Fake news, hate speech, and conspiracy myths have been circulating on the web since long before the COVID-19 pandemic. But COVID has been a catalyst for many of these phenomena, further exacerbating tears in the social fabric. How can we fight back against this trend and draw closer together again as a society? The Business Council for Democracy (BC4D) is an initiative from the Hertie Foundation, the Robert Bosch Stiftung, and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue Germany, which aims to work with companies to strengthen democracy in the digital age. ALBA in Braunschweig, Germany, is one of the pilot companies.
A woman in work clothes looks at her smartphone.
Andreas Lauenstein is worried. Sitting in a modest conference room in his bright yellow work gear, his concern is palpable. His voice grows louder, his gestures more expansive, as he begins to narrate: “It never ceases to amaze me how you can reel people in with fake news. I see missing children reports, for example, on a daily basis. But then it turns out it was a fake. It leaves you feeling so clueless and disillusioned.”
“Netiquette is a thing of the past”
Lauenstein works as a sweeper driver for ALBA, a recycling and waste management company in Braunschweig, Germany. The 58-year-old is a true ALBA veteran, having worked for the company for almost thirty years. As one of six pilot companies involved in the BC4D initiative, ALBA wants to set an example against online polarization. Alongside ALBA, the initiative includes Evonik Industries, the KION Group, Volkswagen, NOMOS Glashütte, and UFA. Employees from these companies are given the opportunity to learn more about hate speech, fake news, and conspiracy myths online in training sessions, as well as to find out more about what they can do about it.
Lauenstein and his colleague Dominique Bächler were two of those participating in these training sessions. Bächler, who works in sales at ALBA, is sitting next to Lauenstein in the conference room sipping his coffee. He is now no longer active on social networking sites. Still, the 46-year-old believes that COVID has reinforced negative trends on social media. “Netiquette is a thing of the past now, and abuse is becoming more and more common. You can hide behind any username you like and let off steam,” he says. “That’s dangerous because it allows people to spread ideas that are quite simply just out of order.”
An ALBA Group employee sits in front of a tablet.
Hate speech and fake news still on the rise
Online discrimination is a growing trend. This is backed up by the figures: A recent Forsa survey reveals that 39 percent of Germans say they encounter hate speech frequently to very frequently on the Internet. Only 22 percent of respondents have never encountered hate speech – eight percent fewer than in the last survey in 2017. When it comes to fake news, an emerging development is proving cause for concern: We are failing to even recognize many of the false reports we see on social media as fake news. This was confirmed by a study conducted by the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung last fall. Many respondents struggled to distinguish between true news and misinformation, as well as to identify content as advertising. Anna-Katharina Meßmer, a project manager at Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, believes the lack of media skills is a possible explanation: “The study makes it clear that there is an enormous problem when it comes to education. This needs to be addressed.”
Origin and culture are never an issue at ALBA
Alba Braunschweig’s 48-year-old managing director Matthias Fricke has been in the role since 2012. For him, this negative social development was a driver to get involved in BC4D. At the start of the project, he specifically approached employees to share and promote the training courses among their colleagues. Even though the training sessions took place outside of regular working hours, participation was remunerated. Over a period of two months, an experienced coach started by giving the participants a theoretical introduction to the topic. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the training took the form of webinars, with sessions focusing on questions such as: What can I do if I am subjected to hate speech online? How does digital counterspeech work, and what are the consequences of digital polarization for our society? The group then openly discussed what they had learned using case studies. For example, it was shown how it is relatively easy to manipulate images with Photoshop. Commenting on the participants’ response, Fricke stated: “I received mostly positive feedback, and I believe that some of them have really gained tools they can use in their everyday life.”
“I really learned something from the training sessions.”
Should companies in general be taking a stronger stance against hate and harassment and demonstrating a clear position on the matter? Fricke certainly thinks so, even believing that the city cleaning service “guarantees integration”. He speaks almost affectionately of “his crew”, where people of eleven different nationalities work side by side and where origin and culture are never an issue. The managing director is convinced that: “If anyone can integrate, it’s definitely the city cleaning service.” ALBA is determined to continue advocating for an open and tolerant society and will stay involved in the BC4D project after the pilot phase, as announced at the end of June. Andreas Lauenstein will be pleased. In his own words: “I really learned something from the training sessions.”