First comes the hatred, then the violence

In the refugee crisis people's inhibitions about making racist comments online have fallen away, commentators in Europe observe with alarm. How can this hatred be countered?

The video commentary had only been on Facebook for a day but already 90,000 users had 'liked' it, more than 80,000 had shared it, and around 3,000 had commented on it. Anja Reschke's appeal for people to take a stand against hate-filled comments and racist rants on the Internet really hit a nerve in German society at the start of August 2015 – and that was before huge numbers of refugees began flooding into the country in September. In her commentary Reschke, a presenter for the German public broadcaster NDR, denounced the fact that a growing number of users were using the social networks for hate tirades against refugees and clocking up likes for it: "If up until then you had been a little racist nobody, of course you suddenly feel great," she said, talking about the effect she sees the falling away of taboos in the refugee debate as having. This effect, she explained, gives racists the feeling that the majority of society backs them when they set refugee shelters on fire or attack foreigners.

In this way the Internet's role as an accelerant for violence became a focus of public debate in Europe right at the start of the refugee crisis. In other countries too, journalists observed that racist and hate-filled comments were becoming more frequent. "Some online forums have become veritable hotbeds of racism", the Polish magazine Newsweek Polska wrote back in July. "Until recently people who held such views generally hid behind pseudonyms. Now they even use their real names. They have no qualms about calling the refugees 'subhumans' and openly glorifying Nazi criminals." At the time the Poles were immersed in a debate about their government's decision to take in 2,000 refugees. In September the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza also commented worriedly on the phenomenon: "There are people on the web saying without any inhibitions and using their own names that the crematoriums in Auschwitz should be fired up again for Muslim refugees. In doing so they are advertising potential crimes, committed by a mob that despises human beings."

Online hate tirades lead to violence against refugees

In Sweden too, a country that is generally immigrant-friendly, a wave of hatred against the newcomers is gaining momentum online. It's no wonder xenophobes feel emboldened, the daily paper Dagens Nyheter commented: "In the Sweden of 2016 you can feel safe and secure as a right-wing extremist. A steady erosion of the boundaries of common decency has been feeding this feeling of power for years. People on all different levels have contributed to this: politicians, journalists, normal citizens who spew hatred in all directions on Facebook." In January right-wing extremists in Stockholm went on violent sprees, hunting down refugees. Swedish commentators saw this as a direct consequence of the unrestrained hate tirades on the web.

When hatred on the Internet leads to real violence, it must be stopped – this is something the majority of Europe's journalists agree on. But how? The Finnish daily Lapin Kansa also posed this question after demonstrators attacked refugees and helpers in the city of Lahti in southern Finland last September: "What are we supposed to think of people who shoot fireworks at asylum seekers and throw stones at Red Cross workers? How should we respond to those who fill Internet forums with their hate-filled comments? Finland is a free country where everyone is entitled to express their opinion as long as they don't break the law. But racism in any form is unacceptable." In the Estonian daily Postimees, a policeman went further and called for legal action against inflammatory comments: "Hatred directed against certain groups of people has caused military conflicts and genocide in the past. This is why for decades there have been attempts to make hate speeches punishable by law in Europe. In Estonia, incitement to hatred is forbidden in the constitution."

Just hit "Delete" on haters

But Swedish columnist Sakine Madon, who has frequently been targeted online because of her Turkish roots, takes a different view. "I hope you and your family die, you disgusting wog.' That's what a mail I received recently said. While outright threats are relatively seldom, comments like this are a frequent occurrence. Should the mail become a police matter? I, personally, believe the police's energy is better spent on more serious threats and investigations. The haters on the web seldom deserve any more attention than a quick click on 'Delete'.

Anja Reschke does not advocate more criminal proceedings in her commentary either. Instead she calls for more audible resistance from the peaceful majority of the population. "Oppose it, open your mouths," is her formula against hate tirades of any kind – whether they take place on the web or at the dinner table.