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The lonely fight against cyber violence

In conversation with Jolanda Spiess Hegglin

Hate, discrimination and violence are a major problem on the Internet. Any solutions seem a long way off. But waiting until something moves politically is not an option for Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin. That’s why she is fighting against it with her association – also with the help of algorithms and other technological aids.

Oliver Bosse spoke with Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin

Jolanda Spiess, you have declared war on hate, discrimination and racism on the Internet with your association #NetzCourage. What dimensions do these take on in today's society?
Hate on the web was not on anyone's radar until a few years ago. In the meantime, the problem has been recognised by society as a whole, but there are still no solutions. Our association was practically founded out of this need – and we are still the only contact point for cyber violence in Switzerland. This is because victim support centres have too few technical skills and expertise in the online area to be able to help with incidents on social media, for example. Yet it is precisely there that extreme cases such as cyberstalking take place. The digital and real worlds are merging more and more. The whole social network is congregating on social media. This makes our work all the more important.

Don't cyber attacks often happen as a result of the anonymity of the Internet? How can you help those affected in the first place?
That’s right. On the one hand, we can assist with our experience, but on the other hand, we also have the necessary technical know-how to identify the perpetrators. I personally know what it means to be a victim of attacks on the Internet – and how it feels. This helps me to respond empathetically to people and show them how to deal with such incidents. But we also have the technical means to take practical action against this, especially in terms of research, with reverse searches and so on. In the case of anonymous cyberstalking, there is even a very good chance that we will find the perpetrators. Our experience is also useful here. We look for correlations and characteristics, match them and can thus identify the perpetrators. We have already been able to clear up cases for national councillors where the police did not make any progress. Also, in Switzerland, this "scene" of hate perpetrators is not particularly big and we know it. We inconspicuously go into the groups where they exchange ideas and document what is going on there. What's important is that just because you are supposedly being attacked anonymously does not mean that you can't do anything about it.

#NetzCourage is constantly developing new ideas to address the problem in the best possible way. These include those with technological approaches. For example, you have helped develop a robot for Twitter.
With the robot, it is possible to quickly and easily send a protest tweet against a media source or an editor-in-chief if they use inappropriate language. This is not only an original approach, it also has an effect. These editors-in-chief get embarrassed when they face a little shitstorm created by this programme.

What's important is that just because you are supposedly being attacked anonymously does not mean that you can't do anything about it.

#NetzDataBase is also an interesting project with a technological approach. How does it work?
#NetzDataBase is a scientific analysis tool commissioned by the Federal Service for Combating Racism, which measures the level of racism on the Internet. Roughly speaking, this filters racist comments, from which we can create a network map. This then shows, for example, links between parties and/or individuals. We then analyse this data. One finding from this is that there is hardly any response, especially from the angry citizens who spread a lot of hate, meaning they hardly get any answers to their comments. Such an analysis is also being planned with regard to hate against women.

With so much hate, discrimination and racism on the Internet, do we need more technological means to combat it?
Definitely! We see this time and again, especially with regard to victim support centres or the police, who are not yet proficient enough when it comes to social media, often do not recognise the connections and are therefore not in a position to help with such incidents. In order to properly address this problem, people with technical know-how are needed who are familiar with such platforms or, at best, know how to programme them. Unfortunately, the funding for such projects is often lacking or they have to be financed on a private basis..

One of your latest projects has attracted a lot of attention: netzpigcock.ch.
That's right. On netzpigcock.ch, a complaint can be generated within 60 seconds if you have received a dickpic. This saves the hurdle and shame of going to the police station.

How much use is made of this?
After activating the page, 1178 complaints were generated within one month. And these are not cases that have accumulated over a long period of time, but rather recent cases from the last 3 months! We deliberately do not store any data so that users are also protected in the event of a possible hacker attack. But what we do see is how many complaints are generated in which cantons. That’s very exciting. For example, there are many in the cantons of Zurich and Vaud.

That is an astonishing number. On your website, you write that every second woman has already received dickpics.
Yes, that’s the result of a survey. That’s madness. Until now, this was a taboo subject. Nobody talked about it. Now they are fighting back with a complaint – that's great! Actually, the political sphere should now start responding to this...

On netzpigcock.ch, a complaint can be generated within 60 seconds if you have received a dickpic.

Does a complaint lead to the desired result of no longer being insulted or harassed?
If the perpetrator can be identified, yes. Dickpics are a pornography offence and are generally punished with a penalty order. For the perpetrators, this means a monetary fine and, above all, a criminal record. They may even be compelled to appear at the public prosecutor's office to issue a statement. In most cases, this will have an effect and they will stop – or even deactivate their profile.

Is this true in most cases? Have you had any other experiences?
Personally, I have already made complaints that have had the opposite effect – people have become radicalised and developed an obsession and have been stalking me ever since. However, these are people who effectively have a mental health problem. But such people are an absolute exception. Normally, a complaint will have the desired effect.

You are in a very exposed position. Do you have such experiences often?
Yes. I have several stalkers that won't leave me in peace. For example, they always know when I’m going to go somewhere and swamp the organisers with e-mails with slander about me. And yes, of course it's tedious. This can be managed with a standard infomail to the organisers, in which all persons and pseudonyms of these stalkers are listed. These are misogynists who just can't accept what I do and that it is having an impact.

And there is no legal solution to this?
The problem is that stalking itself is not legislated. Something can be done about telephone terrorism, which is handled under "misuse of a telecommunications system" in the law. But there are many gaps in the Internet. If someone writes things about me on their profile or in a comment column, it may be difficult to take legal action against it – especially if people take pains not to cross certain boundaries. However, I still document everything meticulously. After all, they all make mistakes at some point. Sooner or later, they will have to face the consequences.

How do you handle this?
It's often just simply a case of water off a duck's back. But sometimes it's also very stressful. I've already reached the point of asking myself how much longer I can do this. It's not even about me personally, but about me as a woman, a woman who is loud and therefore attracts the anger of these misogynists. I am therefore not the only person affected. There are many others. For me, it's just more extreme.

So hate on the Internet is also a gender issue?
Of course. This cannot be denied. This is not to say that men cannot also face such problems. But with women it's on a completely different scale, on another level. Men are usually not simply reduced to their bodies and attacked on this level. I am talking about rape threats, for example, which I have received almost daily at times. Men are barely exposed to this kind of thing. This is scary and probably not really comprehensible for men.

This is not to say that men cannot also face such problems. But with women it's on a completely different scale, on another level.

Can perpetrators who do such things be converted or stopped at all?
In theory, you would have to take away their Internet and put them in a psychiatric clinic. That would probably be the only way. But we are also not talking about normal people here, but really a small percentage of psychopaths who take out their hatred mainly on women in exposed positions, such as politicians and feminists. These cases would have to be considered and determined as to whether there is a risk potential. Some of these people are certainly capable of anything.

Would it be a solution to make operators of platforms with comment columns or social networks more accountable?
This is an important point. The only problem is that progress on this path has, so far, been very slow. Here, it would be the politicians' duty to push this forward – politiciaons who are often white, older men who are not even aware of this problem and who are also not aware that it is acute. This is a fundamental problem. In addition, the operators of such platforms as Facebook cannot be held accountable at present. If they are not domiciled in Switzerland, the laws here do not apply to them either.

But at least to some extent has the problem also reached the political arena?
More and more. But unfortunately, there are still parties that are opposed to this issue. People think hate is a political thing. But hate has no political colour. Some people have not yet understood this. That is why I am still being fought there. But in the meantime, my concerns are being heard beyond the centre and the message has gotten through.

What are the next projects in the pipeline at #NetzCourage?
There are several currently, including the '#NetzHeldinnen’ [net heroines] project, where we are looking for volunteers to help us make safeguards in hidden forums and counter-speeches. At '#NetzBildung' [net education] we are in the process of creating practical teaching materials that deal with the topic of hate in an interactive and low-threshold way and the project '#NetzReport', in which we want to offer assistance to those affected by racism, similar to netzpigcock.ch, to make a report automatically and without having to publish their own name.

As we have heard, your association offers assistance in many ways and also counsels victims of hate on the Internet individually. Do you have any basic advice on how people affected by hate, discrimination or racism on the Internet can best deal with it and take action against it?
The most important finding is that you must not take it personally. Most of the time, you are simply a projection surface at that moment. Actually, the perpetrators themselves have a problem, namely that they have to hate. If you manage to become aware of this fact, you can already absorb a lot and deal with it better. And then I advise you to take screenshots of the incident immediately. After that, you have to decide for yourself whether it is better to come to terms with it by taking some time and going for a walk, for example, or whether you want to organise counter-speech or seek support. I often do it by taking over a data subject's account for 24 hours, cleaning it up, blocking people and then returning it. Doing this yourself can be retraumatising.

About Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin

Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin is a journalist and former politician. She sat on the Cantonal Council of Zug for the Green Party from 2014 to 2016. An incident in 2014 brought her to national attention and put her in the media spotlight in an unflattering way. She is still taking legal action against some of this reporting today. Since then, Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin has been working as a net activist and is also fighting for others who are being wronged. With her association #NetzCourage, she is always coming up with new ideas and projects to combat hate, discrimination and violence on the Internet. In 2021, she was awarded the Ida Somazzi Prize.


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