Hate speech has become a fact of everyday life online. LeFloid, a popular YouTuber, is adamant that this situation needs to change. In the following interview, he explains why he has joined forces with Deutsche Telekom to counter online hate speech.
Hate speech and verbal abuse are increasing in our society. To a large extent, this is occurring online. Why do you see this issue as so important?
LeFloid: When our language becomes coarse and brutal, then our society becomes coarse and brutal as well. It doesn't take long for insults and disparagement – perhaps aimed at just a few people, here and there – to lead to violence, with people clobbering each other in the streets. That happens because people get the idea that other people are worthless and therefore don't deserve any respect. When our language gets coarse and brutal, our empathy suffers, and we lose our moral standards. Gradually, subtly – and insidiously – all that coarse and brutal language starts becoming the new normal.
Personally, for example, I think it's terrible that metaphors such as "waves of refugees" ("Flüchtlingswellen" in German) are becoming part of our everyday language, because I see how they frame our perspectives. Such metaphors amount to prejudgment, and they reinforce negative perspectives. When you think of a "wave" of refugees you can easily think of a "tsunami." And that's intended. Somehow, it has become seemingly normal to associate the arrival of suffering people with the occurrence of such a natural disaster. I find that enormously disheartening. All too often, even respected media propagate such usages, in virtually all areas of their reporting.
Framing manipulates meaning, and it keeps pushing the boundaries of what is morally acceptable. Hate speech, unfortunately, is just a logical consequence of such moral erosion. Today, anyone can suddenly find themselves facing the kind of insults and slanderous statements that, just a few years ago, would have been grounds for a lawsuit. You no longer have to be a public figure in order to get that treatment. This is all becoming normal – it's too late to "nip it in the bud." And yet it is never too late to push back against shifting of the boundaries of what may be said – and, ultimately, of what may be done.
Neuroscientists have found that victims react to hate speech the same way they would react to physical abuse – their nervous systems release the same kinds of pain-suppressing substances that are released in the face of physical pain. This fact is reflected in the expression "like a punch to the stomach," which is often applied to verbal abuse. Unfortunately, that expression indeed has a neurological basis. Consequently, in addition to threatening our social interactions, hate speech threatens our individual physical and mental health.
In a recent post, you called someone a "retarded, mongoloid spaz." A little later, you published a disclosure – that disturbing message was actually aimed against online hate speech, but it was indeed intended to be provocative. In the process, you also called attention to Deutsche Telekom's efforts against online hate speech. Has it really come to this – that we have to test the very limit of what we can tolerate, if we want to get anybody's attention?
LeFloid: My statement certainly tested the limit of what we can tolerate at the moment. But if the boundaries keep getting pushed back, then such statements might soon fall well short of that limit. This is why, in our efforts to raise awareness, we want to clearly show where limits are being violated. We want to make people aware that there's always a person on the receiving end, and that words can harm that person just like weapons might. In the example you mentioned, we're showing what can happen when we lose our determination to oppose hate speech and coarse, brutal language.
Our speech is becoming more and more aggressive. Hate speech, verbal abuse and bullying poison our interactions, both in real life and online. What needs to change, if we want fairness and respect to reenter our interactions?
LeFloid: Anyone who can write can push back against hate speech. Anyone can report hateful comments and posts, and anyone can take a clear stand, in their own dealings with friends and acquaintances, against hate speech and bullying. It's extremely important for all of us to take a stand. We can't let hate, and disregard for human dignity, go unchallenged. At the same time, we must refrain from battling hate with hate, because that simply makes people all the more unwilling to listen or make any changes. Instead, we need to be using constructive arguments, new perspectives and humor, in an effort to reach all those silent readers out there and let them know they're not alone in the middle of all that hate. We need to expose contradictions and awaken empathy. When we get involved, and show solidarity with victims, we strengthen our democracy – and help protect human rights. At the same time, we have to remember that such efforts can be very tiresome and even demoralizing, and that we need to know when it's time to bow out of a discussion.
Studies have found that it takes about four arguments to convince people, if they're going to be convinced at all. People who are not convinced after four arguments stay completely unconvinced. Therefore, we need to remember that we can't always "save" people who spread hate speech online. Our primary focus should be on all the people out there who just read everything, and otherwise are not heard. We don't want them to think that hate speech is all there is. When people get that impression, the hate speech really starts seeming "normal." Also: stay objective, no matter how difficult that may be. Yes, you may be sorely tempted to respond ironically, but remember that people often misunderstand irony or miss it altogether. In addition, victims should be getting better support from government stakeholders. Many victims find themselves feeling completely alone with their pain.
Also, I'm totally against actionistic measures such as requiring use of real names. Rather than reducing online hate speech, such measures curtail our freedom. Once you see how many hateful comments get posted by people using their real names, you understand that the real problem is how much has become acceptable.
How do you deal with hate speech on your own channels – and how can hate-speech victims protect themselves and push back?
LeFloid: Basically, all visitors are welcome on my channels – each and every one. But I make an exception for persons who are unwilling to interact respectfully with other visitors or with me. Such persons are not welcome. By no means do I expect everybody to share the same opinions, and I always welcome constructive discussion. But those who think that hate speech and disparaging comments are acceptable get shown the door. I stand firm on this position, and it's one I recommend in general to all those affected by hate speech. If you find your constructive arguments are falling on deaf ears, or that the discussion is toxic right from the outset, then you should simply leave it. In particularly serious cases, you can contact the police.
People often try to justify a toxic approach by appealing to "freedom of speech." Or they'll blurt out something like "the next thing you know, we won't be able to say anything." Always remember that freedom of speech should never be used as a weapon against those who are weaker – and that upholding freedom of speech certainly doesn't mean having to swallow every piece of garbage that comes your way. It's wrong to conclude that every opinion has to be valued, just because freedom of speech is one of our key democratic freedoms.
LeFloid was born in Berlin in 1987. He studied psychology at Berlin's Humboldt-Universität (HU). On his "LeFloid" YouTube channel, which is now one of the most heavily subscribed YouTube channels in Germany, he comments on current issues, headlines and news as reported in the media. He has received a number of awards, including the German Web Video Prize, 1Live Krone ("crown" prize of the 1Live radio channel) and the audience prize of the Grimme Online Awards.