René Bresgen


Getting out of shock - this is how it works!

When people are insulted, hurt or threatened on the Internet, intervention is called for. What psychological processes determine whether we take action or look away? How can we overcome a state of shock? And what is behind digital civil courage?

Gemeinsam gegen Hass im Netz.

Gemeinsam gegen Hass im Netz. © Diva Plavalaguna Pexels

Defending a friend who is being attacked in a chat about his origins, exposing a picture as a fake, programming an app to report hatespeech more quickly - these are all examples of digital civil  courage. It can be defined as courageous, public action in the digital world with the aim of defending fundamental democratic values or human rights. Even if it could possibly have negative consequences for the person taking action. 

But few people dare to take a public stand for fear of possible risks to themselves. They look away and remain silent. In most cases, no heroic deeds are required, but only courageous advocacy for tolerance, acceptance or more justice. Every comment against hate, agitation and exclusion not only strengthens those affected, but also sends a signal to the silent fellow readers and shows: We must do something, we must not tolerate this behavior. Nevertheless, in the Hate Speech Forsa Study 2023, only 25% of respondents say they have responded to a hate comment to criticize it. So how do we manage to overcome our state of shock and take an active stand against hate speech online?

Digital civil courage - a question of character?

"Whether civil courage is shown or not depends on situational factors, e.g., how risky the intervention is, as well as on personality traits. We assume that one relevant personality trait is sensitivity to injustice," says Julia Sasse, a social psychologist at the Technical University of Munich, in the article on the psychology of digital civil courage. The more sensitive a person is, the more likely he or she is to take action in the face of online hatred.

Others, on the other hand, find it difficult to summon up the courage to stand up to haters. It's the same on the web as in real life: If everyone just looks on in a dangerous situation and trusts that someone else will intervene, no one will help in the end. So, it's important to take the first step. This then encourages other people to help, creating a group dynamic. 

For expert Julia Sasse, the psychological processes of moral courage can also be applied to the digital context: First, a violation of a norm is recognized and interpreted as such. Then the person observing must feel responsible for intervening and assume that they have the necessary skills to do so. Finally, risks and benefits are weighed against each other.

Everyone can do something!

Digital courage is easier for us if we know what we can do. In our video series "Netzgeschichten” (Net Stories), we give five tips for digital civil courage:

  1. Take a look, show attitude and become active.
    Anyone who observes insults, hostility or threats on the Internet should not wait for someone else to intervene. Take action yourself! Even if you don't know the person concerned, hate on the Internet is everyone's business. Demand civil courage from fellow readers or the moderation team. 
  2. Counterspeech and respectful communication
    Counterspeech means the linguistic reaction to hate on the Internet. The goal here is not primarily to convince the haters of a different position. It is primarily about showing presence and making it clear to them that they cannot spread their hate undisturbed. For the silent readers, counterspeech is an important signal to become active as well. Check out our NetzgeschichteGegen Hass im Netz“ (available in German)
  3. Respectful and positive language
    It has been proven: Empathic counterspeech has a de-escalating effect. Be sure to use respectful and positive language so as not to exacerbate the conflict. Hate should never be met with hate. Take a breath before reacting and remain objective. Show the haters that you will not be provoked. Our partner HateAid provides examples of constructive communication on its website.
  4. Report hate comments and respect the law
    Hatespeech is not a legitimate expression of opinion, neither offline nor online. There are laws in the digital space as well. Most platforms offer the option to report hate comments and have them deleted. If that's not enough, you can contact the REspect! platform, which requests that the network operator delete the comment. In serious cases, it may make sense to file a report with the police, for example with the Central Office for Anonymous Cybercrime (ZAC NRW). You can read about how the ZAC NRW takes action against online hate in this article.
  5. Show solidarity and offer support
    For victims of online hate, being left alone can be just as painful as receiving the comments. That's why it's important to show solidarity and offer support. Enlist help centers like Juuuport e.V. to stand by those affected. Help them deal with the emotional consequences of the hate. In the case of criminal statements, contact legal counseling centers like hatefree together.

“Mini-Workshops to go” – Learn digital civil courage from the experts

Our partner Ichbinhier explains in workshops with different topics how you can empathically and respectfully stand up for others in social media without becoming a target yourself. In short practical exercises, you can directly apply what you have learned. The workshops contain the essence of six years of experience from their action group, which has made it its mission to look and actively act when hate in social media threatens people. Digital civil courage can be learned! Participation in the workshop is free of charge.

28.09.2023; 12:00 pm -1:30 pm: 
Digital civil courage in the case of hatred against female-read people: Bodyshaming, Ageism, Cyberstalking, Doxing, Sexual Harassment. Registration here.

04.10.2023; 12:00 pm -1:30 pm: 
Becoming a digital activist – Dgital civil courage to go. An Ichbinhier workshop for the lunch hour. Registration here.

06.11.2023; 12:00 pm -1:30 pm: 
Digital civil courage in the face of hate against climate protectors. An ichbinhier workshop for the lunch hour. Registration here.