Combatting Digital Violence: A Conversation with HateAid

DIGITAL VIOLENCE: With a Human Rights Film Festival Berlin workshop on Navigating Digital Aggression for Journalists and Filmmakers, Modern Times Review speaks with representatives of Germany's HateAid - the organisation combatting digital violence.

In a digital age where online platforms/social media have become integral to our daily communications and professional lives, an underbelly often goes unaddressed. To unpack the implications and nuances of violence in the digital world, Modern Times Review sat down with representatives from HateAid, a German non-profit committed to combating online harassment. This conversation with representatives Jenny Brunner and Judith Strieder delves deep into the heart of the digital violence epidemic, shedding light on the challenges victims face, the complex legislative landscape, and the blurred lines of the freedom of speech debate.

HateAid team photo
HateAid team photo

Amidst our discussion, HateAid’s collaboration with the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin marks a significant stride in addressing digital aggression, particularly targeting journalists and filmmakers. As we delved deeper, the facets of digital violence unveiled themselves, underscoring the urgent need for collective action.

Digital connectivity, a double-edged sword, has unleashed an unprecedented surge in online harassment and digital violence. As the internet continues to be a paramount tool for information dissemination, its shadow side manifests in multiple forms of cyberbullying, from hate speech on platforms like Twitter/X to the non-consensual dissemination of intimate photos. «Our organisation is a haven for those subjected to online harassment, whether it’s hate speech on platforms like Instagram, non-consensual release of intimate photos, or cases where personal details of individuals, including journalists and politicians, are revealed (doxxing). We offer emotional support, security counseling, and litigation financing in appropriate cases,» explains Brunner.

HateAid’s mission isn’t just centered on aiding those affected by digital violence. The goal is to ensure that human rights are also respected in the digital space and to protect democracy from damage caused by digital violence and disinformation. «There’s been an alarming uptick in people reaching out to us. A core part of our mission is to raise awareness among law enforcement, politics, and society about digital violence and its consequences» detailed Brunner.

When asked about their geographical range of support, Brunner clarified, «We mainly focus on Germany, especially regarding the litigation financing.

The vast spectrum of online hate—from the classic hate speech to ‘revenge porn’—makes its definition challenging. Brunner says, «We’ve even had cases where individuals have pizzas sent repeatedly to someone’s house or where family details are released with malicious intent. There are numerous scenarios and every case is different.» However, Strieder emphasized, «The term ‘digital violence’ is all-encompassing. It’s not merely hate comments; it’s about the profound psychological trauma it imposes.»

«The term ‘digital violence’ is all-encompassing. It’s not merely hate comments; it’s about the profound psychological trauma it imposes.»

While legislative measures like the EU’s Digital Services Act (to go into effect in 2024, for very large online platforms like most common social media the rules already apply) are steps in the right direction, their effectiveness hinges on consequent enforcement. «HateAid is vigilantly monitoring its rollout,» both added. «It must be clear that platforms are complying with the new rules.»

The ever-evolving freedom of speech debate, particularly contrasting the European and American perspectives, also took some of our conversation. «Marginalized communities, be they women, people from the LGBTQIA+ community, or people who experience racism, often bear the brunt of incessant online hate,» Brunner asserted. «Their freedom of expression is threatened by digital violence as they are intimidated and silenced.»

Notably, the conversation branched out to platform algorithms, highlighting their amplification of specific narratives. The issues with platforms are multifold. «It’s not an isolated problem. It’s a systemic concern, predominantly fueled by profit interests,» I remarked, continuing, The accountability of these platforms, especially with potentially biased algorithms, sparked a detailed discussion. Strieder elaborated, «Each platform has its challenges. Being politically charged, Twitter/X sees a different kind of hate than, say, Instagram.» here, it is my personal opinion that full-on regulation, if not a socializing of communication-based tech platforms, is necessary. At the very least, the public exposure of each respective algorithm.

On this topic, I bring up the online trend of «cancel culture» and how HateAid can avoid falling into the trap of coordinated online abuse. I draw on examples of toxic fandom where an individual may be targeted for simply expressing a negative view about a widely regarded public figure despite a lack of overtly aggressive or threatening rhetoric. Strieder says, «Evaluating each situation on a case-by-case basis is essential to understand who instigated the violence. If a person hasn’t spread hate themselves, they are eligible for our support.» Brunner adds: «We see, however, that especially perpetrators from the right-wing to far-right spectrum often act particularly coordinated.»

Josephine Ballon (Head of Legal, HateAid) and Avital Grinberg (President, European Union of Jewish Students) in front of the Reichstag building
Josephine Ballon (Head of Legal, HateAid) and Avital Grinberg (President, European Union of Jewish Students) in front of the Reichstag building

Amidst the rising tide of digital aggression and technological advancement, however, deepfakes pose a severe threat. For those unaware, a deepfake is a digitally manipulated image that combines the faces and bodies of different people or allows people to say things they may not have actually said in the real world. However, the vast majority of deepfake usage remains mysoginistically pornographic. «Studies show that around 90% of deep fakes are pornographic in nature. 95% of those feature women,» underscored Strieder, spotlighting the enormous risks and gender bias they harbour. She continued, «There are distressing cases of women being victimised, jeopardising their careers and personal lives.» Adding to the cause for alarm, Brunner says, «In Germany, I fear that if this becomes normalised, it could deter individuals from public service or expressing their opinions. This has broader implications for our democracy.»

The unique collaboration between HateAid and the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin shines a spotlight on journalists and filmmakers’ distinct challenges. «Many are freelancers, often devoid of institutional support. Their work often delves into polarising topics, making them targets. Yet, they can’t simply disconnect, as their profession requires them to be online and visible,» Strieder elucidated.

To address these challenges, HateAid is partnering with the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin to present «Navigating Digital Aggression for Journalists and Filmmakers» on Saturday, October 14. This workshop is meticulously designed to equip journalists and filmmakers with tangible tools to address the increasing wave of digital violence. As described, the session aims to provide a roadmap for «identifying, preventing, and effectively responding to online hate.»

Feature Image: © Selene Magnolia

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He writes for some platforms and does some other things as well.

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