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When Counter-Speech Backfires: The Pitfalls of Strategic Online Interaction

When Counter-Speech Backfires: The Pitfalls of Strategic Online Interaction
26th July 2021 Maik Fielitz
In Insights

For a long time, hatred and incitement on social media have been treated as a relatively apolitical and purely virtual problem. Many expressions – such as verbal brutalisation and disinhibition – were seen as quasi-natural, though annoying, side effects of a technological modernisation that enables anonymous and impulsive interaction en masse. The algorithms that guide our view of the world long seemed like a second skin stretched over society. Everyone was said to be responsible themselves for the content they engaged with under algorithmic guidance. The responsibility of tech companies that comes along with the technical curation of these interactions, in turn, wasn’t a talking point at first. Apart from measures against online crime and explicit content harmful to minors, state intervention was considered rather inappropriate.

Accordingly, both the state and civil society initially wanted to counter the dangers of digitalisation by promoting media literacy. Accepting the challenge of change in political competition, democrats were called to online arms, just as citizens in general were asked to show civic courage in the digital sphere. Such efforts are mirrored, for example, in numerous offerings in political education that are intended to prevent ‘online radicalisation’ on the one hand and train people in dealing with hate speech on the Internet on the other. This also includes civil society initiatives that conduct ‘digital street work’, educate people about fake news, and organise online campaigns against extremists.

Conditions for Democratic Counter-Speech

Counter-speech has therefore become the most important form of action for projects against right-wing extremism on the Internet. It refers, roughly speaking, to any form of communication directed against far-right propaganda in general and hate speech in particular. This may include the act of contradicting specific content (whether by referring to facts or counter-trolling), counter-narratives that debunk far-right narratives, or alternative narratives that offer a different perspective on specific problems.

While counter-narratives may be considered the most important tool in the virtual fight against the far right, it is difficult to say anything about their effectiveness. The continued popularity of far-right actors on social media at least suggests that it alone is not enough to put a real stop to them. Despite increased efforts to combat propaganda and manipulation online – including the numerous fact-checker services that generally target false news – supporters of far-right organisations are highly resistant to fact-based arguments. Rather, they see the true fact-checkers in the organs of its own organisations, but also in the far-right alternative media and influencers.

To counter these actors effectively, information and messages must be prepared in such a way that they could have a positive impact. Of course, this cannot mean emulating the far right, which systematically deceives audiences. However, a certain pragmatism that allows flexibility in appearance, the way of addressing audiences and the language itself seems unavoidable if the emotionalised minds are to be picked up argumentatively. Counter-speech that finds its purpose in saying the supposedly morally right thing without paying attention to the real consequences – sociologist Max Weber once called it the ethic of conviction – always runs the risk of triggering defensive reflexes or serving as a stooge far-right online activists can easily functionalise. Where counter-speech cannot offer a form and language appropriate to the context, it may even be better to remain silent altogether – so as to not increase the visibility of far-right content.

Under the premises of such an ‘ethic of responsibility’, organised counter-speech could certainly contribute to the stabilisation of democratic discourses. Be it through counter- or alternative- narratives, through coordinated online activism or tactical moderation behaviour, or through the strategic performance of democratic institutions or civil society actors. However, democratic counter-speech has limitations, if not a disadvantage, compared to far-right online activism: Where far-right actors can make excessive use of the new possibilities for manipulation, democrats are largely prevented from doing so. Certainly, they also strive for attention or discursive power, sometimes using simplification and deception to a greater or lesser extent. But a systematic, even perfidious use of fearmongering, post-truth and metric-manipulative means occurs primarily on the side of the far right.

Democratic actors, on the other hand, who are interested in stability, continuity and understanding cannot – at least not to the same extent – make use of the diverse technical possibilities that social media holds in store for manipulation. Otherwise, they would betray their values and undermine democratic standards, which, after all, apply not only to electoral processes, parliamentary procedures and governmental activities, but also to how one conducts discourse. Indeed, digital antifascism faces several dilemmas that affect not only the integrity of democratic actors, but the very substance of democracy.

Dilemmas of Democratic Counter-Speech

First and foremost, democratic actors face a polarisation dilemma. It can hardly be opportune for them to stir up the political emotions as the far right does on social media to divide society and to get its illiberal politics off the ground. Far-right imperilment narratives in particular not only assign blame for grievances to certain groups, but also declare them to be an existential threat that demands uncompromising measures. Thus, these narratives are not only dangerous speech because they incite violence against those groups. They also endanger democracy, insofar as they undermine the democratic principle of understanding.

While there are indeed fears that are also addressed by democratic narratives, they are not as emotionally powerful. As far as the threat of climate change is concerned, for example, democrats do mobilise using fear. However, this danger is relatively abstract and multi-layered, so that no clear enemy image emerges that unites the community in its hate. Rather, the blame is often sought within one’s own ranks, even attributed to every individual. In turn, the threat of right-wing extremism addressed by democratic actors is more concrete. It tends to be associated with specific actors and poses an acute threat to the lives of some. And yet it is not as easy to mobilise hatred against such an image of the enemy as it is, for example, works with supposed foreigners, where the distance of identity is often greater. Thus, democrats lack a means of emotional mobilisation with which the far right operates successfully in social media.

Another problem in strategic interaction is the truth dilemma. For democrats, it is unacceptable to deliberately spread fake news, i.e., to disinform and disorient the people they want to reach. That would contradict democratic premises, which call for mature and enlightened citizens, but also for understanding facts and truths. However, far-right narratives of conspiracy and betrayal undermine the trust in democratic institutions and procedures. At the same time, they sabotage balanced opinion formation by making recipients dependent on tendentious information. This, in turn, impairs the capacity for dialogue and critical reflection, as it narrows the corridor of positions perceived as legitimate and makes contrary views suspect of lying.

Although democratic actors also follow a claim to truth, they (ideally) consider that their own position could potentially be biased or even flawed – and that there may be other legitimate ways of looking at a problem. Despite all the passion for one’s own agenda, in a democratic culture, the political opponent should be valued to such an extent that he is not forced into the role of the enemy. The ‘information warfare’ of the far right, which is aimed directly at enforcing its own policies – using unconventional means – is therefore an asymmetrical one, because democrats cannot use the same weapons.

Finally, democratic actors face a mobilisation dilemma since standing up against digital extremism with intense online activism also holds pitfalls. On the one hand, critical reactions to far-right content in the interaction economy of social media contribute to the greater visibility of this very content. On the other hand, and more generally, digital mobilisation of the liberal public sphere in the battle for social media metrics such as likes, views and shares are likely to entail a political arms race in online activism. If, as can be observed recently, the left-liberal camp also switches more strongly to swarm actions, one must expect that the other side will also step up a gear. And if the methods that characterise far-right online activism (including the use of bots and doxing techniques) were adopted, this would turn democrats themselves into manipulators.

So, goodwill notwithstanding, democratic counter-speech can itself do damage to democracy. And not only when it violates the values of enlightenment. The more political competition shifts to the digital realm, the greater the pressure on all political actors to make use of the persuasive-manipulative possibilities becomes. In general, social media, with their forms of communication designed to provide snippets of information, favour simplified messages and emotionalised opinions, making the quality of democratic discourse likely to decline – even though an increasingly complex world demands the opposite. Last but not least, it is to be feared that arguments and facts will count even less than before. Instead, criteria of identity and metric numbers that are often not representative for real people may influence stronger opinion formation. Metric approaches to support counter-speech should therefore also be treated with caution by democrats.

Maik Fielitz is a Researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena and a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. See his profile here.

Holger Marcks is an Associated Researcher at the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg. See his profile here.