Digital Agitation
Hate on the Internet

Cyber mobbing – many people are affected
Photo (detail): © Clark and Company/iStock

Cyber mobbing and aggressive online commentaries can have serious consequences for those affected and promote further aggression. Verbal abuse in the Internet in Germany is attracting the attention of politicians and legal experts.

Initially it sounded like a harmless farce in a German town hall: a local politician in Wilhelmshaven insinuated that the city’s Lord Mayor was involved in an extramarital affair. The particular point was that she did this on Facebook. The case ended up in court, and the woman was sentenced to a fine. In the court’s opinion the privacy of the Lord Mayor and his family had been “infringed in the most vicious way” by the public accusation. The problem of cyber mobbing is becoming increasingly important. The perfidious thing about it is its particular dynamism: mobbing on the Internet is hard to control. The contents – be that humiliating commentaries, compromising photographs or vicious insults – can be disseminated at lightning speed. Moreover, they can be stored or altered at any time and anywhere.

Almost every fifth young person is affected

The phenomenon is particularly widespread among young people. “You get on my nerves, drop dead!” or “You’re so ugly” – almost every fifth young person in Germany has had experience with this kind of insult on the Internet. A study by the telecommunications company Vodafone and the YouGov opinion research institute came to this conclusion in 2015. In that study, about 34% of those interviewed also stated that a friend or family member had been mobbed on the Internet at some time or other.

Adults are also not spared this, as the case in Wilhelmshaven indicates. According to an online-survey by the Bündnis gegen Cybermobbing (alliance against cyber mobbing), eight percent of German adults were victims of such abuse in 2014. Women are effected particularly often. And usually it is not just one single attack. Almost 40% of the mobbing attacks extend over a period of more than a year. Whereas those affected can suffer personality changes, depression or suicidal feelings, almost every third cyber-mobber said that they badgered people “just for fun”.

Insulting refugees and their supporters

Hate speech is another type of verbal abuse widespread on the Internet. Unlike cyber mobbing, 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 are using an aggressive tone and even calling for violence. Anatol Stefanowitsch, Professor of Linguistics at the Free University of Berlin, describes a dangerous principle: “Hate speech is not just a problem of communicative behaviour or the propagation, promotion or justification of hatred. It is essentially involved in producing hatred and the thought models necessary for that hatred.”

In 2015 the dissemination of hate messages through the Internet prompted the German Minister of Justice, Heiko Maas, together with Facebook, to set up a task force consisting of Internet providers and civil society institutions. According to Maas, “Xenophobic and fascist hate messages that violate the criminal code must be removed from the Net more swiftly and comprehensively. Freedom of speech also protects disgusting, tasteless and nasty statements. But one thing is clear: the limit has been reached when this involves appeals for violence or attacks on human dignity, which amount to rabble rousing and are punishable by law.”

Help also available on the Internet

For many observers and people affected, these initiatives do not go far enough. According to the study by the Bündnis gegen Cybermobbing, a large majority of those interviewed would also like a harder legal approach to be taken. Many forms of hate commentary, from insult to coercion, are already covered by the penal code. This enables the police to carry out targeted actions against hate speech. In July 2016, for example, 60 apartments of suspected writers of hate commentaries throughout Germany were searched during a raid. “That action clearly indicates that the police are taking decisive action against hate on the Internet,” says Holger Münch, President of the Federal Criminal Police Office. “We have to put a stop to this coarsening of language and prosecute criminal contents in the Net consistently.” In the Federal State of Saxony alone, more than 200 proceedings due to demagoguery and the depiction of violence on the Internet were initiated during the first half of this year. A special police unit for cyber crime in North Rhine Westphalia is tracking such cases.

Yet the medium on which the hate is transported – the Internet – is also an important source of helpful and supportive information. Be it for children, young people or adults, the Net offers a large range of advice on the themes of cyber mobbing and hate speech. One important contact point is the association entitled Safer Internet. Since July 2016, a campaign of the Council of Europe, No Hate Speech, has also been online. It is coordinated in Germany by the New German Media Makers, an association of journalists and other media people with different cultural backgrounds. The website is intended above all to back young people in dealing with hate commentaries in online media and social networks.