• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Renate Künast. Photo/Getty Images

How a German politician is taking on her online trolls

If somebody called you a “dirty c---”, would you define it as hate speech? That was the somewhat unsavoury question Germany’s politicians and judges have been contemplating recently.

It all started with some fake news. A well-known right-wing agitator cobbled together quotes from the former co-leader of the Greens, Renate Künast, and posted them on his Facebook page. These implied that Künast thought sex with children was fine, “as long as there was no violence involved”.

Followers of the Facebook page abused Künast, calling her a “piece of shit”, “piece of garbage”, “filthy perverted pig” and “brainless slag”, as well as making an apparent exhortation for her to be raped.

This being Germany, where the postman carries more litigious letters than Amazon packages, Künast took the matter to court, claiming she had been defamed. In doing so, she wanted to force Facebook to release the contact details of 22 social-media users so she could sue them.

Unfortunately, the regional court in Berlin turned down her request, saying “the plaintiff, as a politician, has to deal with even such excessive criticism” and that “insults like dirty c--- were just a hair’s breadth away” from what was unacceptable – yet somehow still acceptable. It was all about the principle of free speech versus the damage done to the individual.

Künast was upset, telling local news media that this kind of online chatter was not just horrid but downright dangerous. “For democracy to work, people have to be engaged,” she said. “If fewer and fewer get involved – and that’s particularly true for women, because they’re afraid of online hate – we endanger our democracy.”

The whole affair – sex, slurs and neo-Nazis – was fodder for talk shows and editorials all over the country. “As a judge today, does one have to put up with hearing about every outrage perpetrated by unwitting idiots?” one columnist asked.

“What gender does dirty c--- have?” pondered another. “Is it masculine, feminine or neuter?”

The conversation took further twists and turns. It became a feminist issue: these kinds of complaints, especially when made by females, are often “structurally minimised”.

It also became a sign of the end of civilisation as we know it. How we speak to one another indicates respectful and civilised interaction, an MP from the Free Democrats said in a radio interview. “And if that culture is not protected by law, then it is only a question of time before violence follows words.”

And it became (yet another) internet-regulation issue: This isn’t just an argument down at the pub we can forget about tomorrow, the former editor of news magazine Der Spiegel wrote. “The internet of 2019 accelerates, intensifies and preserves a hatred, that, just yesterday, was far from the norm in the analogue world.”

In the end, nobody came to any useful conclusion as to whether “dirty c---” is hate speech. After a week or so, talk-show hosts moved on to the next scandal and Künast announced that she planned to contest the court’s decision. It turns out she regularly tries to sue people who insult her online because she thinks it’s a good way to make them accountable.

And that’s probably one thing that the whole furore did do: it will give 22 anonymous (for now) Facebook users pause for thought next time they feel like calling somebody a “dirty c---” online. Just as a culture can suffer death by a thousand cutting comments on Facebook, we can only hope that it might also be partially revived by a few strategically placed lawsuits.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.