in particular highlighted some of their collaborations in efforts to showcase positive stories, such as that of Humza ‘Badman’ Arshad, many audience members levied criticisms at the organisations. Many felt that these social media platforms did not adequately respond to user’s reports of hate speech and did not act quickly enough to remove inflammatory content. Sadly, it appeared that on the day the speakers were reluctant to move away from their respective official company lines on hate speech and therefore little progress was made.

In sum, the conference highlighted numerous effective counter-narrative strategies, such as those related to reframing the discourse, humanising victims and challenging preconceptions, the session also shed light on the great distance yet to be covered by counter-hate speech campaigners and academics and the limitations faced.