• In 2002 George Weiss founded, together with a group of Amsterdam-based media professionals, a Dutch NGO called Radio La Benevolencija – Humanitarian Tools Foundation
• The founding of the NGO was inspired by La Benevolencija Sarajevo, a local humanitarian organisation.
• First started operating in Rwanda in 2003, and later extended its activities to neighbouring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo
• Started operating in Europe in 2016
• Uses media to empower groups and individuals in vulnerable societies to recognise and resist hate speech and violence
• Through radio dramas, TV and radio debates and online edutainment, combined with complementary grassroots activities, it stimulates active bystandership against incitement to violence
How can we use edutainment to counter polarisation and resist hate speech in Europe? The director of Radio La Benevolencija, George Weiss, has discovered tools for peace building by producing media edutainment programs.
“The more polarisation grows, the more we need to work together for solutions.”
This is how George Weiss, the founder and director of Radio La Benevolencija – Humanitarian Tools Foundation, describes the situation in Europe at the moment. As many crises sweep through Europe, the divide between differing viewpoints deepens, leaving societies grappling with the challenge of unity.
Polarisation and hate speech have strongly entered the European scene, but Weiss aims to combat them. This Dutch NGO empowers groups and individuals targeted by hate speech through the production of media edutainment programs and education for citizens in vulnerable societies.
First, though, it is important to understand the psychology behind polarisation and hate speech before trying to fight against them. Where does hate speech come from? What happens in a person’s mind?
“Human beings have basic mental needs. On the one hand, security and stability are basic needs, but on the other hand, connection to other people in your society and a positive sense of identity are important. These needs become damaged when you are face a situation of insecurity and instability. People then need to find security, which they find by looking for a group to join, to have a better sense of identity,” Weiss explains.
Belonging to a group gives a person hope.
“In the group, they ‘know’ who is responsible for the insecurity. Accusing these ‘guilty’ people gives a person a feeling of security. The moment you use hate speech, you belong to the group that does it, and the belonging to the group makes you feel good.”
Weiss became interested in what happens in a person’s mind when they start to use hate speech while working in Sarajevo in the ‘90s. He produced a television program that delved into the language of propaganda used during the Bosnian War.
Why then does a person choose the path of radicalisation? Or how does a person end up resorting to violence?
“I think most people go through a step-by-step process. It doesn’t happen suddenly.”
Weiss reflects that these people want to belong to a group because of insecurity, negative self-image – and frustration.
“For example, this step-by-step process can happen in chat rooms, online. First these people with negative self-image start feeling that somebody is being nice to them. Somebody is supporting them and starting to share opinions with them. After that, this person invites them to some meetings offline, and little by little they become part of the group,” he explains.
The moment you use hate speech, you belong to the group that does it, and belonging to the group makes you feel good.
If the group decides to become violent, these new members must follow. When a person starts to use violence, something happens in their mind. Weiss calls this process cognitive dissonance reduction.
Cognitive dissonance is a term that refers to experiencing two conflicting cognitions. It occurs when a person’s knowledge and attitudes are in conflict. People try to reduce cognitive dissonance by changing their behaviour.
“You are doing something that your normal environment tells you not to do; society tells you that it’s a horrible thing to do. You are alone when you are doing it, and the society that once surrounded you is no longer present. You only have your group to help you.”
Weiss underlines that the most important thing is to learn from these processes, because only by understanding them can we learn to fight against polarisation.
Creating a society in a science-fiction environment
In Europe, the online world functions as a fertile breeding ground for extremism. The expression of right-wing and extremist attitudes has entered mainstream society, leading to an increased level of hate speech and even violent attacks.
To fight extremism in Europe, Radio La Benevolencija´s Gamer project seeks to counter extremism through an online educational game. The aim of the project is to prevent the online radicalisation of vulnerable EU residents aged 18-35 years old. The project is underway in Netherlands, Italy and Hungary.
“Hungary is well-known for having a controversial government. In Italy, there’s a new government now, led by a party that used to be considered right-wing extremist,” Weiss notes.
According to Weiss, the project started by identifying and analysing the target audience. The result was that the target audience enjoys playing video games.
“We created a society in a science-fiction environment on a planet far away that had some very typical problems – and a catastrophe. The catastrophe in the game shows people that when you feel insecurity, you are vulnerable to incitement.”
The aim of the game is to find solutions for the problems on the planet.
The catastrophe in the game shows people that when you feel insecurity, you are vulnerable to incitement.
“Players don’t actually realise that we are leading them towards a certain conclusion, which teaches them the logic of polarisation,” he says.
An important part of the project was to train 15 people in each country to fight against online extremism. These trained people roam in the chat rooms connected to many video games and engage in meaningful conversations.
“We found out that conspiracy beliefs actually decreased after playing the game,” Weiss explains.
Social psychology plays a significant role
Radio La Benevolencija works as part of COMMIT, a European social media campaign. The project is funded by the European Commission under the Internal Security Fund – Civil Society Empowering Programme, coordinated by Centro per lo Sviluppo Creativo Danilo Dolci, in cooperation with the University of Palermo and organisations in Austria, Italy, Greece and the Netherlands.
The aim of the project is to prevent vulnerable young adults from becoming involved in extremism, radicalism, and terrorism. Its social media campaign seeks to make their target audience aware of their own psychological trigger points, which can be used to incite them to violence.
“The campaign provides basic recipes for how to be an active bystander,” he says.
Weiss describes bystanders as individuals who witness an action without active involvement. For instance, a bystander can witness racism without directly intervening in it. But Weiss wants to activate them to intervene, to become active bystanders.
“People often ask, why doesn’t anybody intervene when bad things happen? What happens is that people often expect someone else to intervene. But if one person intervenes, and the group agrees that there is something wrong, they will join that one person. The moment you learn this principle, you start to act like an active bystander.”
Weiss highlights the importance of social psychology in preventing polarisation and radicalisation.
“Unfortunately, social psychology is not used enough in intervention. It should also be used more in education. Social psychologists and educators should work more together.”
Social psychology is not used enough in intervention. Social psychologists and educators should work more together.
Europe is facing multiple crises from wars to polarisation, but how does the future look?
“Climate change is the biggest catastrophe threatening us. My hope is that climate change takes the place of World War 3. We all need to really work together against it, and we must recognise that we have the same enemy. It’s a very utopian hope because it’s not going to happen,” Weiss says.
The more different crises there are in Europe, the more polarisation increases. Weiss hopes that attention will be drawn to the field of education.
“The educational sector is one place where we can really work to give people the feeling that they can do something. They can act against polarisation, and they can develop their societies to adapt to the crisis that the whole planet is in.”
Weiss also suggests that activists could be trained in specific socio-psychological processes. This involves targeted training to understand the socio-psychological factors that affect to polarisation: what happens in a person’s mind when they become polarised – or radicalised?
Without question, Weiss is doing his best to fight hate speech by inventing tools and methods to prevent polarisation across Europe.