8 Ways to Engage with Anti-Immigration Populism

Now that we’ve discussed strategies that get you entangled in the narrative of populist hysteria and unfreedom, let us take a look at how you can productively interact.

1. Make a decision about your audience (aka. Don’t feed the troll!)

Your target audience should be those, who are not yet convinced and are 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 pro-freedom friends is just as pointless as trying to talk to staunch extremists (aka. feeding the troll). They are both very tempting. Neither of them brings any result.


Be very aware that you will be urged to react to the two above groups. Talking home to your friends and burning time arguing with people, who don’t want to be convinced.

But nothing at all will prompt you to address your actual audience: the silent and moderate majority. Extremists will provoke a reaction, your fellow activists will give (instantly) rewarding feedback, but your real target audience will remain silent. And undecided.

But they are listening. Your extremist troll can score points by arguing with you. You cannot “defeat the troll” – only in your own head. That won’t change anyone’s minds. All they see is that someone, who takes your opinion will be attacked by trolls. Not a nice place to be.

So let me spell this out – and put it on a post-it:

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


2. 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’. (See later.) 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 contributions 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.

3. This is not an emergency

As mentioned under the “do nots”, effective human rights communication should not play the emergency card. What we consider as a human rights emergency, populists reframe as a national emergency and build 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.

4. Addressing the fear of the unknown

Many Hungarian volunteers 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, and we don’t even know 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.

5. Addressing 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.

6. Offer alternative habits

A 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.

Your lesson?

You probably want to make people count on the power of civilian cooperation – before looking up at their government helplessly. In other words: empowerment.

Someone, who had at least donated a bottle of water will feel the power of action. Someone, who could count on his neighbour to sort things out will not feel so helpless.

7. 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 every 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 I said above, the troll can score hearts and minds attacking you. You cannot score a thing solemnly and patiently answering every argument – and thus reinforcing their message of fear and emergency. Moderate bystanders will even feel that it must hurt to be on your side because the trolls will attack.

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, we have every reason to fear, etc. As if we could forget it 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 omission 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.

Your job: write that moderate comment. Don’t answer the trolls. Don’t engage with them. Most definitely do not censor them. Just write a moderate version. Let it be seen.

Trust me, nothing is missing more from these forums that that.

8. Lower the threshold for entry for moderates

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 when you debate with the troll. It is engagement with the wrong framing.

Leaving a short, easy-to-identify-with statement seems like it achieves nothing – but it 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.

Yes, the threshold for entry must be that low.


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Featured image: Refugees fleeing Aleppo (AP – Huffington Post


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

2 thoughts on “8 Ways to Engage with Anti-Immigration Populism

  1. Pingback: How Not to Engage with a Hate Campaign |

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