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How do you fight online harassment?

January 19, 2018

German journalist Richard Gutjahr has long been fighting back against the online harassment directed at him and his family. Now there are new anti-abuse laws and internet support groups backing him.

Hashtag #Hate
Image: DW

"This is the story about the internet and how it can actually be turned into weapon," said German journalist Richard Guntjahr during a Ted Talk presentation posted online earlier this month. "This is my story."

His story begins on July 14, 2016, he explains, recounting how his family had traveled to southern France on vacation. On France's national holiday, Bastille Day, they decided to go to Nice to see the festivities. Gutjahr was taking pictures of the people and fireworks on the promenade when a white truck ploughed into the crowd, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds.

Gutjahr filmed all of it. "I am a journalist; this is my job," he said. He sent the material to his employer Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR), Bavaria's public broadcaster. BR published the videos and Gutjahr conducted interviews, thus providing coverage from the scene of the attack.

Discouraged by backlash

A few days later, he was back home in Munich. On July 23, his daughter called to alert him to  shots being fired near a shopping mall. Gutjahr drove there immediately. "I was right in the middle of it and was reporting again," he said.

Richard Gutjahr
Gutjahr has had to deal with a flurry of online abuseImage: Imago/Sven Simon

This is when the actual ordeal for his family began. His presence at both incidents gave rise to conspiracy theories on the internet claiming that it is no coincidence that he was on site for two unpredictable attacks, yet came out unscathed. At first he ignored the speculation, but it was all in vain.

"The longer we stayed silent, the crazier the accusations became," he said.

In the videos he showed during his lecture, his children are verbally harassed and threatened.

Do not surrender to harassers

Gutjahr was disheartened by all the hate until a message reached him. "I know what you are going through," wrote man called Lenny Pozner. He is the father of a child killed in the Sandy Hook Shooting in 2012 in the United States. Pozner was trolled by hoaxers who believe that the elementary school massacre was fake and that Pozner's son Noah never existed. Pozner encouraged Gutjahr to stand up to the unfounded accusations. "It feels good to know someone who shows support," said Gutjahr.

Support is the first step. The German Facebook group #ichbinhier (#iamhere) had joined him in his fight against online abuse. Nearly 36,000 members of the group advocate a culture of debate free of hate in German language online networks. If someone is attacked, the group shows its solidarity by using their hashtag. "We won't let you take over," is the message they send to harassers.

"It gives the victims strength," said Pia Lorenz, a lawyer and member of the group. "But that is not enough."

Facebook and Google must share responsibility

As a lawyer, Lorenz has represented victims of online harassment. First and foremost, she emphasized the importance of making abusive content disappear. "Until now, that was the hardest thing to do," she said, explaining that without a direct connection to Facebook or Google, people do not stand a chance.

A controversial German network enforcement act, NetzDG, requiring social media networks to take more responsibility for content went into full effect on January 1, 2018. But its implementation is problematic, according to Markus Reuter of netzpolitik.org, a German internet activist site. Twitter, for instance, expects users to have a high level of legal knowledge. "Most people do not know the difference between insult and defamation," Reuter said.

Screenshot Twitter NetzDG
Germany's NetzDG network enforcement act allows for abusive content to be reportedImage: M.Reuter/Netzpolitik.org/Twitter

Before the new law was implemented, Gutjahr was struggling with YouTube complaint forms. "After 20 minutes of trying to figure them out, I finally found the solution," he wrote on his blog. He said it takes 10 minutes to report a video; he reported a total of 60, with no success.

Does deletion have any effect?

The new law is supposed to speed up the reporting, examination and deletion processes, but what impact does this have on harassers?

"No one learns anything from deletion," said Ulf Buermeyer, a judge at Berlin's regional court, explaining that it does not stop harassers from posting something new as soon as the old post is gone.

"We can never delete enough to seriously cut down the number of hate crimes on the internet," he said.

Buermeyer believes the criminalization of hate speech has a more lasting effect: "One can press charges for most hate posts on the web."

Now Gutjahr has two lawyers working on his case. Internet initiatives are also helping him. The Demokratiezentrum (Democracy Center) in the German state of Baden-Württemberg runs a digital center called respect! that fights hate speech on the internet. People can go online to report cases that are subsequently analyzed and categorized by two staff members and a lawyer. After that, legal action is initiated if necessary. Ever since the project began almost a half a year ago, the organization has received 600 reports, 130 of which have led to charges.

Obstacles in prosecution

Reports are not just thrown in a letter box "that people stick something into and never hear about it again," said Stephan Ruhmannseder from Demokratiezentrum, which offers a system in which people can track the progress of their complaint — and there's even room for advice and encouraging words.

But there are risks entailed in legal proceedings. "If one files charges for something like hate speech, it means that the plaintiff's name appears in the indictment," said Ruhmannseder, explaining that the other party can see the contact details, and that is why the organization files charges itself.

"We are named as the plaintiff to avoid this risk," he said.

Cyber bullying
Reporting hate speech and harassment online can be a complicated and frustrating processImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

If someone files charges anonymously, they are protected but cannot be contacted to answer questions during the investigation. Gutjahr advises victims to document hate posts correctly and offers some advice on how to go about this on his blog.

After charges have been filed, it may take some time before a verdict is handed down — or even before a trial actually begins.

"It is a vicious circle if prosecutors do not do a good job," said the judge, Buermeyer. "Then, of course, it is often the case that people say, 'I won't bother filing charges at all.'"

Experts say the authorities in the state of Baden-Württemberg have a good grasp of the matter but many other states in Germany have a great deal of catching up to do.

The most important lesson Gutjahr has learned

In order to break the vicious circle, experts agree that internet users must be able to distinguish between what is legal and illegal.

"I think the fact that a tweet can cause more damage than a newspaper article is slowly sinking in," said Lorenz, who is also the managing editor of Legal Tribune Online, a German website for legal issues.

Gutjahr says his days of not responding to the harassment are over. "Show no mercy," he said, adding that this was the most difficult lesson he learned from this experience: The instigators must be swiftly identified and legal action be taken against them "in a quick, tough manner - with full force." Only then will it become clear that there is no place for hate online.