04.05.2023 change 04.05.2023

Hateful comments can be effectively countered, says linguist

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Hateful comments are not the default way to communicate online. And fighting against toxic language does not violate freedom of speech, explains linguist Dr. Paweł Trzaskowski. The researcher describes the mechanisms of hate speech and effective ways to reduce this phenomenon.

Dr. Trzaskowski, head of the language section of Polish Radio, as part of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Warsaw, analysed the phenomenon of hate in online comments. His work received the award of the Prime Minister.

He told PAP: “I assumed that hate speech is a way of talking about someone online that makes the recipient of a given message think less about the described person or group than before receiving the message.

“If someone feel worse due to a given comment or we see that someone's image has been harmed, it can be considered that we are dealing with hate speech.”

According to the researcher, unethical language constitutes a vast minority of online content, but we remember it better than other messages; 'it is loud, flashy, aggressive, trying to do harm'.

According to the linguist, there are two main reasons for using hate speech. The first reason is mercantile - there are people who get paid for discrediting others, for example political trolls. It is difficult to ascertain how many such people there are. The second reason is emotional. Traszkowski said: “People use hate speech to vent their frustration - they lower someone else's status, and thus feel more important, better, believe that they can influence something.

“Violence is always about the usurpation of power by someone stronger over someone weaker, and harm is done for someone's gain. And this is the case with hate speech. The victim is attacked in the comment section. This person is unable to defend themselves even if they wanted to, because they will be shouted at. There is a disproportion of forces, someone is getting hurt. And the hater profits from it.”

Describing the ways of doing harm in the comments, he said: “First, the hater finds a foothold, grabs onto something to discredit the other person, it can be the victim's sexuality, appearance, accusing them of hypocrisy and cynicism, pointing out strangeness, dependence or lack of credibility.

“When it comes to discrediting techniques used as part of hate speech, one can distinguish: mocking (ridiculing a person or their features), depreciation (name-calling, insults), labelling (classifying a person in a category with a bad association), distraction (referring to a topic completely different from the merits), as well as provocation (for example, attacking a person's sensitive points - their intimacy, family).”

Dr. Trzaskowski also distinguishes several types of haters: 'jokers' (they want to cause laughter), 'screamers' (they use short, often vulgar statements), 'indignants' (they express their dissatisfaction) and 'informants' (they share knowledge with others).

While the language of hate speech is varied and commentators use all linguistic means to discredit the opponent, the hate techniques are repetitive and easy to name. Once you know them, it is easy to predict what the comment section under an article will look like.”

In his work, Dr. Trzaskowski studied publicly available information portals. He said: “They do not help to create a community. There is no sense of community that would motivate those commenting to behave. Thus, such portals become the modern equivalent of a medieval pillory, a place where lynching takes place.

“When you are a member of the crowd, you feel that you can get away with more. But if you choose someone from the crowd to participate in a street poll - this person suddenly becomes calmer, speaks more coherently, in full sentences, because then they are responsible for themselves. They are being judged. Hate speech is similar. In comments, where people feel anonymous, part of the responsibility is removed. If we somehow create this sense of responsibility, such an obligated user will behave better than an anonymous shouter.

“When I started working on this study, I thought the comment sections were an Augean stable - beyond redemption. It turned out, however, that there are studies that confirm it, that hate speech can be effectively countered. This language of Internet comments can be organized and put the debate on the right track. It just takes effort.”

Large Polish portals, such as Onet and Interia, have already removed the option of readers' comments. Closing the possibility of commenting is perhaps the simplest, but not the only way to get rid of hate speech.

There are places on the Internet where dialogue takes place, for example specialized or thematic forums. Members of these groups form a community, they gather around a chosen topic in order to exchange information. Hate speech is rare in such places. Therefore, portal publishers should care about creating such harmonious communities. However, this is not a simple task.

Traszkowski said: “For this, you need people who will carry out fair, transparent moderation. And this is time-consuming and expensive.”

According to the researcher, moderators should use a fair and transparent system of rewards and penalties for users. He said: “Commenters should know what they are being punished for (with the removal of their comment or a ban) and should be able to appeal. If the banning system is not transparent, haters come back and are even more aggressive.

“It is also worth providing rewards for commenters so that valuable entries are appreciated. For example, on The New York Times website users can choose the comments they will see: all, selected by the editors or highly rated by other readers. This division into sections motivates commenters to write careful, thoughtful comments.

“In the online game League of Legends (famous for effectively reducing the amount of 'toxic' language in communication between players) a system of rewards was developed for users not reported by others for using aggressive language.

“However, this can only work if the person who writes online identifies with their avatar. They do not necessarily have to appear under their own name, but they cannot be completely anonymous either. It is important to create a sense of responsibility for how others perceive them.”

Measures discouraging commenters from posting entries under the influence of sudden, negative emotions are also helpful. Hiding the comment section (you have to unhide it yourself) helps in the fight against hate, so does having to log in before adding a comment, and various types of verification questions. A very good method is also publishing comments with a delay, after they have been approved by the moderator. Some websites, instead of having a comment section, encouraging readers to send letters to the editors, which, as in the best years of the printed press, may be published at a later point.

Another effective measure against hatespeech is counterspeech, presenting a different narrative under an aggressive commentary. However, for the counterspeech to be effective, it must not be aggressive, but matter-of-fact and empathetic.

Traszkowski continued: “Getting rid of some comments doesn't necessarily mean violating freedom of speech. In public life, there are also often unwritten rules that tell us that not everything can be said everywhere. And some places on the web create an illusion of complete freedom, offering a space where everything is verbally allowed.

“The problem is global. Not so long ago, we hoped that the development of the Internet would lead to the emergence of citizen journalism. Readers then gained some hope for agency. But then it turned out to be a false hope. Ordinary users are still not listened to, not read.”

He added that this causes frustration among some of them. That is why some commentators find a substitute for agency in the use of language violence, hurting others with words. However, this does not relieve their frustration, but fuels another instead - in accordance with the principle that aggression breeds aggression. (PAP)

PAP - Science in Poland, Ludwika Tomala

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