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Interview: Alena Helgeson on #iamhere, counterspeaking, and creating a more compassionate world

In these challenging times, we are seeing communities come together to support their most vulnerable. Unfortunately, we are also seeing certain communities become the target of hateful attacks online and off.

We spoke with Alena Helgeson, founder of #iamhereCanada, on her efforts to combat hateful, false and misleading information through “counterspeak”, COVID-19, and why what happens in digital spaces matters in the physical world.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you describe what the counterspeak movement is, and why online groups like #iamhere are important?
Counterspeaking is basically going into platforms or social media comment sections, and creating an alternative message. We’re seeing a vocal minority that is trying to perpetuate a particular message that isn’t true — disinformation, or lots of subtle (or not so subtle) racism — so to be able to provide a message of facts really helps. The silent majority can see [that message] and can start to balance what might be true and what might not be. Plus, counterspeaking helps carve out space so that people who might feel silenced or marginalized have that space to share their thoughts and their viewpoints.

I’ve talked about the Dangerous Speech Project out of Harvard — they really focus on what dangerous speech is. Hate speech is very subjective. What might be considered hate speech to one person might not be to another person.

Dangerous speech is any type of expression — whether it’s written or pictures — that will increase the risk of one group violently attacking another, or even being tolerant of violence. When President Trump talks about the “Chinese Virus”, that’s not really hate speech, but it is dangerous. What it’s doing is inspiring or activating groups of people to start doing a lot of anti-Asian attacks. We’ve seen that with Muslim people or Indigenous people — we see things that aren’t hateful, but certainly stirs the pot so people will be more tolerant of acts against those groups.

That’s really why it’s important that there are counterspeaking measures, so that that tolerance level doesn’t change, or so that it doesn’t swing so that society accepts attacks and hate.

How do you know what platforms, news articles, and comments to engage in?
In our group, we’ll invite people to look for articles and things through social media. Every day one of our moderators will go through and scan news articles, and we look for anything that can be thought of as dangerous speech, or hate speech, and then we post that in our group and invite members to go and make comments on it. They link their comments to the thread in the group, so that we can go support them.

Why did you choose to get involved with #iamhere? Was there a particular moment, comment, or article that inspired you?
A couple of years ago, I was talking to a friend and he started talking about all these anti-Muslim things, and how he was afraid because he knew that as soon as [Muslims] got that call from their religious leaders, they would kill all the white people, including him and his neighbours. And I was really surprised that anybody [I knew] would think that. And then I started thinking that if he thinks that, and was so able to shift into that mindset, there must be other Canadians that feel that same way, too.

I started doing some digging and ran into the the #iamhere movement, and I joined the U.K. group to see how they worked and what they did. There are a lot of issues that are very universal, so I was able to interact with them.

And then [the shooting of] Colten Boushie happened. And that tragedy sparked so much hate in the media, and on social media, that we just thought it was time to start something in Canada.

What are the most common topics you see problematic comments on?
Racism is huge; Islamophobia, LGBTQ2S+ issues all across the world, gender, anything that has to do with women. Climate change — Greta Thunberg is a huge, huge target. There are so many people that attack her everywhere. And in Canada and Australia, anything related to First Nations communities is also always very inflammatory.

And then recently, with COVID, very anti-Asian stuff.

In the context of COVID-19, what has changed in terms of participant involvement or the content you see online in news stories and comment sections?
We’ve noticed that anything to do with COVID  — and maybe it’s because people are feeling oversaturated — participation levels have really dropped. A lot of conspiracy theories in the comments, lots of disinformation, lots of people suddenly thinking that they [are experts on] viruses and healthcare. And, again, many comments against Asians.

When you say participation has dropped, do you mean participation from #iamhere members? Yeah. Within the group there are fewer people wanting to interact with those posts as they go by. Right at the beginning there were lots of people jumping in with proper facts, and now it’s sort of dwindling a little bit.

People, I think, are just tired. So, we’ve tried to counter that by sharing really positive stories: volunteer work, or business owners giving away food to homeless people, or landlords going out and buying groceries for their senior residents.

What do you say to those who criticize that engaging in counterspeak is just “feeding the trolls”?
We’ve heard that argument before. When we interact online, we try really hard not to engage the trolls. You don’t see a lot of us countering them directly. What we’ll do is post a standalone, objective, fact-filled comment that people can boost or reply to. When we ask members to do a standalone, that helps, so that you don’t accidentally boost the comment of a known troll or someone sharing disinformation, because commenting on it amplifies it.

Also, you don’t always have to make a comment. You can go in and support the ones that we suggest supporting, or find other ones worth boosting.

What would you say to people who withdraw from online spaces because they feel that they are targeted due to their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality?
That’s really hard. The common reaction is to just not want to engage. Lots of people withdraw, and don’t read comments — it’s a coping mechanism — but their voices are necessary. We’ve talked about how diverse Canada is, and we need those diverse voices. We need those voices to help set the tone and shift the conversation. And they can tell us when they’re feeling attacked or targeted. We’re 150,000 strong worldwide, so when they need help we can call in those groups. They just need to know they’re not alone.

Can you share an example of a time you were able to effectively support someone online or address an incorrect or problematic narrative?
Don Cherry’s comments before Christmas was a big one. There were lots of articles — some of them supporting what Don Cherry said, and some of them just reporting. We would see a lot of people saying “well that’s just the way he is”, “ he’s always been like that”, “‘you people’ could be anybody”. So we were able to go in and break down what it meant, and why it was problematic.

We try to show people that they’re not the only ones speaking out against something hateful. It’s one of the ways we carve out space for people to share their opinions, and it helps when we comment as well, because it encourages others to speak up.

What role can we play as advocates for one another without speaking on behalf of someone else?
The last thing we need are saviours. I was talking to my partner, who is never sure how to help in these situations. He doesn’t want to go in as a white guy acting like a superhero. I think it helps to be able to redirect to the voices of the people who are marginalized. If I’m commenting on something that’s anti-Asian, then he can come in and support or amplify my comment. That’s one way that it’s great to be an ally — letting marginalized voices be heard, and supporting them, without speaking for them.

Many people right now are finding that they have more time on their hands. Do you see this as an opportunity to get involved in more of this work?
I think we’re in a time of a great reboot. It’s a time to be able to reflect on what you want to do, and how you see yourself. I think it’s making people slow down and giving them a chance to listen to their heart.

With regards to time, we know that people are scrolling through right now more than they’re speaking up. They can find the time to be more of an activist, if they choose to be. I like to think that we’ll be a more compassionate world when we get out of this thing.

How would you help someone see work with #iamhere as volunteer work, or activism – just like getting involved in your community?
We have to stress that online work is activism. You’re creating a narrative. We see the influence of what’s being said online when it carries into real life. Online you create narratives, you create perspectives on different topics, whether it’s Indigenous people, or refugees, and we hear those things being echoed in grocery stores. It’s so important to engage online.