The internet offers a world of possibilities and inspiration. It brings people together. But discussions online are not always objective or constructive. All too often the internet acts as a breeding ground for hatred and agitation. Shielding behind anonymous profiles, some voices are raised with only one goal in mind: To hurt and discriminate. This makes it all the more important that companies take a stand and advocate for an internet where everyone treats everyone else with respect. Because for victims it often feels like a digital gauntlet. They feel isolated. Is it hopeless? No, says Barbara Costanzo, Vice President Group for Social Engagement at Deutsche Telekom AG. She has made a lasting committment to an internet free of hate. We talked with her about moral courage online - an issue that motivates her both professionally and personally.
Deutsche Telekom is committed to a internet free of hate. Why is it important that companies lead by example?
Barbara Costanzo: Online hate online concerns us all - private individuals, institutions, and companies too, naturally! Not only because, as a society, we must ask ourselves why we allow individuals to be attacked and humiliated, but also because hatred has a strategic dimension. It is used to exclude whole groups of people and to push dissenters and their opinions off the internet. That poses a real threat to an open and tolerant society, whose members should be able to coexist according to democratic values.
The digital world has long since become a reality in our lives. We want everyone to be able to participate in the opportunities that the internet offers. That is why the focus of our activities is on spreading media and democratic skills. We want people to be able to enjoy the advantages of the digital world and to understand how to make full use of them.
You encourage others to get involved. What drives you in this endeavour?
Barbara Costanzo: I stand up for people who belong to groups that are the targets of hostility in my private life also. My role at Deutsche Telekom is very important to me, not least because it involves defending democratic values. There is a noticeable rightward shift sweeping through society. Hate and agitation in the digital media are the order of the day. We simply cannot sit back and accept it as if the consequences only affected those involved. The mood in society as a whole is becoming increasingly hostile.
When our democracy is under threat, media literacy, and thus how to handle the media objectively, becomes even more important. Social media have an important role to play. It is important to understand the mechanisms behind the scenes.
Moral courage is particularly important to you. What does the term mean exactly? And how does it work on the internet?
Barbara Costanzo: Digital moral courage means openly standing up for democratic rules in the digital world. Ensuring that hatred and agitation do not become the norm, that victims are shown solidarity and that words are not turned into weapons. Not looking the other way and falling silent, not being glad that you are spared, overcoming the paralysis of shock - that's what digital moral courage means to me.
At the same time, you have to accept that you may become a target for attack yourself without letting it sway you from what is important to achieve peaceful coexistence. Offering silent readers an alternative, beyond opinion and hatred.
Can digital moral courage really be learned?
Barbara Costanzo: Definitely. You're not born with it. It's not something you either have or don't have. It has been scientifically proven that the probability of helping increases rapidly when one's own competence is judged to be good either through experience or through trial and error, just like after a doing a first aid course. And there are many great organizations that offer concrete strategies to counter hate on the internet. We work with many of them directly.
I am convinced that it helps to make people more aware and ultimately, also brings more people together against online hate. Because they recognize it and know what to do about it. And they also understand that they gain more than they lose.
What advice would you give to the victims of online hate?
Barbara Costanzo: The most important message is absolutely: You don't have to go through it alone! No matter whether you are being bullied or suffer internet backlash, there is help and support out there and you should take it.
You can turn to groups like #ichbinhier, which show solidarity online and stand up for a constructive dialogue. And if necessary, file a complaint. You can contact the 'Nummer gegen Kummer' youth counseling hotline or the Juuuport portal anonymously and free of charge. They can refer you if more or longer term help is required.
Again, very specifically: What can we each do to set an example against online hate?
Barbara Costanzo: Get over your shock! If we all think "Someone else will do something..." then no one ever does anything. Support constructive comments with a like, report hateful comments to the platform provider and then take a stand if something is not right. You can also look for "allies" and find initiatives that exemplify how to enter into dialogue in an objective and constructive manner, even when the mood boils over. And: Don't just look the other way when something is not okay. Make sure to acknowledge it and take a stand!
You can also make a report to bodies such as the "respect!" the Federal Criminal Police Office’s (BKA) report unit or hasshilft.de. You can even make an anonymous report. And you can also file a complaint with the police. When you respond to a hate comment, remember that the goal is usually not to convince the hater. You are writing for silent, often doubting readers and make a statement for them. Please provide shelter for victims! A lack of support and solidarity hurts at least as much as the hatred itself. And don't forget to speak up in your private life or among colleagues if opinions in the offline world lead to exclusion. You see, often the goings-on offline and online are interconnected. Become active with us to create a world with #nohatespeech!