In short: what happened in the Less Hate, More Speech project
The Less Hate, More Speech project set out to investigate the role that political elites and mass media can play – whether or not it is intentional – in reducing or proliferating anti-democratic and intolerant discourse among the citizens.
A central component of the project involved the development and implementation of a comment moderation procedure on four Romanian websites: GSP.ro, the largest sports news website in the country and the online presence of print sports daily Gazeta Sporturilor; Tolo.ro, the public affairs blog of the GSP editor-in-chief, and one of the most popular blogs in Romania; Blogsport.ro, an op-ed platform associated with GSP; and Paginademedia.ro, a website dedicated to media & advertising industries news.
The comment moderation, coupled with other interventions in the comment section, represented a unique quasi-field experiment into how tolerance and civility norms can be instituted and enforced, as well as what other methods might be effective in altering online discourse. The project was not limited to comment moderation, however, and in fact combined numerous components in the 9 work packages that focused on research activities.
Why would comment moderation and comment section-level experiments not have been enough? Although online discourse may seem different from the way people converse offline, commenters are ordinary people, like everyone else. Most are not fundamentally different from the rest of society, and their online behaviour is influenced by the same values, convictions and attitudes they possess the rest of the time, although since behavior is influenced by context, being online can alter behavioural patterns. This is why the comment moderation and comment section experiments, which were central to this project, would not have had the same practical and research value, had they not been done with a knowledge of two separate issues: the mechanisms behind intolerant and anti-democratic attitudes, on the one hand and the social and informational context around us, on the other hand.
To institute new norms in the comment section and identify the situations that encourage people to act more respectfully towards others, it was necessary to understand intolerance in general. Our research therefore sought to enhance our understanding of the manifestations and roots of intolerance, as well as how intolerance can intensify and spread or, conversely, be reduced. Finding avenues to reduce intolerance required studying how mass media and political elites think and how they can influence public attitudes and public discourse.
In studying the dynamics of public opinion regarding groups that are frequent targets of intolerance (such as ethnic or sexual minorities), we drew on previous research from Norway, where we partnered with the University of Bergen, as well as other countries. Through national surveys and online or survey-embedded experiments, we not only helped reveal what are the features of intolerance in Romania, but also what inner resources and mechanisms might be mobilized to encourage tolerance, as well as what kind of messages from elites are likely to elicit more tolerant reactions.
This way, we contributed to a greater understanding of how such attitudes differ from country to country, depending on the media, political and social context. At the same time, we shed further light on the unifying features of intolerant and anti-democratic attitudes among people from very different countries.
Additionally, by studying media and elite opinion, we gained a better understanding of the degree to which elite attitudes are congruent with mass attitudes, and what values and motivations drive elite behaviour. We further added to this picture by analysing the interaction between media content and public reactions online. Altogether, our findings reveal that anti-democratic and intolerant attitudes are fairly prevalent, but the project also highlights promising avenues for the reduction of anti-democratic and intolerant discourse (and ultimately of such attitudes).
Less Hate, More Speech – Youngsters Get Involved!
The project is run by Median Research Centre (MRC) in partnership with Educ Association and targets young people between 12 and 17 years old, in order to help them better identify and react to online and offline hate speech.
More, on the project’s website.