Blog / Communication

How to Counter Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric?

(Presentation on anti-refugee hate speech in Krakow, Aug 2015)

The communication strategy that counters the populist hysteria around the subject of refugees should take into account the following:

Populists have a head start in winning hearts and minds, because their framing is age-old and it is supported by the gravity of fear, intellectual laziness, and other human vices. Engaging with populism (in our case hate speech) head-on is wrong, because it is a self-perpetuating narrative. It is based on stoking fear – and the rest follows.

Before we discuss the methods and narratives that may work, we should understand what we are up against and how that works. It gives us clues to the traps laid down in their narrative. So let me start with a run-down of the mechanism of populist hate speech.

The framing of hate speech and why you should never fight the symptoms

The authoritarian thinking consists of the following elements. It is a downward spiral, where every element supports the others. Every populist plays on these notes instinctively.


The mechanism of authoritarian thinking kicks off when the populist stokes fear. Fear kicks off the chain of reactions that ultimately leads to hatred on the surface.


Every populist narrative starts with some sort of threat. In the case of an emergency, morality is suspended, restraints on power are considered irresponsible and dangerous, and only a strong leader can help – or so the implicit narrative sounds. In reality, none of the above is true.

Emergency also means that survival strategies kick in. In an emergency, we take orders and make every effort for things to remain the same. It is maintenance, rather than prosperity. A survival strategy is thus inappropriate for living, and permanent acceptance of strong leadership erodes democracy and freedom. See an emergency when there is none, and you make damage.

”How did this happen? Who’s to blame? … truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.

— Alan Moore

The narrative from emergency is a cornerstone of populism and generating hatred. The fear it creates and the conviction that we can no longer afford to be moral, open and trustful/trustworthy are the starting points of the populist’s narrative. The narrative frame of hate speech and xenophobia is based on the notion of an emergency and plays on the following few notes:

  • Fear
  • Dehumanisation of the subject of our fear is a preparation for attacking them
  • Victim blaming and scapegoating
  • In-group vs out-group rhetoric – often expressed by the existence and usage of stereotypes

Hatred is merely a symptom. Addressing the symptoms is like a cat chasing the laser: it keeps you busy, but the red dot is not the problem.


The underlying sentiment is fear, and that should be addressed instead. What makes it difficult is that fear is politically forgivable, and it is supported by the perception of human nature: we were told that being fearful when there’s no actual threat is a small price to pay. That erring on the safe side cannot be overdone. It can.

For a politician, it is also easier to create fear, than genuine popularity. It is easier to create war (the perception of threats) than peace. Easier to induce fear than love. As any Machiavellian would attest: threat – real or imagined – is something a politician and a populist can create. Love (popularity) is in the hands of the voters. Fear should be pursued, not love.

„One cannot capitalise on the opportunities provided by democracy in that chronic state of fear that believes that liberty is a threat to the national cause. To be a democrat means first and foremost not to be afraid: from those with different opinion, language or race, from revolution or conspiracy, from the evil intentions of the enemy, from enemy propaganda, not to fear from being disparaged, and all the imaginary dangers that become real exactly because we fear them.”

— István BIBÓ

Blaming the weak, the victim, and the need to scapegoat

Another element of authoritarian thinking that is worth keeping in mind when fighting xenophobia is victim blaming.

Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950) included among the authoritarian personality traits the “contempt for everything discriminated against or weak”, what would be later called “blaming the victim”. Melvin Lerner considers it as a distorted form of the just world hypothesis. From childhood onwards, we are bombarded with the message that good is rewarded while bad is punished. We carry this notion into adulthood and need an explanation for injustice when facing the cognitive dissonance of an innocent victim. (Lerner 2002) In order to “make” the world just again, we look for fault in the victim.

But victim blaming is only necessary, when one is not in the position to prevent injustice. In other words, helplessness. (Peterson-Seligman 1983) If one could intervene or rectify the situation, they would do that instead of mental adjustments.

Victim blaming serves multiple purposes:

  • It justifies one’s own inaction in the face of injustice
  • It allows to (one-sidedly) identify with power in a form of unrequited love that is neither confirmed nor denied by the powerful.
  • It provides the comforting notion that the victim must have done something wrong – their fate can thus be avoided by avoiding the same behaviour.
  • It thus recovers the illusion of control where there is none.

We cannot even tolerate the thought of an illness to come to someone without deserving it, it is no wonder we cannot cope with a mass of floating bodies suffering this unspeakable fate without any wrongdoing. When we feel helpless in rectifying the situation or prevent injustice from happening, we may resort to looking for fault in the victim to soothe ourselves. A populist will help us find some.

It also prepares the ground for the dehumanisation of the victim. If they are not like us, we don’t have to apply morals (as we do in interaction with our kind), we can detach ourselves from their suffering and feel safe in the illusion that it cannot happen to us.

Subtext of a hate campaign – An example

To demonstrate how the above tools are used, I will use the three “government information” billboards the Hungarian government issued to make citizens “aware of the threats” posed by refugees.

Slogan Message / Subtext


In order for the message to make sense/be true, the following must be true (better not say it out loud):

Tool used
“If you come to Hungary you must not take our jobs.„ Remember the threat of unemployment. It’s their fault. The government is to save us. The number of jobs is a given and fighting for them is a zero-sum game. Fear (anxiety for jobs) and Scapegoating
“If you come to Hungary you must obey our laws.„ Refugees must be criminals. The government is to protect us. Criminals can and should be kept out. Fear (criminal threat to safety) and Distrust
“If you come to Hungary, you must respect our culture.„ Refugees must be barbarians and contaminate our culture. And that must be a bad thing. And our culture is a good thing – whatever that might be. Dehumanisation and Moral relativism

The actual slogan can be disputed in a conversation, but the underlying subtext gets less attention. It is thus more powerful, because it is not said out lout. While a well-meaning person would engage in discussion about whether refugees (as such) are criminals or not, whether thy take anyone’s jobs or not, the subtext goes unchallenged. There is no good outcome from these discourses, and they completely miss the point.

How Not To Engage

Allow me to illustrate the pitfalls of engagement on the opponents’ terms through a few examples. When countering hate speech, the following messages (subtexts) are bound to backfire:

Hatred is not nice

They already know that. But they have decided that they cannot afford to be nice because it’s an emergency. They feel justified.

As I previously said, hatred is a symptom of fear. Fear is their reason to hate and the emergency is their excuse. A successful campaign must address the sense of fear and the presumption that there’s an emergency. Niceness will return by itself when the fear is gone.

Refugees are nice / kind / hard-working / honest / etc.

Fighting a negative stereotype by trying to infuse a positive one is not a solution. It’s a shouting match based on hearsay, confirmation bias and anecdotal evidence. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are negative but that they exist.

Xenophobia is unintelligent

This is prime example of the kind of communication that only appeals to fellow activists. Clearly, no one has given a thought to the target audience and group-think took over. The message insults even the undecided moderates, who have doubts that no one seems to address, only the aggressive xenophobes. The message ended up talking home.

You can cite as many studies as you want about the lower IQ and less education supposedly associated with certain political inclinations – but it won’t make a dent in the hatred towards the unknown. You may spark hatred against yourself, but nothing more.

Hurting people is immoral

Again, they already know that. It’s just that they’ve decided that morality is suspended due to an emergency. They are convinced that they cannot afford to be moral right now and emergency is their excuse (fear is their reason). This communication fails to address the real reason.

Images of dead people

This one is counterintuitive, but showing piles of corpses and bodies floating on the Mediterranean doesn’t win hearts for the refugees – for a number of reasons:

  • Further dehumanisation: The governments and extremists make a great effort to dehumanise refugees as non-people. Every war and genocide starts with the dehumanisation of the enemy or victim. Words familiar from the animal kingdom keep popping up. “Swarms” of refugees arrive. People are compared to apes, worms or cockroaches. Before the genocide in Rwanda, posters and leaflets were distributed which dehumanised Tutsis as ‘snakes’, ‘cockroaches’ and ‘animals’. Nazi propaganda used the term “rats” to Jews and explained it in detail in the 1940 propaganda film “The Eternal Jew”:

“Where rats appear, they bring ruin by destroying mankind’s goods and foodstuffs. In this way, they spread disease, plague, leprosy, typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery, and so on. They are cunning, cowardly and cruel and are found mostly in large packs. Among the animals, they represent the rudiment of an insidious, underground destruction – just like the Jews among human beings.”

The film shows a montage of images of ghetto Jews juxtaposed with images of rats. One of the shots shows a pack of rats emerging from a sewer, followed by a shot of a crowd of Jews in a crowded street of the Łódź Ghetto.

Dehumanisation opens the path to killing people, to letting them die – without a shred of consciousness. If I establish that the victim is not a person, basic decency, humane treatment and reciprocity don’t apply. It is a licence to kill and let die.

  • Alienation and victim blaming: Mass graves and unspeakable violence trigger a sense of self-defence that distances the observer from the horror he witnessed. Rather than empathy, these images trigger alienation. The observer will try to calm himself down and tries to rationalise. He attempts to find a cause that matches the consequences he sees. The mind is so desperate to prove that the world is just (every consequence has a matching cause) that it will come up with any number of explanation as to how the victim must have brought it on himself. Because if he didn’t, then “it could happen to me”. This need is the source of victim blaming.
  • Reinforces the message of emergency: Exactly what you want to avoid. Hate speech uses the same core argument as those, who fear a humanitarian catastrophe: It is an emergency, but not of those humans but our way of life, our wealth or our aspirations. Referring to an emergency will make extremists nod in agreement: “Yes, and this is why we are under attack.”
  • Negative campaigns induce inaction (or worse, aggression): As tempting and widespread as it is, shocking images of starving children, dead bodies washed ashore, or genocide victims don’t work in changing minds, let alone provoking active sympathy.
  • Shame doesn’t work: See alienation. Blame someone for a disaster and you can expect the most forceful backlash. That person will be emotionally motivated to provide arguments to back up his inaction. He will question your stance to judge (and he will be right). Combined with reflexivity, shame provokes the bystander effect. Instead of launching into action, they will become staunchly embedded on the side of inaction – or even hating the refugees.

It is always counterproductive to engage with the narrative of the haters. You may think that you can win, but it will be a phony triumph. By accepting their premises, you ultimately legitimise a much bigger problem. A few more examples of counterproductive engagement and using the wrong frame:

  • Getting into an argument over whether refugees can have smartphones or not.
  • Whether they should be poor or not (to qualify for humane treatment).
  • Whether they are nice people or grumpy old men.

Neither is prerequisite of being a refugee. And we know that haters are going to attack either way – smartphone or no smartphone. These examples also fall under the category of addressing excuses.

How To Engage

Your target audience is not yet convinced and is not dead set against you

There is no such thing as communicating to everyone at the same time and with the same message. The audience can be – in our case – either 1) for or 2) against migration or 3) undecided. One must make a conscious choice – and stick with it. Talking home to our fellow activists is just as pointless as trying to talk to staunch extremists. They are both very tempting. In fact, nothing tempts or prompts you to address the moderate masses. Extremists will provoke a reaction, your fellow activists will give (instantly) rewarding feedback, but your real target audience is silent. But they are listening.

The audience should be the undecided moderate, who does have doubts but can be convinced.

Also, different types of communication require different strategy.

Do you communicate as your persona or through a slogan? Is your audience receiving your message as individuals (in person or anonymously, through a blog, etc.) or as part of a group where they reflect at one another as well as the speaker?

Make passive involvement easy

A campaign that counters hate speech is a campaign. A crowdfunded campaign to achieve the same is our campaign. It is also two campaigns and a media event, because the crowdfunding drive raises attention in itself.

Crowdfunding has another important benefit: It decreases the threshold for involvement in activism for those, who are not ‘activist types’. Some people, who want to help victims of a catastrophe or refugees might not be into personally assisting the victims, and not just because they are busy. Activism takes a certain type of person – and there’s nothing wrong with not being an activist. Activists’ job is to make other types of contribution available.

When support can take another form, people may contribute in other ways more fitting to their lifestyles and personalities. Filling envelopes, sending donations, housing activists, who work out of town are ways to get involved. Lowering a threshold makes that first step towards involvement easy.

This is not an emergency

As mentioned under the “do nots”, effective human right communication should not play the emergency card. What we consider as a human rights emergency, populist reframe as a national emergency and built their entire rhetoric on it. They communicate that the voter has every reason to be fearful and that only the loudest politician can help.

There are a few tangential messages that downplay the under-siege narrative:

  • The first is communicating that this is a challenge, but not an emergency. This is nothing we cannot deal with. Migration is normal. It has happened throughout human history. Countless examples of huge migrations resulting in the world as we know it. If there’s an issue we should raise, it is peace in Syria, not trouble in the receiving countries.
  • The second is more of a tool than a message: humour. Humour is an excellent tool to play down the sense of emergency and reinfuse humanity in people. If we can make fun of it, it cannot be so dangerous.

It would also be nice if one day people would start mocking fearmongering. If this basic populist tool would become a source of ridicule.

Addressing the fear of the unknown

Many Hungarians have helped the Syrian refugees, but the government fear propaganda has worked and there is a considerable group, who genuinely fears refugees and looks at the Prime Minister for help. If for some weird reason 5 million Polish people would have come to Hungary, Hungarians would have reacted differently. Instead of fearful, frozen terror, they would have taken things in their own hands and competed in helping the guests.

The difference? Syrians are strangers. We don’t learn about their history in school, there aren’t any Syrian cultural influences, such as soap operas or their national dishes. Stereotyping is the illusion of knowledge, but it’s still enough for many to raise above their fears and find what they have in common – as opposed to looking for differences. For Syrians, we don’t even have stereotypes and the ones that the government supplies are very negative.

Scapegoating and the need to blame

Since victim blaming is only necessary when one cannot prevent injustice or hope to successfully fight for restitution, the sense of empowerment and control may rectify this particular wrong. Offering ways to support refugees is such an act of empowerment.

Offer alternative habits

One research in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.”(Verplanken-Wood 2006) The same applies to thinking habits. In order to eliminate an old and dysfunctional habit, one has to find a replacement, a new, alternative habit. In our case: think social capital.

Let us take a step back from our subject and ask why populists use the emergency/fear rhetoric in the first place? What do they wish to achieve? In short, more power. More precisely, the sentiment that people cannot deal with issue affecting their own lives but need the government to protect them. Looking up at politicians for solutions is the result a populist is after. This is the thinking habit one must address to weaken the fear-rhetoric and the need to look for protection and give up liberties in the process.

Social capital is a catch-all term that signifies the horizontal links between people, the degree of generalised trust in a society and whether the people habitually take things in their hands and cooperate to solve problems. In its absence, everyone seeks individual ties to government and centralised power grows.

Show numbers and make moderate voices heard

The fundamentalist minority claim that their views are based in the solemn and unchangeable human nature – but they make an effort to support it nonetheless. One would think that the innate laws of nature need no support at all, but you can see these people spreading and enforcing them everywhere.

As an avid blogger, I have witnessed a number of cases where a handful of email addresses commented under multiple user names in order to support the same, hopelessly clichéd and 19th century view on human affairs. As a consequence, liberal views remained silent. People, who read the comments and see that the traditionalists have already stolen the show are unlikely to come forward. To every one hundred readers, who express their sympathy with Facebook likes, there are two or three trolls, under a dozen nick names, who sprout that human nature is such and such and these facts cannot be ignored. As if we could with such active trolls reminding us all the time… One of their most harmful points is that stereotypes “have a reason” and that xenophobia is natural and thus shouldn’t be curtailed.

And voluntary fundamentalism-enforcers are not alone.

Recent whistleblowing incidents show that Putin’s Russia puts a great emphasis on online communication. An army of paid trolls make sure that deep nationalism (or identitarianism) appear to be the majority view in online forums and comment sections – both domestically and abroad – and that there is always an opinion ready for those who want to argue for Russian nationalism. The weaponization of information is ripe. One of its major tools is making dissent invisible.

People underestimate the effect information has on them and profess themselves capable to treat information according to its validity. This false confidence makes them vulnerable to manipulation. But there is one thing they underestimate even more than information they hear: that which they don’t hear. The power of something missing and how it impacts their world view. If someone has the impression they are alone with their views, they are likely to ultimately change it in order to conform.

Everyone thinks they have their own opinion and they don’t even read other people’s opinions, let alone conform to it – but Facebook, Reddit and the Daily Mail still exist and the very same people, who “never read the comments” always happen to know about the most outrageous of comments out there. Whatever is written in an article is the “what they want me to know”, whatever comes in the comment section is “what people think”. And that affects perceptions.

It is not that moderate people don’t exist. It is just that they are missing from online forums. They are most definitely there, but they rarely ever speak, just sadly read the fundamentalist trolls. Their silence creates a vicious cycle.

The Hungarian anti-hate speech campaign was unique because it made a moderate voice visible. In a political climate where the government appears to take over opinions everywhere, billboards disagreeing with government xenophobia didn’t go unnoticed.

But again: do not engage. When it comes to online communication, arguing with extremism is tempting, but not a good strategy. The presence of moderate, enlightened opinions in comment sections are much more important than “putting trolls to their place”. The troll always wins by engaging you. You don’t even win the hearts and minds of the imaginary observers of the debate with the troll. It is engagement with the wrong framing.

Leaving a short, easy-to-identify-with statement seems like the lazy way, but is ultimately the only effective strategy. It shows to undecided moderates that they are not alone, it gives them something to like or upvote today, and they may even speak up tomorrow in a comment of their own. The threshold for entry must be that low.


Verplanken, Bas – Wood, Wendy (2006): “Interventions to Break and Create Consumer Habits,” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing 25, no. 1 (2006): 90–103;

Adorno, Theodor; (1950): The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row

Lerner, Melvin (2002): Pursuing the Justice Motive, In: Michael Ross, Dale T. Miller: The Justice Motive in Everyday Life

Lerner, Melvin (1980): The Belief in a Just World A Fundamental Delusion In: Perspectives in Social Psychology

Smith, David Livingstone (2011): Less than human: why we demean, enslave, and exterminate others. Macmillan


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