Hate Speech is ...
Hate speech is when you knowingly and deliberately use words and images as weapons like a punch to the face. When people are attacked, devalued or when hate or violence is called for against them, that’s what we call hate speech. Often they are racist, anti-Semitic or sexist comments that target specific people or groups.
Online hatred is currently especially directed at women, refugees, Roma, people with disabilities or homosexual and trans-people. In the future perhaps it will be Danes, White men or Facebook users.
Definitions of hate speech
Council of Europe
The Council of Europe, which launched the No Hate Speech movement, takes a very broad view of the term.
Amadeu Antonio Stiftung
How big is the problem really?
It is difficult to say exactly, because hate speech has many different dimensions and not everything can be documented. Three chosen examples below show how common hate comments are and who is affected by them.
In 2015 the Council of Europe (Youth Department) did an online opinion survey, which found that 83% of those questioned admitted that they had had experience of online hate speech. Young people within the LGBTI community, Muslims and women were the three main groups targeted by hate comments.
Not a thing!
(Joke). Everyone can do something against hate speech. Anyone who can write can fight back. Everyone can report posts or comments, rectify false statements or stand up against inhumane hate comments in your own environment. You’ve just got to do it. And if nothing good comes to mind there are lots of great counter attacks on our site under Counter Speech like memes, slogans, videos, and facts, which you can download quickly and use.
One thing is clear though; everyone is responsible for the atmosphere of their own Facebook page, Instagram profile or website. But when is the time to intervene? Irony and side jabs of course are not illegal! And no one wants to scare of their friends without reason. It can sometimes be difficult to assess when a comment is meant as hate speech and not just a stupid remark. That feeling is very individual and in the end everyone has to decide for themselves what goes too far and what doesn’t. But also if someone has made a mistake in their tone, no one should be forced to feel they should accept it quietly…
In most forums or online communities there are clear conversation rules. A good example of these are Pinterest’s rules.
If social media platforms don’t have their own rules you can set some up yourself. Here are some examples of how you can avoid hate comments.
How can you report posts or entries?
It’s really not that complicated to report content on social media or online platforms any more if they are in breach of the rules or laws.
There are more opportunities to report hate speech here on The list of Anti Defamation League.
How can you make a complaint against hate comments?
To file a complaint you can turn to the police or public prosecutor’s office in the federal state that you live in. The contacts for the State Police Public Authorities and Internet Watch are listed according to each state at www.polizei.de.
Filing a complaint is also possible online, however not in all states.
Anyone who files a complaint and is not directly affected will usually not be involved any further in proceedings, but the police will still investigate further. When you file a complaint it can be that you hit misunderstanding or ignorance. Hate speech is discussed within the police, but for many the subject is still very much new territory.
However, the complaints are always followed up. A complaint of a threat can absolutely qualify for action, but of course that does not automatically mean that it will come to a criminal conviction. If the guilty party, for example, says that they didn’t mean to do it – or something similar – it can lead to an acquittal. However, this should never keep someone from filing a complaint. Incitement to hatred, abuse and threats are all definitely criminal offences in Germany.
Anyone who is unsure whether a comment falls under the law for youth protection can turn to jugendschutz.net. There you can report incidents around the subject of political extremism, violence or cyber-mobbing. The team there goes over the content and puts further steps into motion depending on their results.
There are loads of organisations in Germany alone, initiatives and also individual people who are rallying against hate speech. So many that that we haven’t actually quite managed to track them all down.
Because every person has the right to not be discriminated against. No one has to stand for hate speech or accept it. Even if hate speech is defended by the right to freedom of opinion. Everyone on the internet can of course give their own opinion – and most of us mange to do so easily without infringing on the rights of others. But a basic right to insult people, stir up hatred against minorities, or to incite hatred or violence does not exist, just to be clear.
There are no laws that deal directly with hate speech. For the German penal code the internet is to some extent still new territory. Nevertheless, incitement to hatred, for example, defamation or slander are not allowed. There are now German as well as European judgements on the topic of hate speech. These shape submissions for the justice system, and amend legislative basis.
One important thing to know is it doesn’t matter if you are online or offline when it comes to criminal activity – punishable is always punishable!
§ 86 - Illegal symbols
In Germany it is illegal to use symbols of unconstitutional organisations according to the penal code (§ 86). People who use these symbols will be sentenced to a fine or a prison sentence of up to three years.
Swatiskas, Nazi flags, or the SS skull and cross bones are illegal symbols. The Hitler greeting as a form of welcome is also not allowed. This info document from 2014 describes all symbols which are punishable by law.
§ 111 - Public calls for criminal acts
It is illegal to publicly call on someone to commit criminal acts (§ 111) and the internet is about as public as you can get. People who publicly call on someone to commit criminal acts are sentenced to a fine or a prison sentence of up to five years.
Merkel ought to be 'publicly stoned' a 28 year old man from Bochum posted on Facebook. The court took the comment to be a call for violence. Penalty: € 2,000. April 2014… more
An 18 year old from Emden confessed to having called for someone to be lynched. After the death of a girl, he wrote on Facebook about a 17-year-old detainee: 'Uprising! Everyone to the cops. We’ll storm them. Let’s beat the swine to death.' Penalty: two weeks juvenile detention. May 2012… more
A call for the murder of the Lord Mayor of Leipzig, Burkhard Jung on the Leipzig Pegida Facebook page cost a 43 year old man € 1,380. January 2016… more
§ 130 - Incitement to hatred
Incitement to hatred is considered case fact if hate and violence is called upon against individual people, or whole groups, because of their background or their ethnic or religious affiliation. Incitement to hatred is punishable with a fine or a custodial sentence of three months to five years. (§ 130).
Pegida founder Lutz Bachmann was convicted and fined € 9,600 in May 2016 because of Facebook posts that were categorised as inciting incitement to hatred… more
A 34 year old man from Berlin was convicted because of anonymous posts. The statement 'I think we should just should re-open the gas chambers and throw their whole spawn in' cost him € 4,800. August 2015... more
Youtube blogger 'Julien' was handed a suspended sentence of eight months and fined € 15,000. 'We should gas the bastards' he declared in a video which reached almost 800,000 views about train drivers – among others – from the GDL trade union. February 2016… more
This comment was on Facebook for five hours: 'There are enough Germans who work for a Euro just to survive. F*ck those scum bags. They should be shot.' Verdict: six months suspended prison sentence as well as 80 hours of community service for refugee relief. February 2016… more
§185 - Libel
Libel is probably the most frequent indictable offence that comments fall under. They are pursued criminally by the victim filing a complaint. Fines or imprisonment of up to one year can be imposed. (§ 185).
The district court of Hamburg banned a Facebook user for offensive remarks against the ZDF news channel presenter Dunja Hayali. The infringement threatens a fine of up to € 250,000. February 2016… more
'You lot should be shot.' A wheelchair user had to listen to that sentence from a bus driver in Bavaria. Penalty: € 1,200. April 2016… more
§186 - Defamation
Defamation is spreading a false claim about somebody. It could also be called 'lying with evil intent – but without proof.' The culprit insinuates something bad about someone, which is not true, although he or she believes it. Defamation can be punishable with a fine or a custodial sentence of up to one year. (§ 186).
The Freedom Party of Austria alleged that an Austrian journalist had called on a skinhead at the recording of a right wing extremist demo to cry out 'Heil Hitler'. After six years of proceedings the judge ruled that the FPA had to pay €13,000 to the journalist. As well as this, the party had to publish the verdict. April 2016… more
In Wilhelmshaven a woman accused the Mayor of having had an affair. She spread it as a rumour on Facebook and it transpired that it was untrue. Penalty: € 1,950. February 2016… more
§187 - Slander
Slander also involves spreading lies. In contrast to defamation though, the culprit of the slander knows exactly that his or her claim isn’t true. It is categorised as particularly malicious by the law. Slander is punishable by a custodial sentence of up to five years or with a fine (§ 187).
A 55 year old from northern Bavaria knowingly spread untrue claims about the head of the town hall as well as the vice president of the police and a former police chief. He called them 'child molesters' on flyers, posters and on the internet. Penalty: one year and nine months custodial sentence. May 2016… more
Using an expert report, the right-wing newspaper ‘Junge Freiheit’ (‘Young Freedom’) asserted that the left wing ‘Tageszeitung’ (known as ‘the Taz’) 'saved over a million Euros at the cost of the perpetually strapped-for-cash Berlin' in the purchase of its Friedrichstraße site. The Supreme Court ruled that the obviously false claims were slanderous and that the 'official expert and Junge Freiheit violated the rights of the Taz in a gross manner.' March 2016... more
§201 - Sound recordings
Anyone who makes a recording of statements which were not said in public without the agreement of the speaker or speakers, and passes them on, violates the 'confidentiality of the spoken word' – according to German penal code § 201.
§ 201a - Right to one’s own image
In Germany there are rights of personal image: photos of a person may only be published with their approval. Anyone who takes photos of another person and makes them public or available to others without their consent violates the 'personal sphere of life' of that person and leaves themselves open to punishment (§ 201a).
The Bild online started a campaign against hate instigators at the end of 2015 and published their hate comments plus photos of the culprits. The higher regional court of Munich ruled that publication without consent had taken place. The Bild newspaper could not answer the court’s question of what additional benefit publishing the photos brought to the reporting, and had to remove the photos from the internet… more
A man had to pay his former partner € 25,000 in damages. He had put three naked photos of her with her name, address and telephone number on an online platform. The woman therefore received sexual requests and later even had to move house with her children. The Kiel court ruled that the man had to reimburse the woman for any damages as well as any future ones that would arise from the unauthorized publication of the naked photos. April 2006… more
Five nurses from Aachen shared pictures and a video of a defenceless patient in a WhatsApp-groupchat. They were sentenced to 6 to 8 months probation as well as fines...more
§ 240 - Coercion
If death threats or threats of bodily harm are announced or written, that is coercion. Even just attempting coercion is punishable. A custodial sentence of up to three years (in serious cases up to five years) or a fine can be handed out for coercion. (§ 240).
A 24 year old who felt deceived threatened the woman concerned on the dating app Tinder, to publish a non-existent sex tape of her, if she didn’t immediately give him oral sex. That did not happen, the women filed a complaint. The 24-year-old was convicted of serious coercion and given a nine month suspended sentence. April 2016… more
§ 241 - Threat
Threatening someone is a criminal offence, which can be punishable with up to a year’s imprisonment or a fine. (§ 241).
A woman threatened to 'bump off’ the son of a mother she was friends with and to 'throw a rock at his head' among other things. The offender was prohibited from going within 100m of the flat, 30m of the mother and her son and from making contact with the aggrieved party, especially over email or Facebook. April 2013… more
A man from Dresden posted threats on Saxony police’s Facebook page about Sigmar Gabriel of the German Social Democratic Party. Among other things Gabriel apparently deserved to be 'court marshalled and shot.' Gabriel filed a police complaint, the culprit received a fine of € 1,200. March 2016… more
A 72 year old man threatened a lawyer in an email which mentioned his 'biker gang support'. The court handed out a fine to the tune of € 100 to the man – who was penniless. May 2016… more
The Council of Europe is in on the fight against hate speech on human rights – for everyone has the right to not be discriminated against. The European Convention on Human Rights with its additional protocols and the Council of Europe Convention on cyber crime – the so-called Budapest Convention of 2001 – are vital. You can find both in chapter six of Bookmarks the Council of Europe’s handbook about the ‘Fight against hate speech on the internet through human rights education.’
The European Court of Justice for Human Rights has published a fact sheet. Here you can look up which cases of hate speech were punished, how and why.
Studies describe haters as callous, self-righteous and egotistical. Without the immediate social control of the off-line world, they fire off hate comments in order to stir up trouble – and wait excitedly for the reaction. That's why for a long time it was called 'don't feed the troll' – because then they’d virtually crave attention.
Trolling is hard work
Hatred on the internet comes in part from ‘troll factories’, where people are employed to disrupt targeted communication or to spread specific content. More often than not political sponsors are behind it, who bring their ideology to users in this way. This film deals extensively with the topic.
The term ‘troll’ – which is often used as a synonym for hater – has very little to do with the Northern European goblin. The expression comes from the English 'trolling with bait'. It refers to a specific fishing technique by which you pull bait slowly through water. The so-called ‘troll’ lures other users in, in order to provoke them and deliberately disturb conversations within a community. When you visualise this image, it becomes clear why a counter-reaction is so important. By maintaining respectful discussions you can see to it that the haters do not hit their target.