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Counter-speaking group trying to make social media a better place

Counter-speak movement combats hate and intolerance in online comments
WATCH: Comments on social media, especially if they follow a contentious news article, can be pretty horrible. I Am Here Canada members are trying to balance all the negativity with facts, support and positive comments. Emily Mertz has more.

Hundreds of Canadian digital warriors are on a mission to make social media — particularly comment threads on Facebook — a nicer and more inclusive space.

I Am Here Canada is the Canadian branch of a wider movement that started in Sweden in 2016 called #jagärhär. It describes itself as “a non-partisan action group that practices counter-speaking.”

“We dive into comments online where there’s hateful comments, or bigotry, or intolerance or anything like that, and we do that to carve out space so that people that want to share their opinions, share their voices, have that space to do that where they’re supported,” said Alena Helgeson, the founder of the Canadian branch, which started in 2018.

READ MORE: Canada considering forcing social media companies to remove extremist content

It’s not censorship, Helgeson explained, but rather a way to balance the views represented in comment threads and offer facts and context in conversations.

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“We’re not telling people not to say those things. If you are wanting to spread your hateful comments or your bigotry or whatever, fine, you do that. We’ll present you with the facts, but we’re going to add in a lot more compassion — and we’re going to bring in all these people that want to say all these positive things — that it’s kind of going to mute you but it’s not directly attacking you.

“It’s to create an alternative message. Because there’s so much hate out there, that’s what people see.”

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The hope is that people who tend to avoid commenting because they don’t feel comfortable or safe will add their voice to the discussion.

READ MORE: 6 steps Canadians can take when they spot hate speech online

Helgeson cited a Leger Institute for Canadian Citizenship survey that found three-quarters of Canadians don’t feel comfortable engaging online. Those are the people I Am Here Canada are trying to bring back into the conversation. Battling trolls is not really the point.

“When you read it, if you didn’t know better, you’d think the world is a horrible, hateful, terrible place. There are people that get really discouraged by it or depressed. They don’t realize that’s just the minority of voices wanting to silence everyone else. So if we can bring everyone else in and show them that there are such amazing people out there… I think that brings a little hope into it.”

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WATCH: (Sept. 27, 2019) Women – especially women in politics – receive a disproportionate amount of abusive and hateful messages on social media. ParityYEG is using artificial intelligence to send out a positive tweet for every negative one. 

ParityBOT uses AI to combat abusive tweets to female election candidates
ParityBOT uses AI to combat abusive tweets to female election candidates

Members of the movement are vetted and come from a variety of backgrounds.

“They’re just fellow Canadians, everyday Canadians. You don’t have to be an academic.

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“I’m a substitute teacher and I work in a medical office. We have journalists, we have mechanics, we have health-care professionals, comic book creators and then of course we do have academics… scientists,” Helgeson said.

A member is assigned at the start of every day. Other members flag problematic posts — news articles shared on public Facebook pages that are generating a lot of awful comments — and members get to work.

“We’ll usually put in maybe a general comment, maybe we’ll post facts and push back a little bit, and then everybody is invited to boost the post — likes replies, reactions — and that’ll push those positive posts to the top.

“Those are the first ones that that silent majority of Canadians see because those are actually the people we are trying to engage.”

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Currently, the I Am Here movement has groups in 15 different regions around the world, including Canada, Australia and the U.K.

READ MORE: Alberta oil and gas advocates plan counter-rally amid Greta Thunberg’s visit to Edmonton

“There are certain topics that are universal: things like the refugees, that’s a big one. Climate change is huge. It does not matter what country you are in at all, that 16-year-old girl just triggers off so much hate, it’s incredible,” Helgeson said.

“LGBTQ2S as well, very big. We find there’s a lot of hate and stereotypes with Indigenous issues as well — a tremendous [amount] — but we’re also finding that’s not as much universal.”

WATCH: (March 17, 2019) Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University, talks about controlling the spread of online hate and violence.

Controlling the spread of online hate and violence
Controlling the spread of online hate and violence

While trying to counteract all the hate online might seem daunting, group members feel it’s crucially important work.

Helgeson describes dangerous speech as “any form of literature or text or pictures that has the ability to increase the violence against a certain group of people or increase the tolerance of that.”

READ MORE: Racist letter tells Leduc family ‘we do not like your kind’

There’s concern that online hatred is manifesting in real life.

“We’ll see a lot of stuff online that maybe we never saw before. We see groups of people being called cockroaches, we see a lot of hate towards political figures, for example.

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“Now we have billboards that have hate speech, we have people that refer to other groups in casual conversation as cockroaches or vermin. We have people that don’t seem to have any trouble yelling at certain groups in public.

“If we’re seeing that hate online, we know that somehow it’s going to bleed into real life, and we need to be able to stop it as best we can.

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“Sometimes it feels daunting and maybe we won’t ever be able to change it. I like to hope that somewhere down the road, groups like ours won’t need to exist because people will just get engaged into the conversation naturally and defend each other and protect each other.”

To get involved in I Am Here Canada, apply through the group’s Facebook page.

WATCH: (Feb. 15, 2017) The Alberta Hate Crime Committee has launched a website in order to document hate-related incidents across the province by type, time and location. 

#StopHateAB website tracks hate-related incidents in Alberta
#StopHateAB website tracks hate-related incidents in Alberta