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Hate speech, bullying, hatred online: what can I do about it?
Hate speech, bullying, hatred online: what can I do about it?

Insults, threats, lies - the tone on the Internet is getting rougher and rougher! We spoke to media expert Ingrid Brodnig about what you can do if you are confronted with hateful comments yourself.

Ingrid Brodnig
Ingrid Brodnig

If you take a look at comments - whether on Facebook or in newspaper forums - you are often greeted by sheer hatred. In addition to wild insults, threats are also uttered, including wild allegations. Quiet, factual and, above all, respectful messages, on the other hand, are usually lost.

Ingrid Brodnig, media editor of the news magazine profil, on the other hand, would like to recapture the Internet and in her new book "Hass im Netz" gives specific tips and strategies on how to protect yourself from this digital culture of hate.

WOMAN: When was your "first time"? When did you first come into contact with hate speech?

Ingrid Brodnig: When we were at school we had a computer room, where we always called up the Ö3 chat in IT - there was certainly something unfriendly there. Fortunately, I am not the big enemy on the Internet.

However, I was fascinated by how quickly an online debate can get out of hand. Online - in forums or on Facebook - you can clearly see how much people talk past one another. The net tempts one to misunderstand the other person or that discussions fail that should not fail at all. This is due to the so-called "invisibility" on the Internet, the fact that I cannot see my counterpart online, have no eye contact, no facial expressions, no gestures. So there are no signals necessary to understand what he or she really means. So it's easier to be tough. You don't see a direct reaction, you don't notice how much you offend someone - you don't hear despair in your voice, for example.

WOMAN: Smileys were created to make irony more recognizable online, for example - but they don't really work either, do they?

Ingrid Brodnig: Smileys and emojis are often smiled at, but I believe that they have the function of a crutch. A prosthesis that is often insufficient to supplement the unemotional, written communication. But I still hope that in the future we will increasingly have a visual language on the Internet that will also replace faces. We need new tools online to represent differentiated emotions. Facebook reactions are going in this direction. The idea is good, the implementation is perhaps a bit too exaggerated and comic-like. But they show that this problem has also reached Facebook and how limited the possibilities are currently to express our feelings online.

WOMAN: You already mentioned the concept of invisibility. Would it help if, for example, the avatars (the pictures in social networks that represent your profile) get bigger? So that you can see the other person's face?

Ingrid Brodnig: To some extent, this can help. But you also have to be careful, especially when it comes to women: This is often followed by subtle comments, sexualized innuendos or the fact that the person reacts not to the content, but only to the person's appearance. The network is often particularly nasty to women.

WOMAN: Why women in particular? Why are only they reduced to appearance?

Ingrid Brodnig: I think there is a group of users who simply have a problem with confident, visible women. There are also anti-feminists who have a problem with equality. They post so much and show their anger so strongly that they are simply very visible on the net. When people are aggressive and want to beat others up, appearance is one of the simplest ways to do it. It works, you don't have to worry about it too much.

Hatred on the net
Hatred on the net

WOMAN: Why did you decide to take a closer look at the topic of online hatred?

Ingrid Brodnig: There were several aha experiences in the last year, leading to a new dynamic in the network. New forms of hatred emerged - especially lies in the context of the refugee debate. A new kind of underhanded posting: where things are asserted that are not at all true. We haven't had that at all in this extreme form in German-speaking countries. It went below a new level: with fake quotes from politicians or alleged crimes that refugees are foisted on.

WOMAN: The hatred seems to be increasing on the internet and in reality - where did it start and are they both fueling each other?

Ingrid Brodnig: In my opinion, the internet reinforces reality and is a catalyst. The reasons for the discontent in parts of the population can not originally be found on the Internet - but online mechanisms are suitable for expressing the anger. There is actually no strict separation - online is just as real. But hatred on the Internet works so well because there are so-called echo chambers. In social networks we can see that people subscribe to pages and network with users who see things in a similar way to them. This also leads to echo chambers of anger and fear, in which one is confronted every day only with news and rumors that confirm one's own view of the world and one becomes more and more convinced and vehemently against those who think differently. In return, you don't get enough information to make you think.

WOMAN: How can you get people to become more critical again? We want to believe messages from friends more than others, but a lot of false information is circulating on Facebook in particular. How do you get people to question these postings more?

Ingrid Brodnig: I think, in part, that will happen automatically. It has already happened to a great many users that they have shared something and then noticed it, that is not true at all. And most of them don't want to be fooled. But that won't solve the whole problem. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of media knowledge - very obscure websites are perceived by many as very authentic. It therefore needs more security mechanisms. For example with websites that deal with the circulating fakes and educate them.

If you want to counter such a lie, you also have to pay attention to certain things: The first impulse from people would be to say "No, that's not the case". It is much more efficient to formulate this counter-report positively. So instead of denying the false report, present the real facts. This way, the wrong information is not repeated.

However, there will always be part of the population - and probably always has been - who are not impressed by facts. And that's the biggest challenge.

How do you expose false reports or half-truths as quickly as possible?

WOMAN: What can you recommend to our readers - how can I find out for myself whether a source is reputable or not?

Ingrid Brodnig: On the one hand, I recommend being careful or vigilant if a message really upsets you: "This is so bad, I have to click on it immediately". This is often a sign that a message is too good to be true. Then you can just have a look: Who is the source, what does it refer to? Who is named as the author? If all of this is very imprecise or nonexistent, one should be careful.

Then there are websites like that pick up fakes very quickly and write about them. You can also write to Mimikama yourself to have a message checked.

In addition, these horror reports are often provided with blatant pictures. You can upload these in the Google image search and see where the photos were also used. The fascinating thing is that a lot of counterfeiters don't do a lot of work and just use photos. You can then see that the pictures were originally created in a completely different context and therefore the text is wrong or more than questionable.

WOMAN: Often, however, even that doesn't help, as the argument follows, "It could be true".

Ingrid Brodnig: It is a very dangerous development to pretend that even a hoax is relevant. You can no longer talk to each other like that. Because then everyone claims something. And everyone only agrees that the other is a fool. The ability to recognize facts even if I don't like them, that's what we should fight for!

What to do if you are being bullied online yourself?

WOMAN: If a friend of yours has faced threats online, what would you advise her to do first?

Ingrid Brodnig: In any case, a screenshot should be taken immediately, i.e. a recording of the message or posting. It happens again and again that people receive ghastly reports and are then so shocked that they simply delete them. Then they no longer know who sent the threat and cannot prove anything in court. So be sure to document everything - if in doubt, it's better to do too often and too much rather than too little.

Then you have to distinguish whether it is really a threat. Is it really about you personally, is it really that specific to go to the police? If these threats happen over a longer period of time, the cyberbullying paragraph can also be applied to protect you. Then it doesn't have to be a clear threat.

However, there are also gray areas where criminal law does not apply. For example, if you are "only" bullied unpleasantly. If you notice this in others, it also helps a lot to stand up for them. In order to show those affected that they are not alone. For example, with words like "Don't let yourself get down." or "It's not okay what's going on." Because victims of such anger often get the impression that everyone really hates you. It helps to recognize who is attacking the problem and not you.

In addition, I can also report the respective user on Facebook, Twitter or the editorial team of a forum so that their account is deleted. The more users report this, the higher the likelihood that this will happen.

WOMAN: Often, however, even extreme comments and users in social networks are not officially deleted. Do you think that Facebook and Co would rather benefit from heated discussions?

Ingrid Brodnig: I don't think so on Facebook, because Facebook in particular has the problem of being labeled as an anger portal in German-speaking countries. And they don't want that reputation. But the company comes from a very American tradition and actually leaves harder reports than we are used to in German-speaking countries. In addition, Facebook is not transparent enough about how many moderators it employs, for example.

WOMAN: You give instructions for use to better deal with the hate on the net. But isn't the book also a kind of instruction manual to be abused by precisely those trolls?

Ingrid Brodnig: Anyone who deliberately wants to kill other people would hate me and my book because I always explain why something is bad. But on the other hand, you could actually draw some kind of instruction for action from it, because I explain how these actions work best. The joke is that aggressive users don't need any instructions at all, as many things automatically work well for them. Anyone who has an extreme need to communicate in their anger posts not just once but 20 times an hour. And in many forums, the first comment is always the newest. So it is ranked at the top 20 times an hour and therefore more visible. Unfortunately, the technology often makes it very easy for the bullies. Those who want to discuss factually have even more difficult technical requirements.

WOMAN: How were the reactions to your book in principle?

Ingrid Brodnig: Actually very good. It was impressive that many victims of hatred on the Internet wrote to me that they were pleased that this problem was now being addressed more intensely. They suffered from the fact that this was not visible and is now finally being taken seriously.

In principle, something has changed recently. For many years we had a discussion that was carried out with rhetorical smoke grenades: Whenever moderation was encouraged in newspaper forums or it was said that hateful comments had to be deleted, they replied that they wanted to censure freedom of expression. But it is absurd to think that freedom of expression is limitless. This doesn't allow me to kill other people and threaten them with life or rape. Apart from the clear legal boundaries, an opinion just because it is legal is not an opinion worth promoting. For example, it is legal to write "All politicians should be beaten with iron bars" because the threat is not specific enough for 1 politician to report it. Even if the statement is legal, it is a terrible statement. And it's perfectly okay to delete those. Nobody is obliged to give a place to such hatred of human beings.

WOMAN: And it's still a call to violence.

Ingrid Brodnig: Exactly. Not everything that is bad is also punishable. If you then always use freedom of expression as an argument, you play down so much. Of course, one can have different opinions and express them in a democratic discourse - only insults or calls for violence are not part of it! "I'm against XY because the pussies already have too much power!" - such a statement is not an opinion, but an insult. You have to differentiate very clearly: "Yes, of course you have a right to your opinion, but you do not have the right to crush others and then get away with the argument of freedom of expression."

WOMAN: Many women would like to get involved in discussions, but are then afraid of being the next one.

Ingrid Brodnig: Indeed, there is research showing that women are underrepresented in some forums. Many women are afraid of being attacked or have already experienced this. When the tone gets particularly rough, women argue far less. But that is a danger to democracy. If we assume that social issues are also being negotiated online, then I really want women to be heard and their voices not being drowned out.

As in the following example: In the USA, the question was asked whether the employer in the USA should cover part of the contraceptive costs as part of the health insurance. The answers were mixed to negative for men and positive for all women, because otherwise these costs for contraception often stick to them. When women are no longer heard, an important voice is missing from the discussion and there is a risk that their perspective will not be taken into account as it should be.

WOMAN: So should one jump over one's shadow and still comment?

Ingrid Brodnig: I would say you have to create discussion spaces in which women feel safe. If someone feels insecure and it is too emotional for them, then I would never say you should join the discussion now.

We must finally get rid of what is really punishable in the way of comments and threats - then it also has a radiance. The more attacks happen, the more anger develops all around. Sometimes I am asked whether the Internet is not a medium where you like to vomit and just include a certain anger. I'm skeptical about that. It's not as if we have already done everything to suppress the hatred on the Internet. If we haven't done that yet, it's a little early to say there is nothing we can do. Let's do it once and then see how well we have succeeded - from the individual to the platforms to politics.

Hatred on the net
Hatred on the net

WOMAN: How great can this radiance really be? There are a few convictions, but almost everyone has seen the hate reports in one form or another.

Ingrid Brodnig: It's a bit like drinking and driving. It was forbidden in the past, but it wasn't really taken seriously. Then the police checked more and more often. The consciousness has already changed as a result.

But also about the radiance of anger: Even harmless insults often have a toxic effect. As a study by the University of Wisconsin shows: 1100 people were asked to read an article on nanotechnology, including comments underneath. Half read comments with swear words, the other half without them. After that, the group that read foul language was far more radicalized. They were all the more totally for or totally against nanotechnology. If swear words appear, people can no longer approach one another. Because if I get offended, I don't want to have anything to do with those who think differently and even less to go into their arguments. The danger is that if a few users are aggressive, they also deprive others of the opportunity to approach each other. That is why it is so important to take words like "idiot" or worse seriously. Otherwise we cannot find each other as a society.

How can you react to subversive reports?

WOMAN: How easy is it for yourself not to react emotionally?

Ingrid Brodnig: Insanely difficult. At first you just want to react to hate with hatred. If I notice that I cannot react objectively, then I do not write back to begin with. There is no right to get an answer right away. But if you sometimes ask what a person means, then the posting may not turn out to be that aggressive and was just a misunderstanding. Often users become friendlier because they didn't expect to be heard. Or that someone writes back factually.

Of course, that doesn't work for everyone. If you see that it doesn't work, then you can still say that that's not the tonality you want to discuss with. Ideally, you can even react to it with humor. But when you're angry, humor is extremely difficult. But only if you can manage it, humor is often the strongest weapon that the other person can get down from their anger. Because if you laugh, you forget your anger for this moment.

If you want to find out more on this topic, we recommend the book "Hass im Netz" by Ingrid Brodnig - for 17.90 € from Brandstätter Verlag.

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