An Interview with Petra Grimm “An Internet Without Ethics Cannot Function.”

Prof. Dr. Petra Grimm
Prof. Dr. Petra Grimm | © Radmila Kerl

Offensive comments, shocking images – does this mean we need new ethical standards for the digital world? This interview with Petra Grimm, professor for media studies and Head of the Institute for Digital Ethics in Stuttgart, will cast more light on the subject.

Dr. Grimm, in January 2014 the Institute for Digital Ethics – the first one in Europe – came into being. Are the Germans really behaving so badly on the Internet?

One might think so, when you follow the current discussion on all the vitriolic xenophobic comments on Facebook and other social media, but it is in fact not a purely German problem. We are now faced with the fundamental challenge of having to define certain cultural standards of behaviour for the digital sphere, just as we did for our everyday personal contact and for the classical mass media.

Is what we need then a moral code of conduct for the Internet?

Be careful, it is not a case of propagating moral doctrines. Ethics is not the same as morals. Ethics is defined as an academic discipline that reflects morals. Morals, as such, sometimes tend towards applying certain standards without any reason. Ethics always tries to argue why a certain standard should be applied. Within the German Internet community there is, of course, a strong urge to defend the so-called freedom of the Internet. This is quite understandable as we know that it is this freedom in particular that in the meantime is being put more and more under pressure. One of the consequences of this, however, is that digital ethics is then immediately suspected of being a form of censorship.

In your opinion, it would then be not desirable to censor offensive comments and vulgar taunting on the Internet?

In my opinion, it is all about making an attempt to agree on certain ethical standards. Ethics has nothing at all to do with censorship, what it does is provide us with a basis for discussion so that we can come to some sort of consensus. An internet without ethics, i.e. normed modes of communication, cannot function at all. In the meantime large sections of the Internet community have also come to realise this.

In Germany in the meantime a number of Internet activists are at work, naming and shaming the people who post all those vitriolic, hate-filled comments. What do you think of this attempt to defend the ethics of online communication?

I find this very problematic. For the cases we are talking about here there are clear legal provisions. Under German law criminal proceedings can be taken against substantiated cases of inciting the masses. Just because providers, like Facebook, apparently have staffing or organisational problems when following up such cases at the moment, does not automatically mean that people should take the law into their own hands. In this case I think the end should not justify the means.

Dealing with images

This ethical discussion has been going on for quite some time now, especially in connection with the way we deal with shocking images, for example, the photo of the drowned refugee child.

Yes, exactly, here, too, it is all about the question of whether these images can be used for a good purpose. However, I don’t really think this is plausible. One has to be fully aware of the fact that images emotionalise people, they can never be a substitute for arguments. Furthermore, in this case the victim is turned into a media object, the dead lose their dignity. And the more these images are circulated, the greater the numbing effect on people’s emotions. In the end, all we are left with is “War Porn”.

What do we actually know about the mechanisms that trigger such a loss of inhibition when posting photos and comments?

The most significant factor is certainly the anonymity. What we are dealing with here is a mechanism that has been well scrutinised by psychologists, it goes by the name of “empathic myopia”. Many people, as soon as they are online, apparently lose their feeling for the effects their utterances might have on other people. And this, of course, stems from the belief that they won’t have to suffer any consequences – after all they remain anonymous.

Cultural differences

The trend in the German social media at the moment is towards a good number of offensive comments being posted by people using their real names. Should we maybe start to rethink the theory that anonymity causes people to lose their inhibitions?

No, I don’t think so. What we are dealing with here are people who are, it seems, of the opinion that when making these comments they can count on the support of a large number of likeminded people. I also don’t believe that in this case the so-called spiral of silence theory does not work anymore. According to this theory people refrain from making comments that do not fit in with the mainstream opinion. The people making the offensive comments, however, believe that they represent a mainstream opinion.

We have already mentioned the fact that some providers apparently have problems deleting such comments. Is it maybe not so much a case of technology, but more a case of cultural differences?

The general public in the USA might possibly be more inclined to place borderline comments under the protection of freedom of speech. In Germany, however, due to obvious historical reasons the reaction is very sensitive when opinions are voiced by the right-wing margins of society. It is a different story altogether when it comes to sexuality and eroticism – the German attitude is very tolerant, whereas in America it is strictly censored.