The Lovecraft of Counter-Strategies: Localised Solutions for Online Hate and Disinformation

Julia Craig suggests ways to engage in the politics of love despite the high-octane world of social media and it's damning irl consequences.

The high-conflict, high-octane world of Facebook comment threads is a repulsive, yet addictive space familiar to most of us. A reader might find themselves 100 comments deep below a post and reawaken, bewildered, from a stupor. Unsurprising, of course, when a news outlet uses a divisive headline and stokes the culture-war flames. Even less surprising, and in fact well documented, is that Facebook’s algorithms are designed to amplify the exact content most likely to goad us into an outraged stupor. So, even with the shared awareness of such baiting tactics from the likes of the comments sections of mainstream accounts, we become engrossed in these spars, taking the bait time and time again.

Part One: The Problem of Online Comments Sections

It’s not a secret that community or neighbourhood Facebook groups can be great. Barter for a pot plant, find a lost cat. But you have probably noticed how these forums, too, are nutritious soil for hateful and divisive ideas to grow. (Even my apartment building’s Facebook group found opportunities to turn a trifling issue of noisy neighbours into polarising ideological battles.) Such instances might go like this: a Queer literary display at the local library is spurned by a conservative local; reasonable neighbours caution their fellow resident to be considerate and inclusive; distinctly American notions of freedom of expression are exercised in defence; a Pepe Le Frog-avatared Facebook account joins, escalating the dialogue to incoherent, conspiratorial rage; and the global and local are collapsed into one, thanks to the stateless, floating, disassociated nature of Facebook and online platforms. This can lead to very physical, very widespread consequences.

The global and local are collapsed into one, thanks to the stateless, floating, disassociated nature of Facebook and online platforms.

Aotearoa New Zealand-based conspiracy group Voices for Freedom have exploited the unregulated nature of the internet to saturate these landscapes with their nefarious content, obfuscate reality, and offer easy answers to the difficulties of contemporary life. Groups like Voices for Freedom have imported distinctly American tropes (patriotism, freedom, QAnon) to undermine issues specific to Aotearoa, such as the MMR vaccine (and later Covid-19 vaccines), Three Waters and co-governance. We saw how this rhetoric reached boiling point earlier this year outside Parliament.

There is much public discussion on what to do about the online hate and disinformation problem. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, Netsafe has just established a Code of Practice for Online Safety and Harms that commits tech companies (Meta and Google, among others, have made a commitment to the Code) to reducing online harms, including hate speech and disinformation. The Code, however, has been criticised by Internet NZ and Inclusive Aotearoa Collective for putting the needs of the tech industry above achieving real outcomes for our communities. The Christchurch Call, initiated by Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron, presents similar expectations on tech companies to regulate their industry for the wellbeing of democracy. Various civil-society organisations across the world are demanding action from their governments who, in turn, are putting pressure on the tech industry to undo the harms done to privacy, democracy and truth.

Old and entrenched racist ideas are reignited by the reach and velocity of the internet

Others are more interested in looking upstream to understand all this bother. Scholars like Shoshana Zuboff attempt to articulate the complex systems at play that have incentivised the acute pillaging of the human experience via our digital devices to maximise shareholder profit.1 Some seek to similarly understand the societal conditions that lead people to adopt hateful views, and have often cited variables such as economic instability, globalisation and demographic shifts. Others, like Jess Berentson-Shaw, note how old and entrenched racist ideas are reignited by the reach and velocity of the internet.2

We are establishing a library of policy tools to draw upon to respond to hate and disinformation online at a national, transnational or global level. Granted, powerful interests and the disruption-based business model of Silicon Valley companies can easily blunt these tools. Regardless, within the global conversation of internet and speech regulation and transformation, the local stratum feels oddly absent from the conversation.

The local stratum feels oddly absent from the conversation.

While much attention is rightly given to the online ecosystems of hate, extremism and disinformation, American academic Cynthia Miller-Idriss has focused her attention on localised, irl hate. In her attempt to answer the when and where of hate, rather than the typical why and how, the answer she finds is deeply local.3 Not only are people absorbing hateful ideas and extremist ideologies online, young people in particular are coming into contact with these cultures in the everyday spaces of their local community. These local touch-points in the United States are typically gyms (Miller-Idriss identifies the influence of the mixed-martial arts scene in particular), sports clubs, pop and country music events, and coffee shops run by far-right groups. They are further strengthened by their own market economies, with media and merch amplifying their messages and coupling youth culture with extremist values. While people may not become immediately radicalised by far-right ideas by stepping into any one of these spaces, they offer a friendly introduction and an appealing product that sets individuals on a path into more-radical circles.

These local spaces do not have to be real to have influence. Miller-Idriss describes how they can be “imagined or symbolic”, such as the “American heartland”, in order to rally people around the idea of a place – one conceived in a racist and exclusionary geography. This notion of the imagined locale brings to mind the asinine column written by radio host Duncan Garner for The Dominion Post in 2017, in which he decried “the changing face”’ of his local Kmart due to his inability to identify enough fellow Pākehā in the queue for the self-checkout. (His column was later found to have breached the Press Council’s principles on discrimination and diversity.) Garner’s column was grieving an imagined Aotearoa New Zealand locale, one that was fully European and efficiently consumerist, and one that has never existed. Perhaps my neighbours have an imaginary idea of our apartment building that prevents them from accepting an environment that is anything but bourgeois, middle class and quiet.

An imagined Aotearoa New Zealand locale, one that was fully European and efficiently consumerist, and one that has never existed.

Part Two: Gaining the Trust of the Local

If hate is intimately tied to the local, then how do we effectively prevent and challenge its influence there?

#jagӓrhӓr (‘I am here’) is a Swedish counter-speech project that rallies volunteers to ugly Facebook comment threads in order to amplify voices countering hate and disinformation. The project was founded by Iranian-born and Sweden-based Mina Dennert, who grew concerned when she noticed that online vitriol was being shared by not just ‘the usual suspects’, but by people she personally knew in her small town in southern Sweden, whom she had considered decent people with familiar values. This coincided with the arrival of over 160,000 asylum seekers in Sweden, in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016. Dennert began challenging those people online in an attempt to counter their hateful views. Finding it difficult to make an impact alone, she recruited 20 friends to help, and thus expanded a project that now has thousands of volunteers. At present, their tactics typically involve using Facebook’s algorithms, by liking and responding to positive comments, in order to bury and disappear the hateful ones. Volunteers’ posts are always accompanied by the hashtag #jagӓrhӓr, a proclamation that “I am here”, both as “I am here; come and help in this comment thread” and “I am here. I am witnessing you, and I will hold you to account.”

An early win by the #jagӓrhӓr project was in 2016, around St Lucia’s Day, a festival of light across Scandinavia in the lead-up to Christmas, traditionally celebrated with girls dressed in long, white gowns wearing crowns made of candles. Swedish department store Åhléns had shared an ad across their social media platforms celebrating the tradition with a young, dark-skinned child. Droves of Swedish people responded with contempt, decrying the ad for being anti-Swedish and the beginning of the end of traditional Swedish culture. #jagӓrhӓr members responded, outnumbering hateful comments tenfold, prompting non-members to join in the conversation with their own anti-hate messaging. Hateful views effectively vanished into the internet ether. Not quite a silencing or de-platforming of views, rather, these ideas were just too unpopular to register any relevance. Dennert’s project began as an effort to uphold her belief that her small town was intolerant of hate. This idealised town may have been imagined, like Duncan Garner’s Kmart, but at least it was a utopian ideation.

I am here. I am witnessing you, and I will hold you to account.

While we know, almost instinctively, that the internet sets the perfect conditions for recruitment into the far right, we might forget that those touchpoints exist out in the world, in some of the most mundane situations, as Miller-Idriss’s research has described. In 2012, anti-Muslim signs appeared around subway stations in a co-ordinated manner across number of US cities. The signs have been linked to physical manifestations of hate, such as the death of a man who was pushed in front of a New York subway train that same year. Public transport, an essential part of a functioning civic system, had been rendered hostile toward the immigrant community and Muslim people. In response, anti-hate coalitions and interfaith groups mobilised to erect their own counter-ads featuring messages of solidarity: “In the choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbours” and “In NYC we speak 140 languages and hate isn’t one of them”, among many others. Academic Engy Abdelkader argues that these acts of counter-speech offered local residents and subway users a “self-help remedy of the first instance”. Abdelkader notes that American speech laws offered little in the way of effective and meaningful censorship and restitution. On the other hand, community-led expressions of solidarity, like the counter-ads on the subway, offered another way of undermining hateful ideas before they metastasised further into the fabric of their community.

Community-led expressions of solidarity offered another way of undermining hateful ideas before they metastasised further into the fabric of their community.

In Aotearoa, we have our own organised counter-speech project. Tauiwi Tautoko, started by ActionStation, trains volunteers to engage with people online who express racist views and to encourage “more caring, thoughtful and informed dialogue”. Taking a more academic approach than #jagӓrhӓr, Tauiwi Tautoko draws from the disciplines of conflict mediation, therapy, Te Tiriti o Waitangi education and performance art. Dr Emily Beausoleil from Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington developed the approach, and in doing so revealed a common thread between those disparate disciplines that is crucial to the Tauiwi Tautoko volunteers’ approach: listening. While people involved in projects such as #jagӓrhӓr and the anti-hate counter-ad campaigns in the US subway systems were exercising what we now call counter-speech, one might say Tauiwi Tautoko volunteers engage in counter-listening. Tauiwi Tautoko volunteers are trained to ask a speaker clarifying questions, display curiosity, find common ground, and facilitate a relationship in which a counter-message might then be better heard.

As a lapsed Tauiwi Tautoko volunteer, I can recall how this approach was arrived at naturally through a process of trial and error. When someone expresses something derogatory, hateful, or even slightly misguided, one’s natural instinct might likely be to scoff, bicker, or humiliate. These responses are certainly good at making ourselves feel better or clearly stating our position publicly. However, there is little evidence that these tactics are effective in changing the minds and behaviours of those expressing hate speech in the first place. After working on a few comment threads as a Tauiwi Tautoko volunteer, it soon becomes clear the kind of tactics that might have some chance at having impact are the ones that resemble acts of love: deep listening, empathy and the belief that one can change.

Deep listening, empathy and the belief that one can change

At this point, it is important to note that counter-speech is more often than not for the bystander rather than the original speaker. I’m not about to argue the case for engaging in values-based counter-messaging with the organised far-right and powerful political leaders. These groups call for a more vigorous challenge. Counter-speech, and counter-listening, should be exercised to prevent those on the periphery of such movements from being seduced by a local hate group – those who might already have low engagement with democracy or civil society (often through no fault of their own), who have been specifically targeted by hate groups for this reason. Hate groups who have set up seemingly fun local chapters (are we surprised that MMA has been infiltrated by the far right?) that don’t overtly advertise their intentions, but slowly and surreptitiously acclimate people to their ideas, much like an algorithm might do.

The difficulty of this politics of love is that it is harder

While these spaces, by design, appear to be a fun hang, they necessarily cannot offer a true sense of community based on mutuality and collectivism. Rather, their dogma espouses a certain understanding of freedom that is without limit and social obligation, with the goal of untangling the fragile weave of community. Thus, their offering is ultimately vapid. Critical theorist Neal Curtis has called this a ‘necropolitics’ – the politics of the old and the dead, and of world-ending pursuits.5 The strength of the left, then, is that it is based on something opposite, something youthful, and something akin to love.

However, the difficulty of this politics of love is that it is harder. In order to cultivate a real community, one grounded in sustainability and embracing of difference, one must exercise what sociologist Paul Gilroy calls conviviality – the process of cohabitation and interaction that includes a “radical openness” to others without flattening issues such as racism, which other ideologies like multiculturalism might do.6 Hate is easy and reflexive, while the opposite response, one of generosity and open-mindedness, is a slow practice. The above-mentioned counter-speech measures work within the realm of the local and engage in a politics of love – they ground the stakes of the conversation within the immediacy of the local, rather than the intangible global, and they demonstrate the difficult task of listening before speaking.

Hate is easy and reflexive, while the opposite response, one of generosity and open-mindedness, is a slow practice.

Our local life can sometimes feel like a sanctuary from the greater concerns of the global world; being extremely online might situate us in close proximity to existential anxieties such as war, environmental collapse and populist insurgencies. By engaging with our local realities – a visit to the library, a walk to the park – we can shelter ourselves from these heavy burdens and pretend everything is normal for a time, and that the biggest conflict right now is whether a bike lane is going to be approved by the local authority or not. This can be a deception, though, as the local is perhaps the most important site of system change. Here, we are closest to participatory democracy – a more horizontal and non-hierarchical system for solving problems. Perhaps because of this, the far right has set its sights on infiltrating the local fabric, through school boards both in this country and elsewhere, and in our local body elections, where Voices for Freedom have put forward their own candidates. Developing community resilience, and mitigating the fragility of the local, will be a lovecraft.

  1. Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019).
  2. Jess Berentson-Shaw, A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2018).
  3. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right (Princeton University Press, 2020), 4.
  4. Engy Abdelkader, “‘Savagery’ in the Subways: Anti-Muslim Ads, the First Amendement, and the Efficacy of Counterspeech,” Asian American Law Journal at Berkeley Law 21, no. 1 (2015): 39.
  5. Neal Curtis, Hate in Precarious Times: Mobilising Anxiety from the Alt-Right to Brexit (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), 165.
  6. Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), xv.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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