Spreading hate on the Internet “The three of us can make it seem like there are hundreds of us”

Rayk Anders and his research team for the documentary “Lösch Dich. So organisiert ist der Hate im Netz”(Delete yourself. Organised hate on the Internet) commissioned by German broadcasters (ARD/ZDF).
Rayk Anders and his research team for the documentary “Lösch Dich. So organisiert ist der Hate im Netz”(Delete yourself. Organised hate on the Internet) commissioned by German broadcasters (ARD/ZDF). | Photo (detail): © Paul Ruben Mundthal

In their documentary “Lösch Dich. So organisiert ist der Hate im Netz” (Delete yourself. Organised hate on the Internet), YouTuber Rayk Anders and his team investigate how Internet trolls use hate to promote their political aims.

In recent years, hate on the Internet has increasingly shaped online discourse, forcing news sites to close their comments sections, and exposing politicians to cruel insults and dire threats. Extreme right-wing activists are said to have tried to intimidate their opponents during the most recent German Bundestag election campaign. But who is behind all these hateful comments and materials? In their documentary, “Lösch Dich. So organisiert ist der Hate im Netz” (Delete yourself. Organised hate on the Internet), Rayk Anders and his team investigated how Internet trolls use hate to promote their political aims. We spoke to the documentary’s director, Patrick Stegemann. 


Mr. Stegemann, in your documentary “Lösch Dich. So organisiert ist der Hate im Netz” (Delete yourself. Organised hate on the Internet),you explored what goes on behind the scenes of organized internet trolls. How did you go about it?  
 
We started by working with the Hans Bredow Institute in Hamburg on a data analysis to identify where trolls come from, what issues they were raising and where. We found that hate materials on the net are not evenly distributed; they are quite concentrated in certain spaces. Then we decided to become trolls ourselves. We set up profiles on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and on some extreme right-wing networks so we could go undercover where the aggressive and hateful postings were coming from. And just like that, we were part of the troll scene, which allowed us to observe the kinds of people who are active there, and how they are organized, all in real time. 
 
And – what kind of people are they?
 
The right-wing propagandists, such as the extreme right-wing Reconquista Germanica network, are a very colourful movement. We chatted with a lot of people on the server – almost exclusively men; we pretty much never talked to a woman. Some were young men with a lot of free time and who shared certain ideological values, but also saw trolling as a bit of fun. Then there were people you might call absolutely hard-core ideologues who sympathised with or belonged to the Alternativ für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) party. 
 
Are these people on the net the same people who take to the streets in demonstrations?
 
Reconquista Germanica has taken part in demonstrations, like the march to celebrate the anniversary of the right-wing Pegida movement. So some trolls are active offline as well, while others confine their activities to the web.  
The “Lösch dich” team hard at work. The “Lösch dich” team hard at work. | Photo (detail): © Paul Ruben Mundthal In the end, you decided to actively fight hatred on the net yourself and launched a counter-attack - a “love trolling”. How did that work? 

By that time, we understood how it all worked: People set up fake accounts, agree on a time to launch an attack, and then troll as a group. So we also understood how frighteningly simple it was for the three of us to sit at a keyboard and make it seem like there were hundreds of us. And that’s exactly what we did. Once we knew when a hateful comment attack was planned on a YouTube video, we did our best to counteract it with our positive comments and spread love instead of hate. It was a total flop though, because the trolls just upped the ante and came back even harder. The person we were trying to support ended up exposed to even more hatred in the end. 
 
Have other initiatives been more successful? The Facebook group #ichbinhier (#iamhere), for example, relies more on factual and respectful counter-speech.
 
Any initiative in that direction is a good place to start. We released Lösch Dich as part of the ZDF’s Neo Magazin Royale programme, which ultimately led to moderator Jan Böhmermann’s Reconquista Internet initiative.

... which carries out targeted campaigns against insults and incitement to hatred on the net.

Which is exactly what we need right now. And we as journalists can provide the impetus for such actions through our work.  
 
What kind of legal steps do you think might be effective against trolling and hatred on the Internet? Could something like requiring posters to use their real names work?  
 
I’m not a big fan of a pseudonym ban, and the issue as a whole is incredibly complicated. We saw just how complicated when the new Internet law known as NetzDG went into effect. It was drafted as a tool to stop agitation and false reports on social media, but in effect it privatised law enforcement. I think we need to think a lot bigger. The networks are just one side of the coin. They are clearly organised to make money, so for them there is no difference between advertising, hateful posts, or a comments in which I talk about how I love my mother. Their central focus is on generating attention, views, clicks and shares, which bring in revenue. But the problem is not just limited to the Internet. Overall, public discourse has gotten coarser, ruder, and the extreme right have been quite clever about networking.  
 
There has also been public criticism of your documentary. How do you see the responses?  
 
A bubble of sorts was created. At some point, I stopped counting the number of videos criticising us and our message. There were insults and caricatures, of course, but also perfidious attempts to turn the discourse on its head. Suddenly the conversation was no longer about how and how much trolls have transgressed moral boundaries. We were no longer talking about where they have played right into the hands of the agenda of the extreme right, perhaps without meaning to. That was the conversation we wanted to start. But trolls are quite skilled at hijacking the discourse. They accused us of sloppy research, for example. Our documentary was not perfect by any means, but trolls made sure constructive debate was impossible.