From Hate Speech to Hope Speech: The NetzTeufel – “Net Devil” project in Germany
This review in English covers material available for download free of charge in German on the NetzTeufel website. This includes a 36 page report, PowerPoint presentations, as well as a wide variety of pedagogical and game-related tools developed and used for day conferences and training sessions with youth workers, adult educationalists, and a wide variety of church and civil society groups and networks during the project
The NetzTeufel project ran from September 2017 to the end of 2019, with two full time members of staff based with the Protestant Academy of Berlin. It was part of the wider Living Democracy programme of the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) and also received funding from the Flick Foundation and the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the main Protestant church. The project ran in the Berlin area but was seen as a model that could be taken up in other regions of Germany with similar partners.
NetzTeufel came into being as a response to questions asked at a conference by representatives of the police as to why civil society groups and the churches were not doing more to counter the reality of online hate speech purporting to be based on Christian values.
Initially called “The Devil is also in the Net” a decision was taken early on to rename the project NetzTeufel -“NetDevil”. This title was seen as more positive and attractive in the German context, a way to reject the idea that web itself is a negative place and also to avoid an “us against them” approach, stigmatising or “othering” people who post negative content “web devilry”.
The focus from the outset was on hate-speech using implicit or explicit Christian narratives or references. The approach underlined the importance of using methods of analysis and education so as not to simply lump everything together under the notion of “hate speech”. The research and tools developed encourage working on shared responsibility, one’s own story, to understand how we may also be the ones practising discrimination or exclusion. It also emphasized the need for understanding and differentiating between racist, gender-based, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, homophobic discriminatory and dehumanizing discourses and narratives.
Rather than focusing on the ”devil in the net” the key focus of the programme was to help people in civil society and church networks to engage with the web and develop skills, know-how and stories to become positive “web devils” themselves. What takes place in the virtual world is real and needs to be taken seriously by both civil society and the churches.
The project opted not for denunciation, but rather for an educational and mutual accountability approach, using communications tools and a game approach as ways to empower individuals and groups within churches and civil society to offer different narratives. The project used a straightforward three part structure for the phases of its work over the two and a bit years of its existence: See, Understand, Act.
Through the support from the Living Democracy programme, and its strong links to grassroots networks in the churches and civil society, the project was quickly able, despite its modest staffing, to develop interest and broad involvement for each of the phases of the work. It was clear that trying to develop Christian hope speech narratives both made sense and helped people feel less helpless.
Narrative analysis of social media comments
The project focused on narratives because stories create meaning and are also the building blocks of ideologies, of the positions we take and our understanding of reality. In churches we often speak about “the Christian story”. More and more there is an emphasis in commercial and institutional communication today on how to tell the story – of a brand, an idea, and so on.
During the initial “seeing” and “understanding” phases of the project a key element was in depth research of a large amount of data from comments on Facebook, to see what makes up Christian-influenced hate speech. The key elements identified were:
- emotionalization of the story; an “us against them” narrative;
- the use of new words framed to defame and provoke;
- theme hopping (using any entry point to take up an anti-Islam or anti migrant discourse for instance);
- a tendency to de-humanize (talking about a menacing group rather than about people).
Changing the story to #WhatTheHope
The work on seeing and understanding how narratives work was widely shared, more in workshop and less in lecture style. Empowering members of civil society to start with themselves, their limits, strengths, backgrounds and narratives.
The project encountered a real desire to get more involved in digital civil society, and learn skills to take things forwards and try to change the story. Rather than putting energy into official denunciation of hate speech, the focus was put on #WhatTheHope narratives and how to engage creatively and positively in the online world – creating hope-filled hashtags being one building block of stories and meaning.
Tools and workshops
The tools and workshops developed were creative and easy to take up and reuse in other contexts. The training offered tried to bridge the analogue/digital divide, pointing to how analogue tools such as board games or post it notes can be used as the basis for developing online ideas and engagement. Making digital engagement more fun and less frightening, daring to get involved in a fast-moving environment – making a green box to produce finger puppet videos; developing hope-filled hashtags; engaging with elements of youth culture through a Christian meme generator; learning what a great tool our mobile phones are for this kind of engagement.
So-called shitstorms can sometimes take off in the comment sections underneath institutional or personal social media posts, for instance on Christian Muslim dialogue initiatives, charities welcoming refugees, same-sex marriage, participation in holocaust memorial events. The way these develop can leave church workers feeling helpless to offer positive and alternative communication. One tool developed through the project in particular helps church workers and institutions to collaboratively role-play the development of unique, strategic nine point plans for dealing with online Christian hate speech “shitstorms”.
Reflections and conclusions
This educational and collaborative model project was developed to encourage civil society and churches to inhabit digital space creatively and positively, rather than disregarding it. By analysing the elements of Christian-based online hate speech and developing alternative Christian #HopeSpeech narratives it empowers participants to get involved in social network communication and help tell a different story.
Churches and civil society tend to exercise their prophetic voice by issuing statements or denouncing what is wrong. The NetDevil project underlines that there remain circumstances where such statements are needed yet warns against social media engagement which becomes a shouting match. Current social media developments demand much more bottom-up and embodied approaches to exercising prophetic voice. The tools developed help do that. Not all churches and civil society actors have the same access to support from government ministries or church institutions, nevertheless the tools developed could easily be adapted and developed in other contexts – in particular the nine-point social media crisis communication plan and the #HopeSpeech narratives. Perhaps some elements of the project could be rolled out at European and international levels. The high level of resonance the project encountered amongst church and civil society workers and volunteers should challenge all our churches to take training for social media engagement more seriously. In the fast moving world of social media, defusing hate speech and developing hope speech narratives remain much needed, particularly in the post COVID19 world.
Summary by Jane Stranz