Cyber mobbing and aggressive online commentaries can have serious consequences for those affected and promote further aggression. Verbal abuse on the Internet in Germany is attracting the attention of politicians and legal experts.
Lukas Pohland is only thirteen years old. But instead of playing football or hanging out with friends, he spends his time advising politicians on how to stop cyberbullying. Lukas had no intention of becoming an expert on online bullying when he stood up for a girl at his school who was being victimised. But he felt he had to do more, even after the girl changed schools, and set up a hotline for victims.
More than a million pupils affected
What makes cyberbullying so dangerous, as Lukas has discovered, is the dynamics. Bullying on the Internet is hard to control because offensive content – whether humiliating comments, compromising photographs or vicious insults – can be disseminated at lightning speed. Moreover, they can be saved and altered at anytime and anywhere. And the teasing isn’t limited to the public sphere either; smartphones mean there is no escape.
Cyberbullying is a particular problem for young people. Digital insults like “you get on my nerves, drop dead!” or “you’re so ugly” have become an unpleasant fact of everyday life for 1.4 million children and adolescents in Germany, according to the 2017 “Cyberlife II” study run by the Bündnis gegen Cybermobbing (The Alliance against Cyberbullying). The study found that students at German grammar schools, gymnasiums, were less likely to be victimized than vocational school students, and girls were targeted more often than boys. The majority of young people polled, an astonishing 72 percent, reported experiencing online attacks or insults. Just under half said they had been victims of vicious lies or rumours. In both cases, girls were more often targeted than boys. One in four young people said they had been subject to pressure, extortion or online threats.
Insulting refugees and their supporters
Adults are not exempt from online abuse either. According to an Alliance against Cyberbullying online survey, eight percent of German adults – over 6,000 people – reported suffering such abuse in 2014. Women were most frequently affected. Studies have shown that 59 percent of attackers are known to the victim, such as when a person stalks their ex online or publishes intimate videos. And it is usually not limited to just one event: 40% the bullying incidents took place over a period of more than a year. While those affected can experience anxiety, fear, depression and even suicidal thoughts, almost one in three cyberbullies said that they badgered people “just for fun”.
Hate speech is another form of verbal abuse that is widespread on the Internet. Unlike cyberbullying, it is usually not aimed at a single person, but at a group. In the course of the refugee debate in Germany, increasingly xenophobic Internet users have employed very aggressive language, sometimes even calling for violence. Anatol Stefanowitsch, Professor of Linguistics at the Free University of Berlin, sees a dangerous precedent: “Hate speech is not just problematic communicative behaviour or an issue of the propagation, promotion or justification of hatred. It is crucially involved in generating hatred and the thought models that nurture that hatred.”
Online hate speech a threat to democracy
Many forms of hateful comments, from insults to coercion, are already covered by the penal code. This allows police to target hate speech and its perpetrators. But in response to the every growing profusion of hate speech spreading via the Internet, then German Attorney General Heiko Maas founded a task force in 2015 and proposed the Netwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG, a network policing law) in 2017: “Our current laws are unequivocal: social media site operators have to take down illegal content once they are aware of it. But we have to enforce the law, which is the purpose of this new act. Every one of us has to obey the law every single day; this has to apply to social networks as well. They can no longer allow their infrastructure to be misused to commit crimes.”
The NetzDG has received international support, such as from former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. During an address at the Technical University of Munich in February, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate pointed to hate, discrimination, and fake news on the Internet as the greatest current threat to democracy. He argued that social media must therefore to be subject to the same rules as the conventional media. “We need the same level of transparency,” Annan said, “and clear accountability.”
Help also available on the Internet
Yet the very medium that hosts bullying and hate speech, the Internet, can also be an important source of helpful information and support. There is a wide array of online sites that can help Internet users of any age deal with cyberbullying and hate speech. The Safer Internet association is one important point of contact, and the No Hate Speech online campaign launched by the Council of Europe in July 2016 also provides advice. An association of journalists and other media creators from very different cultural backgrounds known as the New German Media Makers coordinate the German version of the website. One of the site’s key goals it to offer young people tips for how to handle hateful comments in online media and on social networks. Initiatives against hate speech like #ichbinhier on Facebook are also winning over more followers, as are digital civil rights movements like German moderator Jan Böhmermann’s “Reconquista Internet”.
The Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG)
The NetzDG (full name: Gesetz zur Verbesserung der Rechtsdurchsetzung in sozialen Netzwerken; the Act to Improve Enforcement of the Law in Social Networks) took effect on January 1, 2018. It is intended to force social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to remove illegal content quickly. The German Ministry of Justice passed the NetzDG in October, 2017 because social networks were resisting voluntarily removing illegal hate speech. Now platform operators must delete or block “manifestly unlawful content” – such as instructions on how to commit serious crimes, sedition, incitement to violence, and the propogation of illegal symbols – within 24 hours of receiving a complaint. Social media networks have seven days to blocks offensive content that is not manifestly unlawful. Repeated non-compliance can result in multi-million euro fines. One controversial provision in the law makes the networks responsible for deciding what content posted by users is manifestly unlawful. This presents the very real danger that social networks may err on the side of caution and remove comments and posts that fall into the legal grey area, a process known as overblocking. It is still too early to say whether the NetzDG will make a noticeable dent in hate speech and cyberbullying on social networks. The German Federal Office of Justice received around 250 complaints during the first 100 days, far fewer than expected. Officials have predicted 25,000 complaints a year. The first transparency reports on network compliance will be published in July 2018.
Where the NetzDG does not apply
NetzDG only applies to social networks with no specific purpose or user profile. This means professional networks and information platforms are not subject to the new guidelines. The same applies to individual communication services, such as e-mail and messenger services (like WhatsApp) and platforms with fewer than two million registered users in the Federal Republic of Germany. It is important to keep in mind that children are particularly likely to use the chat functions in games and in Whatsapp groups with fellow students or team members. There is currently no legal regulation of cyberbullying on such platforms. Experts advise victims to seek help from teachers, parents or police officers. They can also get advice from the klicksafe initiative’s (cyber)bullying first aid app or by calling a cyberbullying hotline.