Nowadays, negative attitudes towards human being -such as hatred, violent extremism, racism and so on- are spreading more and more rapidly. This phenomenon is certainly fed through offline communication, that is through all the so-called “traditional” media and forms of communication; but, in the current era of social media in which we are living currently. The main cause for the widespread phenomenon is that the online communication, and, in a specific way, those social media that nowadays are common to a wide public of all ages, but used by teenagers and young people, in particular, who are consequently the most exposed to phenomena of hate speech and violence.
In this context, alternative narratives play an important role as a solution to prevent or to counter the increase of hate speech, by using different forms of dialogue and communication in which different opinions and ideologies are held, and by spreading them in different types of fora. But before dealing with alternative narrative and how it works to reach its goals, let us try to explain what Hate Speech is and how it spreads through online communication.
According to the Council of Europe, Hate Speech can be defined as “verbal expressions, which are discriminatory towards people or groups due to characteristics such as ethnicity, origin and cultural background, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability”. A more precise and clear definition has been provided by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, who defined it as “all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin”. Moreover, it is very important to remember that hate speech “also includes non-verbal expressions such as those contained in images, videos or any communicative form of online and offline activity”. But, what is there at the bottom of the Hate Speech? What is the origin of such a “contagious social disease”?
Most of the time hatred, violence and extremism stem from prejudices and negative stereotypes: these are unfair and unreasonable preconceived opinions about a particular group of people or things, which lead to adopt an undeserved attitude towards this specific group and to discriminate it. Moreover, stereotypes and prejudices are very difficult to hinder because they are instilled and deeply-rooted in the popular culture and in the mentality of people since their adolescence; for this reason, these unreal preconceived opinions are stronger than the real facts to be uprooted and are even able to resist the patency of the reality. Indeed, most of the time, we believe that a fact is true just because it comes from a person we trust or from an institution highly recognized in the political, social or cultural field: in these cases, it is very difficult to change the public opinions. According to that, to hinder prejudices and stereotypes it needs to provide strategies and tools able to introduce and show to people the other side of the coin and let them reflect about the possibility that the reality might be another one, maybe different and more likely better than their negative assumptions.
That is what alternative narrative intents to do. But how does alternative narrative do that? How can it achieve the widest spread and influence among people?
As has been said, alternative narrative seeks to inculcate a kind of dialogue which takes a position against the hate speech, with the purpose of letting us reflect and develop a critical opinion towards prejudice, stereotypes and all those facts we assumed as real in an unfair manner. And what is the best way to let this phenomenon spread like wildfire, involving as many people as possible and, therefore, influencing their point of view? Of course, through the online communication: by circulating in social media, platforms and in all kinds of online spaces, they spread and proliferate, influencing large-scale the public opinion due to the wide outreach in which online communication acts.
By the way, we have to remember that the same online mechanism and, therefore, narratives are also used by violent extremist groups as violent extremist propaganda with the purpose of inciting to violence, racism, and hatred. Violent Extremist messages are spread more and more widely and rapidly via the Internet and social media, in particular. This phenomenon is not easy to detect and to be contained, and most of the time authorities are not able to discover the source and to put an end. So, as online communication provides to extremist groups the means to proliferate their hate messages, in the same way online communication, through alternative narrative, provides the power to prevent and hinder hate speech and violent extremism.
Now, once we have understood and explained the mechanism of this phenomenon, let us try to make the role of alternative narrative clearer, by starting from its definition. According to the definition provided by European Commission, the term ‘alternative narratives’ is used “to encompass all online and offline communication activities which directly or indirectly challenge extremist propaganda in different types of fora such as, for example, face-to-face, using testimonials, blogs and chatrooms, websites etc.” They can aim at different purposes and, therefore, can assume a different structure: they can refer directly to a specific hate message or speech, providing opposite arguments with the aim of confusing and countering it; or they can be thought with the aim of forestalling hate speech in a general way, by providing alternative orientations and opinions, as well as different point of view. In the first case, we are facing a “counter-narrative”; in the second one, we are dealing with a general type of “alternative narrative”.
In other words, “counter-narratives” dismantle, delegitimize and discredit a specific violent extremist message in a very direct and focused way, with the specific purpose of hindering violent extremism; but, in addition to counter such phenomena, it is also necessary to prevent it and, therefore, try to make sure that hate speech does not develop and spread: this is the solution that “alternative narratives” wants to give by fostering the critical spirit, that is the capacity for the critical reflection that we need to question theses and the relative objections.
In conclusion, unlike “counter-narratives” which are always based on antithesis and “opposite messages”, alternative narratives are concentrated on and convey always positive messages -never “against” something, but rather “for” something or someone- which can deal with main topics such as coexistence, diversity, openness and respect towards others, social integration, democracy, and aim at a positive change behaviour in these directions.
European Commission, RAN Issue Paper, Counter Narratives and Alternative Narrative. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/what-we-do/networks/radicalisation_awareness_network/ran-papers/docs/issue_paper_cn_oct2015_en.pdf
Council of Europe, We can! Taking Action against Hate Speech through Counter and Alternative, 2017. Available at: https://rm.coe.int/wecan-eng-final-23052017-web/168071ba08
European Commission, Delivering alternative narrative, 2017. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/what-we-do/networks/radicalisation_awareness_network/ran-best-practices/docs/delivering_alternative_narratives.pdf
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