How to stand up to online trolls – and profit – with humour

The Globe and Mail | April 24, 2017

Hatred is at the root of much of the world’s horrors, and it often spreads online. It’s hard to imagine humour may be a way to counter this modern, borderless phenomenon.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the most creative campaigns against online hate emerges from Germany, a country that remains painfully aware of the devastating consequences of fear and xenophobia.

Donate the Hate is a cheeky campaign through which one euro is donated for every hateful comment that is spotted and responded to by the non-profit organization ZDK Gesellschaft Demokratische Kultur, or its partners. The donations go toward supporting refugees as well as a group that supports Germans who wish to leave far-right movements.

The idea germinated in 2014 when the small town of Wunsiedel wanted to do something pro-active about an annual neo-Nazi walk. “Nazis against Nazis” became Germany’s “most involuntary walk-a-thon”, raising money for every metre walked by the extremists. Tongue-in-cheek posters of encouragement and thanks were hung alongside the course of the march, as well as painted onto the sidewalk. The initiative raised thousands of euros and garnered international fundraising awards.

So is this how communities can stand up to the hate that seems to have been given new license in the Trump era – and which festers in sectarian conflicts around the world? One rare and alarming study here at home suggests a 600 per cent increase in how frequently Canadians used language that was racist, Islamophobic, sexist or otherwise intolerant over the period between November 2015 and November 2016.

Those who study online hate in particular have come to the realization that there are only a few key strategies available when it comes to standing up to trolls – including the use of comedy.

Susan Benesch, head of the Dangerous Speech Project in the United States, authored one of the first qualitative studies of Twitter. The study, commissioned by the Canadian government, identified successful counter-speech as being able to shift the user’s discourse and positively impact the general tone of the conversation. Humour can often be an ingredient in pushing back on hateful narratives.

“We have observed that humorous counter-speech can shift the dynamics of communication, de-escalate conflict, and draw much more attention to a message than it would otherwise garner,” writes Ms. Benesch and her co-author, Derek Ruths of McGill University, in a follow-up guide.

The authors point to a social media campaign that included pasting pictures of rubber ducks onto images of Daesh fighters, and to sarcastic responses to their calls for violence. Counter-speakers, as the experts call them, can use humour to “neutralize hateful and dangerous speech that is viewed as powerful or intimidating; attract the attention of a larger audience to the counter-speech,” and help “to soften a message that would otherwise be harsh or aggressive.”

Those who are victimized may not always have a joke at the ready, but they needn’t feel alone.

“The online world is the wild, wild west and we started thinking of it similarly to street harassment,” said Emily May, co-founder of Hollaback!, a non-profit organization that started an initiative called HeartMob. “We wanted to build on best practices around bystander intervention. Online, there are people who can come and help.”

The platform allows victims to find a community of vetted social media users who can intervene, report, even figure out when a troll isn’t a person, but actually a bot.

In fact, considering that there are already thousands of fake online Twitter accounts involved in all sorts of positive and negative activity – why not utilize automated accounts to take on the trolls?

Canadian doctoral student Douglas Guilbeault posed this very question at a recent gathering of academics, digital rights experts, policy makers, and activists at RightsCon in Brussels. “Can we design bots that protect, rather than harm, human rights?”

And, if yes, will they have a sense of humour? Don’t laugh, these are serious questions; hate’s punchline can be deadly. Governments, law enforcement agencies, and social media platforms must join the search for powerful comebacks.