Three questions to Cathy Buerger, Director of Research at the Dangerous Speech Project.


*This interview first appeared in our January newsletter in French. 


1. Can you present the focus and activities of your research at the Dangerous Speech Project?

At the Dangerous Speech Project, we study the relationship between public speech and intergroup violence. We then use our research to advise the tech industry, governments, and civil society on how to anticipate, minimize, and respond to harmful discourse in ways that prevent violence while also protecting freedom of expression. Since I started at the DSP in 2017, my research has primarily been focused on user-led (as opposed to government or platform-led) responses to harmful online speech. I’m an anthropologist by training, and that has really influenced my thinking about online communities. Throughout my career, my research has always involved studying how communities of people work together to support positive norms and uphold human rights. These days, I’m particularly interested in understanding the motivations and strategies of people who choose to spend their time fighting hatred online – what are they trying to accomplish? How they decide to whom they should respond and how? And, perhaps the most important question, what constitutes success?


2. There is a lot of buzz today about counter-speech in response to dangerous and harmful content, but there is a comparative lack of research on these strategies. Can you tell us a bit about your work in this area, and how you are trying to assess the potential of counter-speech?

You’re right – for a topic that is so regularly touted as being a solution to online hatred, there isn’t really that much research on whether or not counterspeech is effective. Recently, we published an annotated bibliography of research related to counterspeech, but it’s a very small field. What I’ve learned from my research on various counterspeech efforts is that it isn’t as simple as asking “is counterspeech effective?” We first have to take a step back and ask, “what are these efforts actually trying to accomplish?” One of the findings from my research on those who are working on countering hatred online is that they don’t all have the same goals. We often think that counterspeakers are primarily trying to change the behavior or the views of the hateful speakers to whom they are responding. But of the many people that I have interviewed who are involved in these efforts, most state that they are actually trying to do something different. They are trying to reach the larger reading audience or have a positive impact on the discourse within particular online spaces. The strategies that you use to accomplish goals like that are going to be very different from those you might use if you are trying to change the mind or behavior of someone posting hateful speech. Improving our understanding of the goals of those working in this space will help us more accurately study the effectiveness of counterspeech.

For example, I’m currently finishing up a digital ethnography of groups of people who respond collectively to hatred online. The research is focused on the #iamhere network, which has over 130,000 members from 14 countries (including France). The groups (each of the 14 countries has its own group) respond collectively to hatred online, and my findings suggest that they are able to shift discourse norms, not necessarily by decreasing the hateful content but by increasing constructive content within particular online spaces. Studies like this can help us see that we potentially need to rethink what we measure when we study the effectiveness of counterspeech.


3. In addition to your research, you coordinate the Dangerous Speech Project’s Global Research Initiative (GRI) Fellowship. What inspired this project, and how is it going?

The Global Research Initiative (GRI) Fellowship was inspired by the knowledge that dangerous speech is best understood by those who are living in the context in which it is spread. Because of that, we have made it a major organizational priority to work with researchers from around the world to document examples of dangerous speech. Over the past three years, we have commissioned detailed case studies on dangerous speech in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Pakistan, and the Philippines as part of our Global Research Initiative (GRI). In early 2019 we formalized this effort by offering a call for proposals for a new fellowship program, and in September we announced our first class of fellows representing 10 different countries (Australia, Hong Kong, India, Myanmar, South Africa, South Sudan, Spain, Turkey, the United States, and Venezuela). It’s been such a fascinating process advising them and learning more about how dangerous speech functions in each of their contexts. They’ll each be writing posts for our blog, and we’ll be publishing their case studies on our website when they are complete, so you’ll be able to learn a lot more about their individual projects soon.

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