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COVID: Scientists face threats online

February 16, 2021

German public figures who support pandemic restrictions have been targeted with death threats and abuse online. Officials are concerned by the anger directed at health authorities.

Karl Lauterbach takes a call in the German parliament
German politician and virologist Karl Lauterbach has received online hate and abuseImage: Jens Krick/Flashpic/picture alliance

"Hang him from a tree, once and for all," one user wrote. "How is he still not locked up?" another asked.

These are just two examples of the online abuse received by the German member of parliament and epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach, who posted screenshots on his Twitter account over the weekend.

"A wave of hate is rolling over me online," Lauterbach wrote. "The death threats and insults are hard to bear. Again and again, there are calls for violence."

Much of the abuse centers around the prominent role Lauterbach has taken in calling for stricter shutdowns to counter the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The member of the center-left Social Democrats, the junior coalition partner in the government, has been vocal with his projections of possible developments in the pandemic without tight restrictions.

'Hostility against scientists'

Lauterbach is not the only public figure who has received more abuse online over the course of the past year. In Berlin alone, figures for reported online hate rose by 45% in the first 11 months of 2020 compared with the year before, according to the city's justice department.

Statistics for the rest of Germany for 2020 are still being compiled.

"It is certainly not a new phenomenon that people who are in the public eye are treated with hostility online," Christoph Hebbeckerm, from the Central Cybercrime Office in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, told DW. "But we suspect that there are more incidents because of the pandemic."

And counselors and advice services have also seen a spike in requests for help.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, we actually saw a decline in the number of inquiries for advice, which we could not really explain," said Josephine Ballon from HateAid, a Berlin-based foundation that offers support and counselling to victims of online hate speech. "A short time later, however, this trend was reversed and we are currently reaching new weekly highs in counseling rates."

"In the context of the pandemic, we have observed increased hostility against scientists and politicians," she added.

HateAid: Help against hate speech

Scientists victimized

The virologist Melanie Brinkmann, one of the scientists who advises Chancellor Angela Merkel on pandemic response, told Spiegel magazine that she has been afraid in her home because of online threats she received. And Gerald Haug, head of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, told the media outlet RND that, although he himself is not active on the internet, he has received online hate and threats over the course of the last year.

A number of high-profile scientists have spoken out against the so-called Querdenker, or "lateral thinkers," movement, which has gained traction in Germany in the past year. Adherents believe that the coronavirus is a hoax and have held protests, sometimes illegally, to protest restrictions on public life. Participants at these demonstrations have included right-wing extremists who turned violent when police requested that they adhere to pandemic restrictions such as social distancing and wearing masks.

"We observed an increase in hate speech in connection with the criticism of the coronavirus measures," Ballon said. "In the run-up to the demonstrations in Berlin, we even saw very serious threats against people who, among other things, were standing up against conspiracy theory narratives and hate online."

And it is not just nationally known figures such as Lauterbach who have become targets.

"A doctor in Cologne who questioned reports that suggested wearing masks had a detrimental effect on the muscles of the respiratory tract, subsequently received hate messages online," Hebbecker said. "We never heard about incidents like that before the pandemic."

Because of coronavirus restrictions, more people have turned to the internet to get information and interact with other people.

"We assume that the increased need for counseling is due to the greater shift of social life to the internet," Ballon said.

Hebbecker said his cybercrime unit was working on the "hypothesis" that more hate has gone online during the shutdowns because people are spending more time on the internet.

Worldwide problem

The phenomenon is not confined to Germany. A study by tech giant Microsoft indicated that reported hate speech was up 4% in 2020 in the Asia-Pacific region. In the United States, top immunologist and President Joe Biden's chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci has received hate online for his stance calling for strict regulations and criticizing former President Donald Trump's pandemic response.

And, aside from the pandemic, online hate speech has been the precursor to recent attacks and terrorist actions, for example the storming of the US Capitol on January 6.

In Germany, the neo-Nazi terrorists behind the 2019 killings in Halle and the murder of politician Walter Lübcke, were also reportedly radicalized online.

"The increased hostility against scientists and politicians is primarily aimed at undermining their legitimacy," Ballon said. "In our view, however, this already began in 2015 in connection with the so-called refugee crisis, in the course of which pro-refugee politicians were attacked and democratic structures were called into question."

Partly because of the attention that Lauterbach has brought to the issue, the German government is looking at tightening online hate speech laws. Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht told RND on Tuesday that she was aware that "anyone who contributes with facts to help us better combat the pandemic is overrun with threats."

"This must finally come to an end," she said.

But the government has yet to offer a time frame for new regulations to take effect. In the meantime, Lauterbach, for one, has indicated the online hate will not stop him from commenting on the pandemic.

GMF compact: Hate speech online and violence offline

Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH Elliot Douglas
Elliot Douglas Elliot Douglas is a video, audio and online journalist based in Berlin.