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Opinion

Opinion: Fight extremism with an online troll challenge

From forums to Facebook, hate is a part of digital life. How can we deal with trolling, racism and threats? Ignore it? Push back? Deactivate our accounts? DW'S Richard Fuchs thinks we should turn such trash into cash.

As a political commentator, I belong to that privileged group of people who have their very own trolls. And, with a little luck, when I scroll down to the comments section of this article I will have something new from Wanda.

My digital hate troll knows a lot about everything. He has an opinion on Putin and on the financial policies of Germany's government. And he is particularly strong opinions on refugees, immigration and Islam. That is when Wanda really gets going. Because he doesn't like those things, though he probably wouldn't put it that politely: He would employ hateful diatribe. Perhaps to provoke a tear from me, a member of the "lying" mainstream media. 

Wanda calls me the popular far-right term "Volxverräter" (traitor to the people) and homophobically a "multiculti f----t." I've come to the point where I can forgive Wanda his orthographic inadequacies. My troll and I have built a relationship. I know that he is there. He knows that I will stay. We share an aversion, but we also realize what we have with one other.

Fuchs Richard Kommentarbild App

DW's Richard Fuchs

I don't know who Wanda is, but I have often thought about it. Perhaps he is a small-minded instigator who rages against foreigners online and then heads next door to the Turkish fast-food shop for a döner kebab between rants.

But maybe Wanda is an adherent of the xenophobic Patriotic Europeans Against the "Islamization" of the West movement, or a recent convert to the right-wing Alternative for Germany, someone hoping to rid the country of all of the politicians, journalists, bankers and clerics - the "puppets of the system."

Or maybe Wanda is just someone who recognizes that the anonymous freedom of the World Wide Web is a sign that the day of reckoning is upon us. If Wanda simply happens to be an algorithm programmed to spit out inflammatory slogans, then this particular internet being has taken on an astonishing independent existence.

Make loathing lucrative  

This October 3, in Dresden, Germany celebrated the anniversary of its reunification; the event was supposed to be a day of joy for the country, Europe and the world. Instead, a cursing mob of fewer than 300 people turned it into a spectacle of hate and disrespect. It seems that the inhibitions of civility and decency are things of the predigital past. Lunatics regularly threaten violence, even death, on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The targets of these threats are mayors, refugee aid workers, politicians and volunteers. More and more, people feel no need to hide behind the mask of anonymity. Real names stand beside harassing comments and get likes by the thousands.

Compared to that, things between Wanda and I are rather polite - so far at least. Yet nagging questions remain: Is this really what our digital future is supposed to look like? Do we have to strangle the exchange of ideas in discussion forums and comments sections in order to regain decency and manners? Or are there ways to put such digital anger back in the bottle?

In this instance it makes sense to look to those who have been dealing with slander, defamation and threats for a long time. EXIT-Germany, an initiative for people seeking to escape right-wing extremist movements, is one such group. The organizers recently turned a neo-Nazi march in Wunsiedel into a kind of charity run. Using the motto "Right Against Right," EXIT devised a system in which a fixed amount of money was donated for every meter that the neo-Nazis marched, and profits were then given to a project devoted to countering xenophobic ideologies.    

It is about time that even the evil that lurks on the internet finally bear good fruit. My suggestion: Public as well as private media outlets in Germany should turn their endless rivers of hate comments into wellsprings of donations, with every infraction against legal and cultural norms pegged at a set amount of money that would in turn be channeled toward projects devoted to our peaceful coexistence. Millions could be raised in short order, as sad as that is. Those who sow hate will reap good. Even if they don't want to.

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