Austria NGO fights hate online, one conversation at a time

Vienna (AFP) –


When it comes to the problem of online hate speech, the culprits behind the keyboards and smartphones can take some surprising forms -- just take 74-year-old Viennese retiree Ms H.

Angered by an article she read on the internet a year ago, the outwardly unassuming former midwife reacted with a Facebook outburst in which she said all immigrants should be poisoned on arrival in Austria.

She said the comment was "spontaneous", written in the heat of the moment.

But in the eyes of the law it could have amounted to the criminal offence of "incitement to hatred and violence".

"The police summoned me and said I didn't have the right to write that," says Ms H. "I thought it wouldn't go any further than that."

However, the Austrian authorities are trying to crack down on hate speech online, a phenomenon which countries across Europe are trying to grapple with -- not least ahead of next week's European elections.

Since the end of 2017, several Austrian jurisdictions -- including Vienna -- have been trying to fight online abuse through a pilot programme called "Dialogue instead of hate".

Instead of taking cases to court, prosecutors can now refer offenders to the programme, which aims to cultivate media literacy and respectful behaviour online.

- Offenders 'emboldened' -

The programme consists of a six-month course of 15 modules, covering topics such as disinformation, human rights, the workings of Facebook's news feed algorithm and dissecting tabloid headlines.

The aim is to show participants how to "express one's point of view without denigrating others," explains Nikolaus Tsekas, head of the Vienna branch of Neustart, the crime prevention and rehabilitation NGO behind the course.

The initiative comes amid rising international concern over the conduct of political campaigns online.

In Austria the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), the junior party in the governing coalition, has been accused by the opposition and by rights activists of stoking tensions with hostile rhetoric towards immigrants and asylum seekers.

The anti-racist NGO SOS Mitmensch has collated 20 messages from FPOe officials in the space of a year which could be considered Islamophobic.

The instructors at Neustart says those messages embolden others to repeat the same language.

"We often see people who say: 'Politicians say it, why can't I?'," says Tsekas.

Last November, a local FPOe politician was himself sent on an online course run by Neustart after a racist, homophobic Facebook post.

- No brainwashing -

Along with homophobic comments, use of racist and Islamophobic language has been behind the vast majority of referrals to Neustart so far.

Most of those sent for training are men between the ages of 40 and 60 and the first steps are often tricky.

Speaking to AFP at her fifth session, Ms H was still of the belief that "there's no freedom of speech, we don't have the right to say what we think".

Her adviser Wioletta Ruehrer says this a typical reaction.

Her work with Ms H will consist primarily of "understanding her life story, her fears, seeing whether she herself has ever been discriminated against".

In this way she hopes to create empathy for the targets of abusive language.

Another Neustart client tells of how he was a reluctant participant at the beginning of the course but ended up wanting further sessions.

"My opinions, my points of view haven't changed," says the voluble middle-aged Viennese man.

"But the conversations with the advisor were interesting, they made me reflect and I understand how some language can be degrading," he adds.

The advisor in question, Dana Pajkovic, explains that "it was new for him to be confronted with different opinions".

The client says that since the training he has learnt to "take a step back from the articles.

"I don't get carried away with the titles, I say to myself: 'They're trying to wind you up again!'"

"Taking the time to recognise these differences, to listen to these people, is crucial," says Tsekas.

"The idea isn't to transform FPOe voters into left-wing activists."

But the programme has a long way to go -- despite the torrent of abusive comments posted online, "Dialogue instead of hate" dealt with only 73 cases in 2018.

It will be rolled out across Austria this summer.

The government is also considering making it mandatory for big internet platforms to register users to prevent anonymous hate postings -- although both of the clients who spoke to AFP posted under their own names.