Speaking Out Against Online Extremism: Counter-Speech and its Effectiveness

By Arpita Biswas


This post is a part of a series on online extremism, where we discuss the regulatory and legal issues surrounding the growing problem. This current post focuses counter-speech, which is one of the regulatory techniques.

What is Counter Speech?

Counter-speech or counter narratives in content of extremism have been defined as “messages that offer a positive alternative to extremist propaganda, or alternatively aim to deconstruct or delegitimise extremist narratives”.

This definition has been broken down into three categories to explain the different approaches:

a) Counter speech that is intended to negate extremist speech.

b) Counter speech focussed on positive narratives.

Later on in the post, we will discuss an initiative which addresses issues faced by young Muslims related to cultural identity. This narrative does not necessarily focus on distilling biases, rather initiating discussions on related issues.

c) Informative counter-speech. This narrative focuses on distilling extremist propaganda. Unlike the first category, this category intends to negate misinterpretations perpetuated by the extremists. This is usually related to organizations or individuals in the public eye.

For the purposes of this post, counter-speech is limited to counter-narratives on online platforms. Speech is however not limited to text messages or videos and can extend to various other mediums, like the FBI’s interactive game ‘Don’t Be a Puppet’.

Why Counter-Speech?

The United Nations Security Council in May 2016 discussed the necessity of an international framework to combat online extremism. During the meeting, the dangers of extremists exploiting social media platforms and the possible remedies that should follow were discussed. The discussion stressed on the need to ‘safeguard the freedom of the press’ by not resorting to excessive censorship. The forthcoming international framework could benefit from utilizing counter speech, asa viable alternative to censorship.

Using counter speech or employing counter narratives to fight online extremism might subvert the criticism faced by other anti-extremist measures. As discussed in our previous post, internal regulation and state controlled regulation both run the risk of ‘over-censorship’.

Counter-speech strategy would not rely on ‘taking down’ content. Taking down or blocking access to content only acts as a momentary relief, since the same content can crop up anywhere else. In some instances, when extremist accounts on Twitter and WhatsApp were taken down, new accounts emerged shortly or propaganda moved to encrypted platforms.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression stated that “repressive approaches would have the reverse effect of reinforcing the narrative of extremist ideologies”

In addition, counter-speech would treat the root cause of online extremism, indoctrination. The UN Special Rapporteur also stated that the ‘blocking websites’ would not be the right approach and “strategies addressing the root causes of such viewpoints” should be addressed.

A platform which allows open discussions or debates about beliefs might lead to a more effective anti-extremism regime.

Organizations utilizing counter speech

The United States government has initiated a few counter-speech programmes. The Bureau of Counter terrorism and Countering Violent Extremism has introduced initiatives like the ‘Think again turn away’ campaign. This campaign focuses on spreading counter-narratives on YouTube, Twitter and other such platforms. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has launched an interactive game to sensitize people on the dangers of extremism. ‘Don’t be a puppet’ aims to educate young people on questions like ‘What are known violent extremist groups?’ and ‘How do violent extremists make contact?’.

There are several counter-speech initiatives, being operated by private bodies.  A few, namely ExitUSA and Average Mohamed have been studied by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. ExitUSA produces videos intended for ‘white supremacists’. Their approach is informative and intends to negate popular extremist propaganda. Average Mohamed is an initiative for young Somalians in the United States. Among the videos produced by them, a few, titled ‘Identity in Islam’ and a ‘Muslim in the West’ intend to address other cultural issues faced by young Muslims. Through their animated videos surrounding protagonist ‘Average Mohamed’, a young boy in the United States, they initiate positive counter-speech among viewers.

Speech Gone Wrong- Shortcomings of Counter-Speech

The previously mentioned ‘Don’t be a puppet’ initiative has been criticized for employing bigoted narratives themselves. Their counter-narrative has been criticized for being anti-Islamic.

In addition to claims of bigotry, a few of the government led initiatives have also been criticized for being opaque. Earlier this year, the White House organized a summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), during which multi-million dollar plans were initiated. Following the summit, a Senate Sub-committee was instituted along and a sizeable proportion of the 2017 fiscal budget was allocated to CVE. However, lawsuits have been filed under the Freedom of Information Act, demanding details about the initiatives.

More importantly, the impact or success of counter-speech has not been substantiated. In the ISD study for instance, the researchers have stated that determining the success or outcome of counter-speech initiatives is “extremely difficult”. Faced with limitations, their methodology is based onthe ‘sustained engagement’ they had with the users. This engagement was measured by comments, tweets and messages exchanged between the counter-speech organization and the user.

Lastly, referring back to our previous post, some private organizations have also removed content under the guise of counter-speech. Facebook in collaboration with the Online Civil Courage Initiative (OCCI) vowed to employ counter-speech online, stating that it was more effective than censorship. However, as evidenced from OCCI’s manual, the organization was allowed to takedown ‘antagonistic’ content, leading to censorship.

Future of Counter Speech

While counter-speech suffers from fewer setbacks as compared to other regulatory techniques, it needs more transparency to function better. As of now, there are no universally applicable guidelines for counter-speech. Guidelines and rules could help establish transparency and avoid instances of censorship or bigotry from disseminating.

Arpita Biswas is a Programme Officer at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi

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