Nadja Kirchhof


The psychology of digital moral courage: Why we act or remain inactive?

What influences whether we intervene or remain inactive in the face of online hatred? Social psychologist Dr Julia Sasse and PhD student Niklas Cypris from the Technical University of Munich take us into the psychology behind digital moral courage. 

Hate on the net can affect anyone

Hate on the net can affect anyone. There are many personality traits and emotions behind it. They also determine whether we fight back or not. © DTAG

How we behave is influenced by many elements. Individual values can play just as much of a role as our own abilities or overarching norms. It is very similar with digital moral courage. "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 a relevant personality trait is sensitivity to injustice," says Julia Sasse, a social psychologist at the Technical University of Munich.

It's all a question of perspective

Julia Sasse

Julia Sasse

The expert says that injustice can be perceived from four perspectives: victim, perpetrator, observer, or beneficiary. In the case of moral courage, the observer perspective is decisive: "The more sensitive a person reacts to observed injustice, the more strongly they react with anger and the more likely they are to take action against the violation of the norm. Although her research has so far focused on analogue moral courage, Julia Sasse believes that the insights she has gained can also be applied to digital contexts.

This also applies to the psychological processes underlying moral courage. The process can be divided into several stages: First, the norm violation is recognized and interpreted as such. Then the person observing must feel responsible to intervene and assume that he or she has the necessary skills to do so. Finally, risks and benefits are weighed against each other. 

Anger vs. fear

A strong action driver in moral courage is emotions, he says. "We know from our research that anger leads to more intervention against norm violations," says the social psychologist. The situation is quite different with fear. Worries about negative consequences, for example arguments or shitstorms against one's own person, can presumably make us more likely to avoid the situation. Niklas Cypris, PhD student and research colleague of Julia Sasse, adds another point: group dynamics. "If other people intervene or help in the situation, you are more inclined to do it yourself." 

Don't feed the troll - feed the audience 

Niklas Cypris

Niklas Cypris

Whether out of a high sensitivity to injustice, a strong sense of anger, or community, studies show that it is important and effective to confront the authors of hate speech. The purpose is not only to reach the actual troll. Rather, counter-speech has a particular impact on the audience of hate speech. When this 'silent majority' sees unchallenged hate speech, it creates the impression that such statements represent defensible opinions. This in turn can have dangerous effects online and offline," says Niklas Cypris. 

The psychologist refers to a study in which the effect of counter-speech against organized hate was examined on Twitter. The background was a far-right group that had formed before the 2019 federal election to influence public discourse with hate messages. Jan Böhmermann then founded the group 'Reconquista Internet', which engaged in counter-speech. "Before the founding of 'Reconquista Internet', it could be observed that both hate speech and the general aggressiveness of conversations on Twitter were increasing. The operation of 'Reconquista Internet', on the other hand, was significantly related to an increase in counter-speech as well as a decrease in hate speech and the general aggressiveness of the discourse."

Counter-speech thus seems to be an effective tool against hate speech. "Perhaps this finding can be summarized under the following phrase: Don't feed the troll - feed the audience!" Julia Sasse also emphasizes that all users can contribute to a civil approach on the internet. "Here, initiatives can play an important role, through which users learn more about the various forms of norm violations, their psychological and social consequences, as well as concrete possibilities for intervention. This can make it easier for users to recognize violations of norms as such and to decide how they can take action against them."

Together against hate on the net

Together with our partners, this is exactly where we come in. We want to educate and encourage people to be sensitive, to get angry, to join forces and to become active. And we want to learn and understand. Just like Julia Sasse and Niklas Cypris in their research.


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No Hate Speech

Words must not become a weapon. Deutsche Telekom is fighting for a network without hate in which we treat one another respectfully.