Anna-Lena von Hodenberg

Ashoka Fellow
Anna-Lena von Hodenberg
Germany
Fellow since 2022
This description of Anna-Lena von Hodenberg's work was prepared when Anna-Lena von Hodenberg was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.

Introduction

Anna-Lena is leading the way to safeguard and strengthen an open and inclusive public discourse in the evolving digital society, at a moment where the spread of hate speech, cyber-violence and misinformation threatens to undermine democratic values, social cohesion, and peace. She offers a blueprint for tackling digital violence in a way which empowers citizens to actively defend and reclaim civil democratic spaces in the digital sphere, protects and promotes their fundamental rights online, and puts the burden of proof on the law enforcement systems, not the victims.

The New Idea

Anna-Lena is combatting the widespread and rising problem of hate speech and hate crimes on the internet.
While many see the problem of online hatred attacks in the individual offenses of the victims, Anna-Lena shapes an understanding that its harmful effects go much deeper: it poses an existential threat to an open political discourse and ultimately to a democratically functioning society by systematically silencing and discouraging specific groups from participating in public debates online.

Understanding that open, unfettered dialogue can only happen if people are able to effectively protect themselves from online attacks, Anna-Lena has developed the first national scale support infrastructure for victims of digital violence. With her organization HateAid, she aims to relieve the burden of the victims of attacks, enforce their rights, deter the perpetrators, and overall strengthen our democracy and society.
First, where victims of online hate crimes have lacked avenues of resources and have often been neglected by law enforcement and police, Anna-Lena empowers them to speak out and seek justice to hold perpetrators of hate crimes accountable. By bringing forth these powerful stories illustrating the serious and widespread impact of online hate speech, HateAid builds public awareness with the aim to strengthen online civil courage. From multimedia education campaigns, open-source practical toolkits to an app allowing users to directly report cases of hate mongering online - HateAid develops manifold mechanisms that empowers everyone in society to recognize, reject and stand against hate, intolerance and violence on the internet, whether they are victims or bystanders.

Ultimately, Anna-Lena is working towards institutionalizing an effective response to online hate crimes into national and European legislation and judiciary systems. In Germany, this work is already picking up speed: By working with police and law enforcement departments, Anna-Lena has successfully changed prosecution practices of digital violence throughout the country. At a policy-level, she has been able to build strong presence with German and European Union decision-makers, pushing the national and international agenda for human rights protection online.

The Problem

In recent years Europe has witnessed a significant increase of right-wing extremists, nationalist and populist attitudes. Their effects are not solely restricted to hostile rhetoric, instead, they turn into actual crimes against groups and individuals. This effect can escalate rapidly when hostile rhetoric reaches a large audience by means of digital media dissemination. In 2019, the German politician Walter Lübcke was shot dead in front of his house after he had been publicly threatened on social media as a result of his pro-refugee stance. German prosecution authorities found a causal relationship between the public incitement in right-wing online forums to commit crimes targeting specifically Lübcke and the murder. A study conducted on the effects of online hate, found a correlation between anti-refugee Facebook posts by the far-right Alternative for Germany party and attacks on refugees.

The circulation of hate speech online therefore constitutes a social emergency with profound consequences beyond the individuals targeted. For instance, during the 2017 German election, there were coordinated efforts to promote racist, nativist and anti-immigrant content on social media. There have also been widespread efforts to promote anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQI, misogynist and anti-Muslim hatred. Targeted groups often experience permanent damage to their self-esteem and sense of belonging within their societies, thereby increasing their marginalization. Online hate thus constitutes a fertile ground for even more hate, in that it desensitizes the public to verbal violence and increases prejudices.

Particularly radical and political fringe groups have increasingly combined to achieve their aims with the aid of coordinated troll, hate and disinformation campaigns on social media. German government studies find that some 75 % of all online hate speech originates on the right side of the political spectrum. The aim of these activities is to deliberately distort public perception and hijack online discussions. Politicians, journalists and civil society activists are becoming prime target for these individual threats and intimidation. As a result, these individuals often refrain from the public conversations as they no longer have the courage to express their opinions due to a fear of hateful reactions. Thereby critical voices and viewpoints for countering hateful ideologies are frightened away from public debates. According to a 2019 Eurobarometer survey, 80 % of people who follow or participate in online debates had witnessed or experienced abuse, threat or hate speech. Over half of them said that this discouraged them from engaging in online discussions. Aside from excluding and silencing dissent voices from public debates, the narrowing of viewpoint diversity contributes to polarization by facilitating a distorted picture of the climate of opinion.

Despite the urgency of the issue, the majority of online hate crimes perpetrated in Germany and the European Union remain unreported, unprosecuted, and therefore invisible. One reason is that victims are often reluctant to report their experience to the police due to a lack of awareness of their rights and confidence in the availability of targeted support services. Police and law enforcement agencies are not adequately trained to recognize incidents of hate crimes, handle them appropriately and provide victims with efficient support. Moreover, even in cases where victims would like to press legal charges, the associated legal costs often discourage them to do so. Victim’s underreporting significantly impairs the criminal justice systems response to online hate crime, as this allows offenders to go unpunished. This impunity undermines the effectiveness and credibility of the criminal justice system, particularly when its failure to react to offences becomes systematic and known to the public.

Despite the fairly robust protection afforded to both the right to freedom of expression and equality by German law, the existing legal framework on ‘hate speech’ does not fully comply with international human rights standards. German criminal law does not offer guidance or a threshold test to assist in the assessment of ‘hate speech’ cases, while civil law remedies are insufficient to provide redress to victims of such crimes. Instead, Germany tightened its rules to hold social media platforms accountable. In 2017, the government passed a controversial law that compels social media companies to remove hate speech and other illegal content within 24 hours. The law has been criticized for misleading social media platforms to censor on the government’s behalf. Moreover, the deletion of content cannot replace the effective investigation of criminal offenses and the prosecution of the offenders through governmental authorities.

To define the social rules of a new, dynamic communication environment and counter the harmful silencing effect of online hate speech, publicly accessible remedies must be in place to empower citizens to report such crimes and speak out against them, and a new understanding of the risks and dangers it poses to democracy.

The Strategy

Anna-Lena’s strategy has three pillars: At the individual level, she enables victims of online violence to report crimes and speak out against them. At the law enforcement level, she trains police and legal enforcement departments in the identification and handling of hate crimes. At the policy level, Anna-Lena is advocating for the implementation of effective legislative measures for the protection against hate speech and hate crime. Each pillar is critical for creating lasting change.

Without the successful prosecution and conviction of hate crime offenders in the digital realm, perception and awareness of the seriousness of the threat will not change. This requires cases pressed by empowered victims that generate momentum for broader judicial reform. Anna-Lena thus established the first counselling and support service for victims of online violence and hate speech in Germany enabling them to report crimes and seek legal action against their perpetrators, support that is lacking throughout the criminal justice system. For anyone threatened or subjected to digital hate, HateAid provides a free of charge emergency support service where affected people receive practical help and emotional support in person, via phone, e-mail or an app. Thanks to these easily accessible, safe, and specialized support mechanism victims learn about their rights for legal redress and are enabled to report the crimes and file complaints to the relevant authorities. To encourage victims to come forth, HateAid also established a financial support mechanism that covers all costs for legal proceedings, including costs for legal advice and representation. In cases of successful proceedings, applicants contribute the amount of their monetary compensation for financing future lawsuits. Anna-Lena works with a network of 20 specialized lawyers that represent victims before the court. To date, HateAid has supported more than 1600 victims of online violence of which 170 initiated civil action. Having started with the first cases in 2019, Anna-Lena has rapidly picked up speed and managed to land prominent cases that have generated a lot of public attention. One of these is the high-profile case of a Green parliamentarian Renate Künast, a former national minister and one of Germany’s most prominent politicians, who with the help of HateAid successfully filed a motion against Facebook to release identities of the people behind 22 particularly hateful messages so that she could press charges. This case has been taken to Germany’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court and provoked huge media coverage and public debate around cyberhate and security. Another case example supported by HateAid is that of the figurehead of Fridays for Future in Germany, Luisa Neubauer, who won a court case regarding hateful comments she received online. HateAid uses these exemplary cases of public figures in advocacy campaigns as popular showcases of the way digital mass hate is used as political strategy to silence dissenting voices. One direct outcome of these cases was a policy reform of the German Network Enforcement act to strengthen the rights of internet users. While under previous law social networks where obliged to only delete potentially criminal content, platform providers are now obliged to report these cases to the Federal Criminal Police Office.
Moreover, these prominent cases provide huge momentum for widening public awareness of the ways to fight back against hate speech and file criminal charges in such cases. Publicly showing that online hate speech is a criminal act that will be prosecuted sends strong signals towards perpetrators and serves to deter potential and repeat offenders. Most importantly, Anna-Lena activates bystanders to take a stand in solidarity with victims of hate speech, enabling them to identify inappropriate situations and react appropriately by reporting incidents through HateAids reporting platform.

These individual cases provide powerful levers for Anna-Lena to create awareness among police and law enforcement departments, as well as policymakers, and to change justice procedures to combat hate speech. She is training law enforcement agencies on the implementation of specialized prosecution services to build the capacity within state agencies to build effective enforcement mechanisms. As a result of the cooperation with HateAid, public prosecution offices in Berlin, Hamburg and Saxony have established own reporting platforms for online hate incidents. Anna-Lena is also holding regular workshops with police departments designed to improve police skills in recognizing, understanding and investigating incidents of online violence.
In order to bring about changes in the criminal justice system, Anna-Lena is educating policymakers on protection gaps and necessary mechanism to counter the threats of dangerous and destabilizing hate speech. Rather than donning the mantel of an activist, Anna-Lena is adopting an inclusive and collaborative approach, engaging with relevant representatives in the German parliament, across the whole political spectrum (except the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany AFD). As the phenomena of hate speech transcends political divisions, she believes that it is indispensable to have all democratic parties on board. This attitude enables her to build powerful relationship and partnership to party leaders across Germany who all approach her for her expertise and consultancy. The Hessian Ministry of Justice serves as a blueprint for this approach. Here, Anna-Lena has successfully championed the inclusion of a separate section on a program for combatting hate comments on the internet in the coalition agreement, the first time ever that a federal state introduced such a clause. One concrete outcome of already implemented measures includes the establishment of a specialized public prosecutor's unit for online hate crime as well as a new department in the Central Office for Combating Internet and Computer Crime (ZIT) that introduced the first public reporting platform for online hate speech. This lighthouse project has already inspired 4 other federal states to follow suit.
HateAid is a key partner to ZIT: All reports received by HateAid on unknown perpetrators are automatically forwarded to the reporting platform where they are directly processed for criminal prosecution. This has already led to 364 criminal investigations by the federal state of Hesse and the identification of 121 prosecutors. Finally, Anna-Lena is co-initiator of a cross-sector coalition between the State Ministry of Justice in Hesse and several civil society organizations, including HateAid, who organize various campaigns and actions, including the launch of an app for reporting digital violence, under the motto #KeineMachtdemHass (#nopowertohate). The app has direct link to HateAid victim counseling.

As she realizes that legislation is a central lever for achieving the systems change, she strives for, Anna-Lena is now scaling her work to Brussels to directly shape and closely monitor the implementation of the Digital Service Act – an effort to create European-wide rules to address online hate speech. She is establishing a policy and advocacy branch of HateAid which will be one of the few organizations representing a civil society position on the topic of online hate crimes. Building on the expertise from accompanying national policy reform, HateAid is already a central point of contact with other civil society organizations and EU institutions.
In the long run, Anna-Lena wishes to institutionalize the HateAid counselling and support service for victims of online hate speech into the existing support structures in Germany for victims of “offline” hate crimes.
She is planning on developing a train-the-trainer model to educate these centers in relation to online hate crimes. Strengthening ties with social media platforms will also be crucial for leveraging Anna-Lena’s success in combatting hate speech online. Cooperation has already happened occasional, for example, through organizing events that bring together policymakers, civil society and social media platforms, however in the future Anna-Lena aims to systematically target and involve this key stakeholder in her work going forward.
Due to her deep expertise and special standing in the political landscape, Anna-Lena has been appointed as a member of the independent expert commission concerning the misconduct of the police together with a number of renowned experts in Germany.

The Person

Since her childhood Anna Lena’s actions have been determined by the belief that society and every individual in it must step up against the resurgence of any intolerant, violent, racist, or xenophobic ideologies and the damages they cause to democracy and social cohesion. Growing up in a social and family atmosphere that was marked by political consciousness about the Nazi crimes and inspired by global peace movements governed her childhood. From her early youth, political conscience and non-violent peace action formed an integral part of her everyday life. Participation in peaceful protests or listening to feminist discussions constituted an essential part of her childhood and early youth. Her mindset of feeling responsible to society was further strengthened by watching her mother’s patriarchal, aristocratic family of origin suppress strong women with their own opinions and exclude them from the family circle. Living and studying in South Africa and Argentina for several years confronted her directly with the pernicious reality of oppression, racial discrimination and injustices that impede social cohesion on a daily basis. The rest of her student years were marked by a conscious politicization: she co-founded and co-led the press office of one of the biggest students strikes against the introduction of general tuition fees in Germany and was at the forefront of Germany-wide communications, protests and occupations of party headquarters. However, it quickly became clear to Anna-Lena that pure protest does not lead to desired change.
During her career as a television journalist, she was actively seeking for opportunities to establish more projects on investigative journalism yet was not allowed her to take a clear position when she saw fit. In 2015, when the refugee influx catapulted xenophobic attitudes in German society, she quit the job as she felt hold back from taking an active stand against the emergence of anti-democratic forces in German society. As a political campaigner for one of Germany’s leading anti-racism campaign organizations she was deploying creative tactics for activating and leveraging group power as they counter these threats but realized that fighting the phenomenon of extremism and right-wing populism needed a longer-term strategy.

That’s when the idea of HateAid as a counter-mechanism for hate speech online took shape. Anna-Lena is convinced that internet platforms, in particular social media, is breeding ground for the uncontrolled spread of extremist, racist, antidemocratic attitudes and ideologically motivated violence. Her vision is to reclaim the internet as a secure empowering space for public debates and public discussion, the fundamentals of a pluralistic and diverse society.
Since founding the organization, Anna-Lena has been investing a lot of time and passion in the development of HateAid and institutionalizing it. In only 3 years, she has grown the organization to 41 employees and raises and oversees funds of more than 3.5 million euros for their annual budget. In Germany, she is a recognized expert in the field of digital violence and approached by high-ranking policymakers, journalists and academia for her unique insights and advices.