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Don't Feed the Trolls - Engage Them

07/02/2017 13:02 GMT | Updated 07/02/2017 13:03 GMT
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The violence and rioting that occurred at UC Berkeley on February 1 in opposition to a scheduled talk by alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos has increased the divide between the right and the left and fuelled debate on free speech vs. hate speech. This violence should not be considered representative of the protest as a whole, which was conducted peacefully by the vast majority of participants. However, it has become a successful talking point for conservative pundits and commentators to illustrate what they believe is the repressive culture of liberal "safe spaces" on universities. If liberals don't want to give a larger platform to the alt-right and legitimize their message, they need to stop protesting - and start engaging.

This is not to say peaceful protesting is an ineffective form of resistance. In many cases it is the most effective way to show dissent and pressure the government to change legislation for fear of alienating their constituency. The massive demonstrations following President Trump's travel ban has led the Trump administration to significantly reduce the parameters of the ban, exempting green-card holders and dual citizens. Community action has mobilized Washington state lawyers to petition a federal judge to temporarily block enforcement of the ban, which has gone into effect Friday.

Public protests are effective when attempting to pressure public officials - not private individuals. Europe has dealt with a rise in far-right extremism in recent years not dissimilar to America's more recent alt-right phenomenon. They have subsequently looked into effective methods for countering violent extremism.

The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT)'s J. M. Berger has published the reportMaking CVE Work: A Focused Approach Based on Process Disruption where he discusses how counter-messaging should target "small audiences". He goes on to say, "Broadcasting counter-messages to large audiences may create curiosity, rather than suppress it, and may prompt vulnerable people to seek more information about the [violent extremist] organisation".

This was the precise effect of the demonstration against Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley. His upcoming book, Dangerous reportedly soared from the 642nd to the 5th ranked best-seller on Amazon the same night of the protest. As of this writing, his book is ranked 1st on Amazon. Despite the intentions of protestors to block Milo's message by pressuring the university to cancel his speech, they have conversely shined a spotlight on the event and spread curiosity about his message, allowing it to reach vastly more people than the UC Berkeley College Republicans.

Not only did this protest aid in spreading awareness of Milo Yiannopoulos' brand of alt-right ideology, but it also aided his narrative of a liberal university culture that suppresses free speech. At an election week event at Ohio State University, Milo told his exuberant audience, "I'm waging a battle across this country to promote free speech on campus. It's what I do for a living: try[ing] to make it okay to be a libertarian, okay to be a conservative on a college campus which these days sometimes it isn't".

Milo's views on the perceived suppression of conservative voices on campus are not without merit. In Harvard University's 2015 Survey of Young Americans' Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service, 21% of Republicans surveyed said they did not feel comfortable sharing their political opinions at their university without fear of censorship or negative repercussions. Given the tensions exacerbated by the last election, this percentage is likely to be much higher now. Many young conservatives are feeling ostracized and believe any presentation of their ideology will be silenced in a university environment.

Milo is capitalizing off of this common conservative sentiment by painting himself as the victim of liberal suppression and gaining the sympathy of conservatives who otherwise might not have been receptive to his more extreme brand of conservatism. Former Breitbart News colleague and current political adversary to Milo, Ben Shapiro, wrote of the UC Berkeley incident, "When the left shuts down his speeches, when they riot, when they engage in actual violence, when they pepperspray those who come to hear him and hit them with metal poles, all they're doing is legitimizing Yiannopoulos in the public eye, making him the victim and selling him books."

Protesting always has the potential to be co-opted by violence, poisoning the well-meaning intentions of the majority of the counter-movement. So if a peaceful protest itself is not conducive to countering ideology, its only effects can be negative.

Milo Yiannopoulos is a symptom of a very real problem - the political ostracization of right-wing viewpoints in public spaces has led it to recede into the cyber-spaces of anonymity, where the more salacious and extremist rhetoric attract the most attention. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "The general population of the Alt-Right is composed, by and large, of anonymous youths who were exposed to the movement's ideas through online message boards like 4chan and 8chan's /pol/ and Internet platforms like Reddit and Twitter".

Online political engagements are likely to be subject to socio-political echo chambers where people are insulated from counter-arguments and surrounded by people with a similar bias. Any opposition to their views will be disregarded as "fake news" and any content that confirms preconceptions will be lauded and unchallenged. This type of environment is likely to create an alternate sense of reality, where the more extreme viewpoints are continually reinforced to become normalized.

By refusing to engage with ideologies deemed hateful or ignorant, liberals are cutting off the one tool they have at curtailing the alt-right movement - open dialogue.

ICCT's J. M. Berger details effective methods for countering extremist messaging:

"Messaging... should especially focus on providing factual rebuttals to extremist messaging... Individuals who are questioning whether they should join a [violent extremist] organisation should be exposed to a volume of material that will inspire doubt."

Instead of protesting alt-right gatherings, which feeds into their victim narrative and raises their profile to potentially draw more to their messaging, liberals should debate their message. Attend their meetings and contest their assertions. Be open to finding common ground in order to establish enough trust to reach their audience. Milo said at his Ohio State University event, "The default position to those in power should be... holding them to account. Aught to be testing everything they say and checking if it's true."

This is a sentiment people on all sides of the spectrum can agree upon. It is the responsibility of the counter-movement to hold the alt-right accountable to this message. Will they exercise the same level of vetting for their representatives that they have for their opposition? As Donald Trump betrays their notion of populism by filling his cabinet with corporate cronies and Washington lobbyists and insiders, will they hold him accountable to his promise to "drain the swamp"?

The counter alt-right movement needs to get more creative in their tactics. Those that are currently being utilized are only digging in the heels of people who would otherwise be on the fence. As Ana Kasparian of The Young Turks urged, "Don't feed the trolls". Take it a step further. Don't feed the trolls. Engage them. And see the power that strategic dialogue can have in disrupting extremist movements.