Today’s Solutions: December 03, 2022

Many social media platforms have launched more elaborate filters in an attempt to root out hate speech and inappropriate content, but unfortunately, many of these are imprecise and, as any social media user knows, harmful and hateful content still runs rampant on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. A new study from ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich has identified how a different tool─empathy─can successfully combat hate speech.

Led by public policy professor Dominik Hangartner, the research team identified 1,350 English-speaking Twitter users who had posted racist or xenophobic content. The researchers then assigned these users randomly to a control group or one of three test groups. The test groups were then prescribed different counterspeech strategies: empathy-eliciting messages, humor, or warning of consequences.

The researchers found that by far, the most effective strategy for getting these users to delete or amend hateful content was counterspeech messages that elicit empathy. Users addressed with empathetic messages posted about one-third fewer racist or xenophobic comments than the control group and also posted less than those addressed with humorous counterspeech or consequence reminders. Examples of empathetic counterspeech included comments like “Your post is very painful for Jewish people to read…”

This research is critical because it demonstrates that many of the tactics used by major social media platforms, like content removal warnings, are actually not very effective at reducing hate speech. Empathy-forward strategies could be used to inform more effective counterspeech algorithms.

“The research findings make me very optimistic. For the first time, we now have experimental evidence that show[s] the efficacy of counterspeech in real-life conditions,” said Sophie Achermann, executive director of the Swiss women’s umbrella organization alliance F. 

Source study: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – Empathy-based counterspeech can reduce racist hate speech in a social media field experiment

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