Germany's Federal Agency for Civic Education describes hate speech as follows: "When people are devalued, attacked or when hatred or violence is called for against them, this is referred to as hate speech." Additionally, hate speech is described as "a generic term for the phenomenon of hostility against specific groups of people or sedition on the internet and social media platforms."
A growing number of people are affected by hate speech, whether in the form of bullying at school or work, or through sexist, racist, trans- or homophobic insults online.
In 2020, in the annual survey on online hate speech awareness, conducted by the State Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia, 94% of respondents ages 14 to 24 stated that they had already observed hate speech on the internet.
In the largest survey to date on hate speech in Germany, conducted by the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society Jena (IDZ), 8% of those questioned said they had been personally affected. The majority of respondents reported increased emotional stress, fear, anxiety, depression and problems with self-image after being insulted or attacked.
The intensity of this online abuse has also increased in recent years. In addition to crude insults, comments posted in forums often refer to murder and rape fantasies or threats such as "We know where your children go to school." Meanwhile, more and more politicians also see a connection between the rise of hate speech on social networks and physical violence carried out in the outside world. The attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand and Halle, Germany motivated by right-wing extremist views are examples of this, as is the murder of pro-refugee German politician Walter Lübcke who was killed in his home by a neo-Nazi extremist in 2019.
What is behind the rise?
"We consider it a success that the topic of hate speech has become mainstream" says Oliver Saal, a historian who works for the Civic.net initiative, initiated by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which trains organizations on how to deal with hate speech.
Saal sees a connection between the events surrounding the migration of many people from the Middle East to Europe in 2015, the increasing number of right-wing extremists, and the growing hatred on the internet: "In the last five years, the willingness to articulate xenophobia on social networks has increased — for example in forums hostile to refugees."
Facebook, Twitter and other platforms essentially fuel the fire behind such speech. "Social networks are built algorithmically in such a way that they reinforce particularly blatant statements that provoke extreme reactions in the form of likes. The network then assumes that it is a relevant contribution, which gives it a lot of visibility. The problem lies in the technical conception [of those platforms]."
Julian Wiehl also sees problems with the "reward-based society." He adds: "Social media give us the feeling that value exists, when in reality there isn't any." Wiehl is the managing director of the Viennese media agency Vangardist, which publishes the "progressive men's magazine" also called Vangardist, that goes beyond gender norms.
He has years of experience dealing with homophobia and is well-aware of the connections between real-world actions and social media reactions. In 2015, the company printed a special edition of the magazine with the blood of HIV-infected people to make a statement against stigmatization. The move attracted international media attention — and plenty of criticism.
"We have become emotional junkies whose self-worth depends on a response," says Wiehl. The interpersonal aspect always falls to the wayside. "Social media attempt to limit social interaction to mere exchanges of information. But you cannot experience another person in his or her entirety through social media. A refugee, for example, is no longer a human being, but a piece of information, an object."
Those affected go on the offensive
Today, hateful comments are reported much more frequently, especially by younger people. According to the above-mentioned NRW study, twice as many 14-to-24-year-olds reported hate speech than five years ago.
This is in part thanks to the media focusing more frequently on this issue, as well as new, effective initiatives to combat hate speech online. Civic.net, for example, offers seminars, training courses and workshops in which journalists, PR professionals or social media account managers of civil law organizations learn strategies to deal with hate speech.
On the European level, this work is carried out by the #NoHateSpeech movement, a large, transnational campaign organized by the Council of Europe. On the homepage, those affected can find tools to combat hate speech, down to suitable memes for many situations.
The Facebook group #ichbinhier with over 44.000 members, collectively opposes whatever hate storm is raging online.
There are also ways to counteract hate speech on the internet even before it exists — by promoting greater understanding between certain groups of the population. Afro-German student Dominik Lucha, for example, runs an Instagram profile called Was ihr nicht sieht! (What you don't see), where he posts about everyday hostility experienced by Black people in Germany.
A big job for society
German Green Party politician Renate Künast has been publicly combating online hate speech for years. When she tried to take legal action against the authors of hate mail sent to her in 2019, her petition was rejected in a highly controversial ruling.
Unsatisfied, Künast continued to fight in the courts — and won. She has become one of Germany's most prominent representatives in the war against hate speech.
"As a society, we must seriously ask ourselves how we want to deal with each other," Künast told DW. "I think we have to return to a discourse in which we ban personal degradation. The network of right-wing extremists is enormous, and now requires an equally large counter-campaign. The respect for the dignity of every person must be fought for again and again as a valid principle in everyday life."
Slowly, civil society seems to be awakening from its initial state of shock at the huge wave of hatred flourishing online in recent years. More and more people affected by hate speech seek help or develop their own strategies to deal with it.
However, there is still much work to be done, and many affected individuals still feel left alone or powerless to defend themselves against digital attacks.
To makes matters worse, right-wing extremists and other agitators have found ways to go incognito while spreading hate speech online. More and more people are migrating from Facebook and Twitter to encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, where they can chat without being monitored.
This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.