Insults, threats, discrimination: Hate speech is no longer the exception in the digital space. Individuals and groups are increasingly becoming targets of hateful online attacks and slurs. Initiatives for more respect and humanity on the internet show how to effectively counter hatred by providing facts, fostering digital cohesion, and sharing YouTube videos.
“It’s surprising how often the context of hate speech is historical. But comments along the lines of ‘Back in the day, we accomplished the economic miracle without immigrants’ establish an incorrect link. This is historical fake news based on a lack of information,” explains Theo Müller, who holds a PhD in history and is a board member of the Open History association. Three years ago, he witnessed for the first time heated online discussions in which historical facts were falsified, invented or reinterpreted in order to underscore personal opinions and political demands. Theo and other historians involved in Open History decided they had to take strategic action. As a result, they launched the “GeschichtsCheck” (HistoryCheck) project.
Providing facts to clear up nonsense on the internet
Be it anonymous or under their real names, more and more users are no longer shy when they go online, posting comments that go way too far. They weaponize words and images to deliberately attack and disparage certain groups of people. It is typical of hate speech to spread inaccurate or false statements, cater to prejudices, and insult victims, simply because they are affiliated with a certain group.
Hateful arguments supported by historical fake news: This is what Theo and other historians fight with their GeschichtsCheck (HistoryCheck) project.
In order to counter false statements, the HistoryCheck project focuses on the past. “There are tons of statements on the internet ranging from simplification to distortion, but there are still few opposing voices. We want to help close this gap,” explains Theo. Coming from the realization that people often resort to the same historical events and conspiracy theories, Theo and his team created a digital toolbox. To do so, they refuted the most common historical lies step by step, writing scientifically founded articles and adding easily understandable summaries, concise arguments, quotes and memes. All these are available in the toolbox and help others to actively contradict fake information.
Nobody is alone
The project is making an impact. “On anniversaries of historically significant dates, such as Holocaust memorial days, when online hate speech really picks up, the number of our page impressions soars as well,” says Theo. But even in regular weeks, the platform is accessed by several thousand users. “You are actually not alone in front of your computer if you want to refute nonsense. There are other people who do the same. It’s a refreshing and enlightening moment when you realize that you are not alone.”
Anyone who tries to make comment threads on social media more objective is quickly faced with personal attacks.
The Facebook action group #ichbinhier (I am here) is also dedicated to fighting hate speech as a community. Its over 45,000 members want to improve the discussion culture in online comments by actively taking a stand. “It’s bad enough that people write such things, but if no one objects, it looks like it’s a majority opinion. That is demonstrably not true. These people are a pretty small minority,” says Philip Kreißel.
A data analyst, Philip codes tools to search all the shared content on Facebook for threads that are becoming particularly hateful. Hatemongers try to control discussions and usually appear in groups – creating the impression that their comments are representative of the general public. “People propagating hate speech are much more active online than regular users, that’s where this wrong impression comes from. And they create an echo chamber around the victim, which makes them think they don’t have any support.”
“We want to foster a culture of free and open discussion that is not restricted by trolls.”
The threads Philip identifies are shared in the #ichbinhier group. Then, members add objective, constructive and empathetic comments to the existing discussions in order to counter the often one-sided opinions and pejorative voices – like a digital army combining head and heart. “We want to foster a culture of free and open discussion that is not restricted by trolls. We stimulate the discourse. Nobody wants to join in the discussion when the hate speech comments start,” says Philip.
When hatred leaves the digital space
But hateful posts on the internet go beyond the initial verbal abuse in the digital space; they also pave the way for hatred in the analogue world: when certain narratives are shared, liked, and repeated often enough, they influence people and thus find their way into real life. Hatemongers use digital spaces specifically to share their attitudes, lingo and images with society. “Young people always have their smartphones on them. They watch gangster rap, videos with extreme right-wing messages, there are even shows about it. And it fascinates them,” explains Philip Schlaffer.
“I was a neo-Nazi for 15 years.” This is how Philip Schlaffer introduces himself at the community event. He knows about the effects of negative influence and tries to sensitize young people by sharing his experiences.
Philip spent half his life as a member of a one-percenter motorcycle club, surrounded by right-wing extremism and in red light districts. Since serving a prison sentence, he has been actively fighting extremism – online and offline. Part of the “Extremislos” association, he works as an anti-violence and deradicalization trainer with troubled youth to strengthen their resistance to extremist world views. In doing so, he relies on his credibility and encourages uncomplicated, direct contact. “When I talk about my life, it’s honest stories that reach those kids on an emotional level. I don’t talk about young people, but with them.” Philip has a YouTube vlog, “Ex-Rechte Rotlicht Rocker” (Former Right-Wing Red-Light Bikers), where he regularly shares stories about his life with some 50,000 subscribers. His videos are easy to understand and feature eye-catching images and headlines. “I talk openly about difficulties and various areas of extremism. I often get messages on Instagram or Facebook from young people asking for help. It’s easier than setting foot in a counseling center and often the first step to seek more help.”
Expose sexism, change thought patterns
Hate speech also hides in places where it is not recognizable at first sight. Traditional media sometimes use discriminatory language in their headlines: “Terms such as jealousy drama or family tragedy downplay domestic violence against women or declare it an isolated act,” says Anne Jacob of Gender Equality Media. The association fights discriminatory terms and expressions in reporting that manifest the power structures in society. “Sexism is not a force of nature, it is not simply there. It is created by the media and journalists. It is based on a system – a system we intend to destroy,” adds Britta Häfemeier.
Media screening and public criticism against discriminating language in journalism: “We love the freedom of the press as much as we hate sexism”.
By screening media and applying previously defined categories and keywords, they track down discriminatory language in leading German media and regional newspapers several times a week. “Our keyword list includes terms like ‘sex victim’, which is extremely problematic because it classifies sexual assault as sex and takes a perpetrator’s perspective. What we are talking about here is basically rape,” Anne explains.
They take screenshots of terms and expressions that attract their attention and ask the responsible journalists via social media to revise them. “We establish contact directly via Twitter. There’s little risk of being overlooked. It is personal and triggers a response. We are rarely ignored,” says Anne. More than half of the criticized headlines are revised. “But we are also faced with hate speech and insults. It even goes beyond personal attacks. Our website was hacked recently too. We try not to be intimidated and just keep doing what we are doing.”