What’s wrong with counter speech?

aaron.inmontreal (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I am writing this in a context of a visible, visceral, continuous rise in hate speech. There are nazis in the White House. People were just killed in Quebec because of a white terrorist, who listened to the white nationalist speeches of Marine le Pen. Hate speech leads to hate crimes. So we need to take a real, hard look at how free speech activists talk about combatting it.

As free expression campaigners, when people want to shut down hate speech, we tend to respond by saying that the solution is “counter speech” rather than anything we perceive as “censorship”. The answer to speech is more speech; an endless exchange of dissent and disagreement. That’s our firm reply.

It is the answer English PEN gave in their statement opposing the campaign against the neo-nazi figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos getting a lucrative book deal. It’s ACLU’s explicit stance against hate speech, which they projected onto billboards in Time Square.

But I won’t deny, it makes me wince when I see it. Because it comes across as a tad trite, and simplified. Because it doesn’t take into account power imbalances and privilege. Because when I see it my first thought is, “That’s easy for you to say.”

The way ‘counter speech’ is advocated is as though there is some kind of balance which works like this: 
Nazi gets book deal = black academics get book deal

Racists speak = racists listen to their victims

In the name itself ‘counter speech’ is like a balance at the other end of a see-saw, creating a neat equilibrium.

However, counter speech is actually only afforded to those who have voices to begin with. It’s more like: Nazi speaks -> thousands of his supporters speak with him -> his opponents are attacked. There is no balance when someone replies to your speech by threatening to kill your family.

There’s rarely any acknowledgement of that power imbalance when we advocate counter speech, rather that control on speech.

Who can engage in counter speech?

Firstly, not everyone has the option to engage in counter speech. There’s another massive force for censorship happening in this discussion — and it’s not website blocking, or fake news, or book bans. It’s the unseen forces that stop a person from being able to speak at all. So, let’s talk about harassment.

Seeing people harassed stops members of that same group from speaking out. When we talk about surveillance, we also use the phrase ‘chilling effect’ — and harassment operates in much the same manner. The knowledge that we are under constant surveillance stops us from expressing ourselves freely. This same censoring effect happens through harassment, when the fear of abuse silences us.

A universal truth of harassment is that it always falls hardest on groups who are already oppressed.

For example, the Guardian admitted that when it came to abuse in their comments 8/10 of those who received the most abuse were women, and 2 were black. Another example we can look to is when prominent men spoke up about gamergate and the abuse they received in response was a few angry tweets. On the other hand, women who spoke up faced the same fate as Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu: rape threats, doxxing and ultimately fleeing their homes. This kind of speech is absolutely designed to shut people up. To silence, control and curtail the voices of the oppressed. It’s systematic and planned, and it also works.

This piece by Sam Sedgman describes the experience accurately: “it talks over you and ignores you and calls you a fat ugly whore and publishes your address online. If you’re not scared out of engaging with it for fear of reprisal, chances are you’ll die of exhaustion.”

There are of course laws against harassment, but sadly there is a very poor track record of police taking it seriously, or arresting perpetrators. The police are capable of responding to crimes online, where they harm corporates, but chose to place harassment lower in their priorities. There is also very low levels of support for the police taking action. When I was at Open Rights Group, one of the most controversial decisions was when we agreed with Professor Lilian Edwards saying, “What exactly do we have police for, then, if not to investigate specific, repeated and documented crimes? Giving up on policing Twitter is no more defensible than abandoning a town like, say, Walthamstow to the criminal elements.”

So counter speech is encouraged, but often only possible for those who have the freedom to exercise it without repercussions. It is available only to those who already have privilege, usually white men. They don’t feel the same kind of fear, or live with the constant threat of sexual violence directed at them. It is easy to advocate counter speech when you can engage in it freely and without repercussions.

Freedom to Publish

There are other forms of silencing that are not legislated against at all, because they are even more subtle than harassment.

In the discussion of the campaign against Milo’s book deal, this point was raised: “When publishers refuse to publish BAME writers but spend $250k on hate speech, whose freedom of speech is being infringed upon”? @TheBuddhaSmiled (whole thread here)

It is well documented that marginalised groups are less likely to be published. The answer of “counter speech” being that somehow there will be people getting the equivalent, the book deal to answer Milo’s is a little bit of nonsense. From the fact that women still publish under male names because it gets them more read and more likely to get a deal, to the fact that publishers think ‘asian’ is a genre, or that our entire system for classifying books is designed to designed to sideline non-European, non-white voices

We cannot wave our hands and say that everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard, when the stories that get published and told over and over are those of white men. (See all-white Oscars; all-white World Book Day; all-white writers in my A Level English exam.) Structural bias that favours white male voices in entertainment, publishing, and the film industry means that for every racist film or book on one end of the seesaw, a number of obstacles prevent any counter from just hopping on at the other side. Balance is a myth.

Again, it’s easy to advocate counter speech when it is always open to you. When you already always have a voice.

Whose counter speech is effective?

A recent study examined a method of using counter speech on Twitter, via an online bot which automatically challenges hate speech when it detects key phrases. They used an algorithm to reply to racist comments with a pleasant reminder of all our humanity, and that their victim has feelings too.

Did it work? Kind of… The researchers discovered that when a Twitter bot with a white person avatar responded to a hateful comment on Twitter, the poster more often apologised, and even changed their behavior for a short time afterwards. Yet, if the exact same comment was made via a bot that has a black person avatar, the orginal poster doubled down on their opinion. They often lashed out at the bot instead. The poster didn’t know that this was an algorithm at work; this is how they treat people based on race.

Attempts at counter speech are not only afforded exclusively to the privileged — they also only *work* if you are privileged.

There is a sad irony that we are calling for a strategy to counter hate speech, which is usually against oppressed groups — such as people of colour, indigenous people, women, and queer people — but which is actually *least available* to those groups.

So when we espouse this strategy, are we asking for something that isn’t even possible?

Another study on effective counter speech is by the think-tank Demos, which Facebook asked to examine the effectiveness of counter speech to hate speech on the platform. Demos measured effectiveness through looking at how much the counter speech is shared, and if it could be seen by the hate-speaker’s circle of influence, not if it changed the original poster’s mind.

The Demos report listed several activities that people who want to combat hate speech on Facebook should engage in to do this effectively: setting up Facebook pages, replying to comments, and creating memes. Crucially though, it took more than one comment or meme to counter a single instance of hate speech — multiple replies and a more coordinated response was often needed. It was clear that a lot more work had to be done to fight the hate speech, rather than simply a “balancing” reply.

When we ask for counter speech, rather than a removal of content in response to hate speech, we are placing a huge burden upon an oppressed group to spend their time and energy on speaking back to their oppressors — facing harassment, threats, and more oppression when they do so. Rather than holding oppressors accountable, we once again place the burden on the oppressed to carry out further labour just to defend their existence.

There are occasions where counter speech operates on different grounds. For example, in arguing with misinformation about vaccines, or responding to bad reporting. A lot of that is just lies and nonsense. Lies and nonsense can — to some extent — be cured with more information. Hate speech, not so much.

What is seen as “legitimate” counter speech?

We call for counter speech but rarely define what we mean by it. Academic John Reagle says it involves:

  • exposing hate, deceit, abuse, stereotypes
  • providing clarification and promoting counter narratives
  • advancing counter values: sharing experiences and uniting communities

As Demos says, “The forms counter speech takes are as varied as the extremism they argue against.”

So if none of the above discussed forms work (polite answering back, writing books, replying on Twitter), then people turn to other forms of resistance against hate speech. They find other ways to put pressure on. For example, the #stopfundinghate campaign encourages people to write to companies who advertise in tabloids to withdraw their advertising whilst those papers encourage hate.

With Milo’s book, people signed petitions and authors refused to work with the publisher in question in order to encourage the publisher to rescind the book deal. One might also say that these tactics, even boycotts, are all using freedom of expression to speak out to those with the position of power. Yet PEN and Index, free expression groups, refer to the protests against Milo’s book deal as “tantamount to censorship”.

Which makes us ask, is protest ok, but not if it is successful? Does it stop being free expression and turn to censorship if any of those tactics actually work?

Not only do human rights groups call for counter speech against hate speech, rather than control on speech, we often define and limit the realm of acceptable counter speech, tone-policing the rebellion. Calling for counter speech, but in a way that we think is appropriate, polite — and perhaps ineffective. Suddenly, asking the oppressors not to speak so loudly is an flipped back at you as though it’s an act of oppression itself if you’re not doing it “right”.

I know, this isn’t easy. There are examples of speech and counter-speech that can be viewed as free expression or censorship depending on your definition, especially if you want to go with a broad “anything that stops any speech is censorship.”

  • What about scrawling over sexist adverts on the tube with messages of body positivity? Or when it’s the other way round — when the Sikh model from american apparel has his adverts scrawled over. Is that counter speech, or just hateful graffiti?
  • What about shouting over a Nazi march with your own, louder chants. Or when Nazis march to drown out the shouts of “Refugees are Welcome Here”?

Some of us might argue that censorship is about punching down, and it is enacted by the state and institutions against individuals, not the other way round. However, the question of “Who can censor?” is one where the lines of institution and individual, power and vulnerability blur to one another.

This is why I am glad that there are defined laws against hate speech in the UK: “hatred toward someone on account of that person’s colour, race, disability, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation.”

In contrast, the U.S. strives towards a concept of “a “free market” of ideas — where “citizens are sellers and buyers” and where better ideas eventually win out.” — a concept I would argue sounds very neat when put forward by people who have all the bargaining power.

In a country where this idea dominates, the ACLU do make a very strong argument that speech laws that seek to protect minorities are frequently used against them. For example, “under a speech code in effect at the University of Michigan for 18 months, white students in 20 cases charged black students with offensive speech.” [1 of which was upheld]

This is why many human rights campaigners say the answer to hate speech is counter speech, and not censorship of any form. Because a) new restrictions are frequently turned against the groups they are designed to protect and b) having an absolute stance is a clear way to operate that doesn’t leave you open to accusations of inconsistency — even if it does leave you wide to open to the problems recounted above.

Where do we go from here?

In conclusion:

  • Counter speech is not an equal balance against hate speech
  • It is harder for some people to do it than others
  • It is less effective for some people than others
  • Counter speech is a further burden of work on already oppressed groups
  • It is often defined by those with privilege, only legitimate if it matches a privileged definition of rebellion and resistance.

But though I said that ‘counter speech’ as an answer to acts of hatred sounds reductive and trite, by the time I reached the end of this I realised that counter speech is necessary in some occasions, in some cultural contexts. Sometimes in the spaces where the law does not cover.

It is just that counter speech is really fucking hard for a lot of us.

There is a better vision from ACLU of their ideal counter speech (in the context of academia) as structural change from leaders: “Universities have to do the hard work of recruitment to increase faculty and student diversity; counseling to raise awareness about bigotry and its history, and changing curricula to institutionalize more inclusive approaches to all subject matter… Campus administrators on the highest level should, therefore, speak out loudly and clearly against expressions of racist, sexist, homophobic and other bias, and react promptly and firmly to acts of discriminatory harassment.”

So when we, as free speech campaigners, feel the urge to see a campaign against hate speech and want to reply with “the answer is more speech!” the onus is on us to spell out what we mean. We cannot continue to uncritically advocate it as a method of resistance without recognising how it actually enables continued silencing and oppression. We should recognise that there are real barriers for counter speech.

Instead, we need to mean and enable serious structural change. We need to work to create spaces where it is actually safe and possible to talk. And to encourage counter speech from people who actually have the power to do so, and to do it effectively. We should never speak up for abusers’ rights without acknowledging their victims and giving them a voice too.

Thanks to Cynthia Koo & Meghan Sali for copyediting, advice and constant wisdom.