Counterspeech: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Countering Dangerous Speech is edited by Dr Stefanie Ullmann and Dr Marcus Tomalin from the Giving Voice to Digital Democracies project at CRASSH.

Q. Stefanie, what is the book Counterspeech: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Countering Dangerous Speech about?

The book is about communicative strategies, known as counterspeech, that are intended to undermine dangerous speech such as hate speech and disinformation. The publication is an anthology that consists of eight distinct perspectives from linguistics, philosophy of language, media and communication studies, anthropology, education, law, computer science and engineering. Counterspeech is a new and exciting research field that explores how to effectively counter harmful speech without censorship and deletion.

Q. What drew you to the subject and what do you find particularly interesting about it?

As part of the Giving Voice to Digital Democracies project, we have extensively studied the use and impacts of hate speech and disinformation on digital media. We have explored and suggested different approaches such as a quarantining application for hate speech. However, at the end of the day, the most appealing strategies always turn out to be the ones users can easily deploy themselves. It has been amazing to witness an increased interest in counter methods and narratives from virtually every angle. Counterspeech is a topic that is truly multidisciplinary and, in fact, needs to be! It affects so many aspects of human social interaction, it requires interdisciplinary collaboration. There are practitioners who use counterspeech on a daily basis on social media platforms, linguists and philosophers of language who study the formal basis of a ‘counter-speech act’, anthropologists and social scientists who investigate what motivates people to become counterspeakers and which strategies are most effective, legal experts who are interested in identifying speech that doesn’t violate human rights, as well as engineers and computer scientists who apply mathematical models to process and evaluate natural language data and develop automated models to assist humans in the production of counterspeech. If we want to combat harmful speech successfully, we need to look at the full picture. For instance, automating counterspeech is extremely useful, but we need to also understand the communicative and social factors (e.g. context, audience) that truly make counterspeech effective.

Q. Around which themes did you decide to structure the book, and to what end?   

The book is structured around three main themes: approaches (theoretical and methodological), context and the future. Part one includes linguistic, philosophical and methodological approaches to the study of counterspeech. While chapters one and two present discussions about the different forms that counterspeech can take in language and discourse, chapter three offers insights into how a multidisciplinary study on counterspeech can be conducted by combining ethnographic and computational methods.

Part two explores counterspeech in different contexts: media, culture and international law. Chapter four discusses the persuasive characteristics of counterspeech and the effects it has on different audiences. Chapter five looks at counterspeech in the context of international human rights law and freedom of speech. The last chapter in part two presents the results of a study, in which counterspeech and behaviour were used playfully in video games.

The third and final part of the book takes a look at future opportunities in the application and evaluation of counterspeech. The book ends with some important considerations for future work such as: to what extent do automated approaches to counterspeech need to improve and how can we measure successful counterspeech across different platforms and communicative strategies?

Q. In your view, wherein lies the book’s main contribution to our understanding of Counterspeech?

The book is the first anthology that focuses exclusively on counterspeech. Given the continuous rise of abusive language and behaviour on digital platforms, this publication could not be more timely. It is extremely readable and written in a way that is accessible, regardless of the readers’ background. Anyone with an interest in language and how to improve discourses and conversations online can (and should) read this book. The biggest contribution is its multidisciplinarity. It is extremely fascinating to see how relevant this topic is to so many areas of inquiry, from communication studies to law to gaming.

Q. What would readers be surprised to learn about in your book? 

I think what may surprise readers are the vast opportunities for multidisciplinary work and research that this subject evokes. And that it is a topic that affects everyone. We have all experienced harmful language and behaviour online in one way or another, be it by being targeted ourselves, knowing someone who has been or by speaking up against hate and misinformation. What is truly wonderful about this book and its individual chapters is that it offers hope and opportunities that we as individuals and as a community can take measures into our own hands and effectively counter dangerous speech. Truly anyone can be a counterspeaker!



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