The best weapon against hate? Empathy!


Marlies Seifert



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Reacting is better than ignoring. Eight tips on how to handle discriminatory and insulting comments online.

It’s practically impossible to avoid: Hate speech is all over the Internet. Comment sections, feeds and forums are full of it. But how should you react when others are being discriminated against? And what should you do if you’re the one being attacked? In cooperation with the Migros Pioneer Fund project «Stop hate speech» researchers at ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich carried out a study to find answers to this question. «We discovered that empathy is the best way to combat hate speech,» says co-project manager Sophie Achermann. If you appeal to the person’s empathy, you have the best chances of getting them to delete their insulting or negative comments. «On the other hand, humour and admonishment are less effective,» says Achermann. But what does that mean exactly? And what other strategies can you use to take the wind out of their sails? Eight tips from the expert.

1) Respond: React to the hateful post and call out the person for spreading hate speech. It doesn’t take much. For example, say something like: «What you wrote is hurtful to a lot of people» or «By saying this, you’re insulting people I care about». Even if it takes courage and energy: «Saying something is always better than getting upset and staying silent,» says Sophie Achermann. It’s important to show that there are other opinions on the topic. «We want to encourage people to show as much courage online as they would offline.» Be a role model!

2) Dislike/downvote: Better than nothing. If you can’t work up the courage to write a reply, you can at least respond with a thumbs down or otherwise express your opinion. Many online media portals offer this function. «This also offers these individuals direct feedback so that they can see that their statements will not simply be tolerated,» says Achermann.

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What is hate speech?

Not every insult posted online is hate speech. Hate speech is always directed at a specific group of people. This group can be defined by its country of origin, nationality, social status, sexual orientation or political convictions. In Switzerland, racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic hate speech violates anti-discrimination laws. Other kinds of insults or threats are characterised as «toxic speech» and can also be reported to the authorities.

3) Elicit empathy: Now we get to the point about empathy. «When we talk about empathy, we don’t mean showing understanding to the authors of hate speech,» explains Achermann. «What we mean is causing those individuals to feel empathy for others.» In this case, you’re not only identifying hate speech for what it is, but addressing the author directly. For example: «How would you feel if people talked about you this way?» or «Think about how you would feel if someone insulted you like this.»

4) Encourage a change in perspective: With this form of active counter speech, you can get the other person to think about their actions without them having to put themselves in the victim’s shoes. Some sentences you can use: «My x (for example: gay/black/Muslim) friends get sad every time they see posts like these.» Or: «Surely you also know some x (for example: gay/black/Muslim) people. How do you think they would feel if they saw something like this?»

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Sometimes arguments can get you further online.

5) Report it: This applies in particular to authors of hate speech with a large number of followers, for example politicians or other public figures. The rule here is «Don’t feed the trolls». In other words: don’t give them any more attention. «In these cases, it is also worthwhile to engage with the person’s followers directly in the comments,» says Achermann. The original author of the hate speech is unlikely to change their opinion. That’s why your best option is to report it to the platform operator. This is the most likely way to get the hateful message taken down.

6) Counter with facts: This is particularly effective if you can demonstrate that you have a certain level of expertise in a specific area and you have your facts prepared. «Otherwise it’s hard to react quickly enough,» says Achermann. Alternatively, you could also ask the author where they got their facts from and request that they name their sources. Even if you’re an expert in a certain field: «At some point, it’s no longer possible to argue rationally.» But it’s certainly worth a try.

7) Gather evidence: Anyone can report racist or homophobic hate speech – regardless of whether you’re the victim or simply an observer. In this case, you should take screenshots and contact the police. Please note: This approach does not apply to sexist hate speech. Sexist hate speech is not covered under the anti-racism provision. «In my opinion, the law falls short here,» says Sophie Achermann.

8) Get help: If you are personally impacted by insults and hate speech: Gather evidence and then delete the original posts. We recommend having a friend do this for you. We also suggest, as a first step, that you ask a friend to take over your social media accounts for you. «That’s because hate speech hurts us much worse than someone who is not the target,» says Sophie Achermann. Contact a specialised counselling centre (such as the LGBTI-Helpline oder Netzcourage) and consider reporting it to the authorities.

Photos: GettyImages

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