Counter Speech

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Counter speech can be useful in three ways:

  1. to call out/correct a specific person who is engaging in dangerous speech
  2. to provide support to the targeted and make the community visible
  3. to shift norms

Counter speech is trending as a strategy to counteract harmful speech and companies, particularly Facebook, is interested in how to empower users to speak back.

Question is when is it productive and when not? When is it helpful to call out people and when does counter speech publicly shame others?

Counterspeech can work in two ways

  1. Focus on the what was said and not the speaker
    for e.g Reddit someone will say something stupid, turns into a joke, a number of puns. This changes the topic and the joke doesn't become about the person.
  2. Focus on the speaker and calling them out
    The goal of this is often to get the speaker to apologise or retract their statement. This does not always have to result in public shaming but it often does
    e.g. Tim Hunt

Often the line between if something is counterspeech or public shaming is based on consequences. e.g. Tim Hunt sees it as a public shaming because he lost his job. If he hadn't it might have just been considered in public as a joke.

It is interesting to look at the narrative that gets built from the story– who is the victim and who is the target? Tim Hunt lost his job so he is portrayed as the victim.

Examples of counterspeech

  • One participant saw a group on Facebook “Men are better than Women” - she bantered with them, engaged humorously. Violence escalated, the participant was harassed, images doctored etc. She had a big network and decided to do something about it. Facebook refused to take down her doctored images. Created viral campaign, hit the international news. They were repeated offenders. Because the recipients of harassment used humour, the conversation was able to continue, the campaign gained traction because other people wanted to get involved. A dialogue happened.
  • Wikipedia: tried to increase their editorbase, discussion about gender inclusion at wikipedia. The creation of counterspeech also brough trolls into the room and silenced others who did not feel comfortable to speak up

Counterspeech can escalate the problem: baiting the trolls, making it worse.

Engaging in counter speech

It is both difficult to engage in counterspeech if you are a target and also scary to engage if you are a bystander because you don't want to bait the trolls to attack you.


allows targets to recruit bystanders. Assigning certain tasks to bystanders. Recruiting different types of bystanders to do different jobs.


positively controls. Really worked when they tweeted the guy who was inciting rape.

Zero Trollerance/@she_not_he bot

uses automated responses to engage with trolls so that the targets don't have to

e.g. of shaping the environment you want on social media: one participant didn't use Facebook, but built up a good following on Twitter. when she did start, noticed that compassion is allowed in different capacities on the different platforms. Different culture on Facebook than on Twitter. Curated her own Facebook platform, people were scared off.


  • There is a difference between correcting someone on their harmful ideas/language and shaming them
  • Shame will be turned back on you.
  • Humour can be useful to take out the sting but it can also make a situation worse, angering the speakers
  • When people start adapting tactics from trolls, it can be hard for platforms to distinguish between trolls and counter speech subjects.

Action points

  • Write up a taxonomy of counterspeech and examples
  • Design a test experiment