Hatred on the Net: How to Help with the Persecution

Hate in the net
:Prosecutor fights against hate – so you can help

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  • Rebecca Hfner

Black screen with black lettering with the hashtag hate

Some users feel secure on the net and think that even criminal content remains without consequences.


Lukas Schulze / dpa

Cologne –

Hatred and hate seems almost to be part of everyday life in the comment columns of social media. Prosecutor Christoph Hebbecker takes care of the “central and contact point Cybercrime North Rhine-Westphalia” (ZAC NRW) that is determined against the authors of postings with criminal content. Hebbecker explains how he and his colleagues counter hate in the network and how users can protect themselves.

Can you briefly explain which tasks you are taking on at the Central and Cybercrime North Rhine-Westphalia (ZAC NRW) central office?

Christoph Hebbecker: Together with a colleague I deal exclusively with the crime phenomenon “Hatespeech” (in English: hate speech). The “Cybercrime Central and Contact Center” is located at the Cologne Public Prosecutor’s Office and the largest judicial cybercrime unit in Germany. In the special department “Hate Crime on the Internet”, we mainly take care of the project “Tracking instead of just deleting”, which we initiated in 2017 together with the Landesanstalt fr Medien NRW. Since February 2018, media partners [Editor’s note: including Klner Stadtanzeiger and Express] are reporting posts with criminal content.

Portrait of the prosecutor Christoph Hebbecker

Dr. Christoph Hebbecker investigates writers of hate and hate speech in social networks.



How many procedures have you had so far?

Hebbecker:Since the project started in February 2018, we have received approximately 400 advertisements from the media partners and the State Media Authority. In about half of the cases, preliminary investigations were actually initiated. We identified 80 accused persons.

What about people who anonymously spread hate in the net?

Hebbecker:We work with the North Rhine-Westphalian State Office of Criminal Investigation – they determine the identities of the accused. The state criminal police uses a number of investigative techniques to help anonymous users. So you should not be too sure that the authorities would not be able to identify you unless you’re logged in to the social networks with your real name.

What content on the net do you follow at all? When will it be punishable?

Hebbecker:The offense “Hatespeech” does not exist – it is composed of various offenses. These include sedition, use of marks of unconstitutional organizations [editorial note: for example, a picture of a swastika], public appeals to crime or cursing creeds.

What kind of punishment does a writer of hate posting have to expect?

Hebbecker:In our last trial, we were talking about an accused, to whom we have accused us of five incitements, all of whom have been convicted, and who has been sentenced to a total of eight months imprisonment and a fine of 1500 euros. Incitement may be punished with imprisonment of between three months and five years imprisonment. The use of marks of unconstitutional organizations provides for a fine of up to three years imprisonment.

That speaks against the feeling that hate comments remain without consequence.

Hebbecker: It does not really matter if you hoist a swastika flag on the marketplace or post the swastika flag on your Facebook profile. Even though the saying sounds a bit hackneyed now and has been repeated many times: the same rules apply online and offline.

Is there hounding only from the right?

Hebbecker: In the vast majority of cases we work on, the postings can be assigned to the right-wing or right-wing extremist spectrum. We also have a small number of cases that we would associate with the left-wing spectrum and some cases that we would associate with a politically neutral spectrum.

How do social media users benefit from your work?

Hebbecker: It is often observed that the comment columns are closed and thus opportunities for exchange on the Internet disappear. We try to make a contribution to ensure that such digital exchanges remain in place and not only delete criminal postings, but punish the authors. The initiation of a preliminary investigation must become a realistic scenario for hate speech writers. In view of the consequences, one or the other will doubt once again before sending his posting.

What can I do as a consumer if I am attacked in a comment column on social media for a newspaper article? Do you have any tips?

Hebbecker: I can report the posting to the operator of the social network. If it is unlawful, the operator is obliged under the Network Search Law to delete it at short notice. But it will only be deleted and no criminal proceedings initiated. If I want it to be followed, I have to file a complaint. To do this, sufferers should secure evidence through screenshots. That is, I take a screenshot of the posting – optimally also of the post to which the post relates and of the author’s profile to provide clues to the investigative authorities.

The project “Tracking instead of just deleting” is so far unique in North Rhine-Westphalia. That will not be enough to limit hate and hate in the net.

Hebbecker: NRW has certainly played a pioneering role in this area. In the meantime, the project “Tracking instead of deleting” is also part of the Hessian coalition agreement. There are active efforts to launch such a project as in NRW. In Berlin and Brandenburg we have trained judges and prosecutors. Also in Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Saxony there is interest in our project.