The prevailing tone in many Internet forums is rude, often aggressive. A dangerous group dynamic is developing, and conspiracy theories are circulating: This is the classic breeding ground for real physical violence.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel cannot enjoy looking at her Facebook page these days. For months now it has been plastered with criticism of her asylum policy - criticism often expressed in words that are far from friendly. "The barefaced cheek, the arrogance, the lies, the smugness with which Merkel is doing this to Germany is extreme cold-heartedness, not philanthropy," a user identified as Dieter Naussed wrote.
"The foreigners are laughing at us," another comment read. "Merkel doesn't get it."
The tone is getting rougher, on Facebook and elsewhere. The topic of refugees seems to arouse people's ire the most. Commenters often use such uninhibited language that Justice Minister Heiko Maas has repeatedly called on Facebook to delete posts that he considers incitement.
The Munich Digital Institute has published a study in which 1,271 Facebook users were asked for their impressions of the language used on the site. Almost 70 percent said political discussions on Facebook had become more aggressive and/or emotional. Only 2 percent of the responders described the language used as "objective." Seventy-four percent, on the other hand, saw an increase in extreme political views being expressed on Facebook. Fifty-three percent said they intended to report inflammatory posts in the future.
More and more people now post online under their real names. However, they still have the protection of anonymity if they wish. The journalist and Islam scholar Thorsten Gerald Schneiders told the broadcaster Deutschlandfunk that this encourages verbal aggression: "Anonymity on the Internet is still a kind of experimental laboratory where you can test your own extreme remarks and see how they are received - where you can live out your frustration, your anger, without putting yourself in too much danger of being punished for it in real life."
Ominous group dynamic
Schneiders told the broadcaster that the Internet had long ago become the nucleus of rude, uncouth and extremist speech. "It's easy for people to find each other," he said in the interview. "They can easily express extremist views and get instant feedback. When people get approval, their confidence grows."
Schneiders, who keeps a particular eye on websites critical of Islam but also monitors Salafist sites, is familiar with the mechanisms that lead people to write without inhibition. "Every time a person clicks Like, someone's ego is boosted," he said. "This is how groups of like-minded people come together and get bigger and bolder."
The social psychologist Catarina Katzer has observed that people are more likely to behave badly online, dispensing with the rules that cover interactions in real life. On the Internet, people congregate in insular communities with little diversity of opinion: "The more I want to belong to a group," she told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, "the greater my social engagement."
North Rhine-Westphalia Interior Minister Ralf Jäger recently warned that the aggressive language used online had led to physical violence. "Hate on social networks is fueling a climate of fear and violence," the Interior Ministry's website reports. "It is inciting people to acts of violence against refugees and setting fire to refugee hostels."
Susan Benesch, a US lawyer and the director of the Dangerous Speech Project, has researched the connection between verbal and physical violence. She found that incidences share certain factors, such as influential posters in various circles who encourage other users to match their verbal diatribes. Furthermore, she found that the leap from hate speech to physical attacks requires a fearful audience, wording that can be read as a call to arms, earlier outbreaks of violence and an influential platform. According to Benesch, the more these factors coalesce, the easier it is for verbal aggression to present a genuine threat.
The perceived unanimity of groups of posters also encourages violence. It is increasingly unusual for opposing political views to encounter one another in online forums. Instead, people often seek out groups that will affirm their existing prejudices. Worldviews narrow as the group dynamic takes hold; opinions that differ from the forums' agreed truth no longer get through. Conspiracy theories grow in such a petri dish, which further facilitates the step from verbal to physical.
In many user forums, objective reporting and plurality scarcely exist any more - yet they are so important for civilizing the discourse and for stopping the violence.