How to deal with passive aggression online

Written by Catherine A. Shoichet, CNN Germany, Written by Alice McLean, CNN, CNN As Germany marks the 50th anniversary of the coming of the Berlin Wall in 2017, a pilot program is trying to

Written by Catherine A. Shoichet, CNN Germany, Written by Alice McLean, CNN, CNN

As Germany marks the 50th anniversary of the coming of the Berlin Wall in 2017, a pilot program is trying to prevent violent interactions online through use of passive electronic tools rather than active punishments.

At a conference in May in Berlin, active abusers were electronically warned that they were a risk, but passive abusers were warned that it might be easier to avoid them. Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, says he hopes to expand the program, which was conducted in a suburb of Berlin.

In recent years, more and more hate speech is posted online, making comments on social media like Twitter, YouTube and Reddit as direct communications. According to early findings, this program, called ONR Data Line, cut hate speech in Germany by more than 20%.

Inspired by other programs that deal with aggression offline, ONR Data Line centers on passive steps — such as saying nothing — rather than punishment in cyberspace. Active steps — or active interventions — are more aggressive options to deal with the person’s behavior.

Slogans such as “Hitler wouldn’t have won a third term” can be made on Facebook, through comments left by users, in a small number of cases. Seehofer says this kind of “wordplay” is dangerous, and cites the use of the phrase “wet nose” to describe refugees, as examples of hate speech that must be called out.

Given Germany’s Catholic, former “Gestapo” history, Seehofer thinks explicit punishments aren’t possible for online abuse, and that social media companies must accept more responsibility for their role in online hate speech. He said, “We must find a framework where the tech companies cooperate and defend freedom, but at the same time give a clear idea where there are red lines.”

Goel Sleight, of Delft University of Technology, the coordinator of a project that ran Facebook Live during the conference, explained that passive steps are easy for people to adapt to, because they’re less threatening than open aggression. They can use microphones, cameras or keyboards to ignore a particular comment. Passive abuse, he said, decreases the “opportunity for other voices to be heard.”

When passive attacks are active

On a scientific level, passive abuse is one of many forms of intimidation; they usually do not constitute physical attacks. While passive harassment does not receive more attention than direct harassment, it is less visible, less emotionally charged and, according to studies, often more effective. In one study, passive abuse became so convincing that it was as effective as an actual physical assault in making victims think the target of the attack would get hurt.

In the YouTube series “Troll of New York,” which covered Facebook live during the conference, one lecturer tried to insult another man by calling him a “Jungle.” Instead of turning away, the man did his best to ignore the slur. After shouting out another jibe, he told his attacker that he was hitting him “by accident,” but actually committed the violent act.

“It is a different level of abuse than what we see in the real world, and it is harder to control,” said Sleight. The secret, he said, is “so much resistance comes in quiet instead of loud.”

To reduce passive abuse, Seehofer said, people should learn that it is so devastating to the person targeted that it is better to move on. “I think we are not paying sufficient attention to this reality. We know we have to protect victims. However, it’s also important to work on the perpetrators.”

Signs of passive abuse

A country of 1.3 million people, Germany holds the distinction of being home to “the world’s most frequent victim” of passive abuse, according to a 2010 study of young people around the world.

Sleight acknowledged that the ONR Data Line program is not as comprehensive as what was seen at the conference: “We also don’t have the full picture, but active intervention is a critical component that we know we must have.”

This will take years to reach a good solution in online abuse, but there are several ways that people can learn to cope with it. In the Amstetten area of Germany, Seehofer is establishing a safe environment for young men and boys to practice conflict resolution. One of the best strategies for self-defense, he says, is to show confidence in one’s abilities.

Sleight emphasizes that passive abuse is about power. “Sometimes passive abuse is underhanded, where it’s done under someone’s nose or under a present misunderstanding … The aim is not to physically beat someone, but rather to win control.”

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