Anna-Lena von Hodenberg
Fellow project website: www.hateaid.org/spenden/
Recognizing that a growing pattern of hate-filled online attacks on those who speak out makes them withdraw and weakens democracy and civility, AnnaLena’s HateAid brings both perpetrators and digital platforms to account.
THE NEW IDEA
Anna-Lena von Hodenberg developed the first national-scale infrastructure to support and empower people to stand up to online attacks, seek redress, and hold perpetrators accountable. A former broadcast journalist, she co-founded and leads HateAid, based in Berlin, to support victims of digital violence and empower them to reclaim their rights and the digital space.
“For me, digital violence is the greatest threat to our democracy,” Anna-Lena says. Her answer to it goes far beyond the standard procedures of blocking unwanted contacts and reporting attacks to tech companies, which hasn’t prevented digital violence from exploding. She founded HateAid, which empowers users to stand up against digital violence, and is changing laws, law enforcement and jurisprudence, shifting norms toward holding perpetrators and tech companies accountable.
Today, HateAid supports around 200 people per month. It is important to [von Hodenberg] to emphasize that hatred does not only affect individuals. “It always has a dimension that endangers democracy (English translation) - FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU
HateAid responds to attacks by providing victims counseling to process their trauma and technical support to protect them and their data. And it works proactively to stop attacks, holding perpetrators accountable through law enforcement, providing clients with free legal representation and helping them press their cases. So far HateAid has helped 2200 victims, including hundreds who took legal action against their attackers.
It also raises public awareness to build a positive online culture of solidarity and civil courage where users actively support each other instead of passively tolerating or ignoring digital violence against others.
Anna-Lena and HateAid have been highly effective in changing laws, regulations, and tech company practices. Her work was instrumental in reforming German laws so that perpetrators of digital violence could be identified and prosecuted, and in framing the European Union’s new Digital Services Act, which holds online platforms to a new level of accountability for illegal content.
The term “digital violence” was coined by Anna-Lena and the HateAid team to distinguish it from “hate speech.” Like other forms of hate speech, digital violence includes racism, sexism, ableism, insults, defamation, and threats. But it also extends to anonymous perpetrators installing spyware on phones, weaponizing pornography to intimidate and encourage attacks, “doxing” or publishing a target’s private information and home address, and “brigading” or flooding victims with so much abusive and illegal content that it’s impossible to push back.
Such attacks are increasingly widespread and disrupt and traumatize many individuals. But they also disrupt society and democracy. They deter civic engagement and punish public servants, journalists, activists, and others for speaking out. They pressure them to self-censor, target them for non-virtual attacks, and seek to drive them from the digital space altogether. This turns what should be the key locus of civic engagement into a lawless, unsafe, untrustworthy place ruled by bad actors.
Increasingly, digital violence isn’t exceptional; it’s endemic, part of an emerging, toxic norm. Some groups are more targeted than others. 80% of online hate messages are directed at women. Anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBTQI online content is rampant and growing. But it’s not only certain groups that are victimized. All segments of society are affected.
A 2019 Eurobarometer survey found 80% percent of all those who follow or participate in online debates have witnessed or experienced abuse, threats, or hate speech. Over half said that this discouraged them from engaging in online discussions in the future.
HateAid surveyed a cohort of 2000 citizens of three EU countries and found that two-thirds had witnessed hate and incitement on the internet, including over 90% of young adults 18 to 35. Across all age groups, 30% of men and 27.5% of women reported they were personally affected by online hate. Half of young adults reported this. Over 80% of respondents said Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms don’t do enough to protect users from digital violence.
This has serious consequences online, including loss of freedom and self-censorship. Many are deterred from saying what they think or taking a stand. 52% of women and 43% men of said they express their opinion less because of online hate. 43% of women and 35% of men said that they are generally more cautious and anonymous on social media for fear of attacks.
Digital violence planned and carried out by extremist groups has destabilizing real-world effects. In Germany attacks against local and national politicians, journalists, and women are on the rise. Germany had long been one of the safest places for journalists according to Reporters Without Borders, but its ranking slipped recently because of online and offline hate.
“Online attackers target pillars of society like politicians and journalists deliberately,” says Anna-Lena, a former broadcast journalist herself. “There’s a certain framing that goes with this: fake news, you can’t trust the media, elite politicians lie to you. When they are attacked, key voices, even journalists and politicians, withdraw from digital spaces. Then who contradicts the false news and smear campaigns?”
HateAid works with elected officials across the country and has found that 90% of mayors in Germany have thought of leaving their jobs because of online and offline violence.
Because he defended Angela Merkel’s pro-refugee stance, Walter Lübcke, a regional politician in Germany’s conservative party, had been the target of virulent online attacks since 2015, including numerous death threats. His name appeared on a neo-Nazi hit list. His private address was published on a far-right blog. In June 2019, he was shot and killed in front of his home by an attacker with a violent neo-Nazi past. It was the first far-right political assassination since the Nazi era and a shocking demonstration of how extremist digital violence translates into real-world violence. Prosecutors in the case found a causal relationship between the murder and incitement to violence on right-wing online forums.
With limited resources, authorities only prosecute a fraction of posts considered illegal speech, often because the person behind it cannot be quickly identified…. “People withdraw from debate more and more and don’t dare to express their political opinion,” said Josephine Ballon, legal director at HateAid, a nonprofit in Berlin that provides legal aid for victims of online abuse. “Too many cases are abandoned." - THE NEW YORK TIMES
Despite the salience and urgency of the issue, most online hate crimes in the European Union go unreported and unprosecuted. Reporting them to the platform might get a post removed or occasionally an account suspended, but it doesn’t stop the deluge of attacks and illegal content.
Due to free speech concerns, laws, regulations, and enforcement restraining digital violence have long been weak and inadequate, though in Germany this is starting to change. But since victims are usually unaware of their legal rights, intimidated, and/or overwhelmed by the number of attacks, only a small fraction of them gets reported to the police, even in Germany. In rare cases where victims want to press charges, legal costs are often prohibitive.
It’s a cascading, systemic failure. But Anna-Lena and her team are turning it around.
Anna-Lena’s organization HateAid is the first support service for victims of digital violence in Germany. It helps them recover their agency, empowering them to report online crimes and take legal action.
The service is totally free and completely digital, offering online consultations three days a week aided by social workers and psychologists specialized in counseling people traumatized by digital violence. It also offers online digital security experts who provide technical support, conduct privacy checks and work out a comprehensive strategy with clients to unwind the lingering impacts of online attacks. It includes advising on whether and how to respond, managing passwords and social media profiles, and conducting deep Google searches to find and remove posts that are fake, illegal, abusive, or invasive of privacy.
Often the only way to document digital violence is by taking a screenshot of the offending post before it’s taken down. But with practices such as brigading designed to overwhelm targets with the sheer quantity of attacks (one HateAid client received 4000 abusive messages in 14 days), this can be a full-time job beyond most people’s capability, so Anna-Lena’s team does it as a service to clients.
Armed with documentation, HateAid clients are connected to legal representation and encouraged to press charges in criminal or civil court. The organization works with prosecutors to file charges and draws on a network of specialized lawyers who advise clients and represent them in court. Clients are not charged for these services, removing the cost barrier that would otherwise prevent victims from seeking legal redress. Instead, HateAid finances the legal fees partly with the damages awarded to clients who prevail in civil suits. To date, HateAid has helped 2200 victims, including several hundred that took legal action against their attackers. Last year alone, it served 969 clients, funded 16 civil suits, and supported the filing of 255 criminal charges.
HateAid works with lawyers who take civil legal action against those who post hate comments. The initiative…is financed in the long term by the damage claims that have been won, as well as by donations. - DER SPIEGEL
“With every victim, the goal is to give them their agency back and keep them online, to have them not withdraw from digital space,” says Anna-Lena. “We can’t lose them! We give them the support they need to feel they can go back in, even if they withdraw temporarily. We make them feel safe and more in control of their digital environment, and we enable them to go against perpetrators in court and get justice. The combination works very well to keep people online. Although most know they will likely be attacked again, they are better prepared. And they know it’s possible to get justice. So, they stay online and start claiming their rights.” She estimates about 80% of HateAid clients don’t stop engaging the digital space, with another 10% leaving for a few months before coming back. In fact, many HateAid clients do more than just stay in the digital space; they become digital change agents by staying visible online and telling their stories. Politicians, journalists, and prominent activists are often targeted because of their visibility and influence, but the fact they have online followings cuts two ways. It also positions them to push back powerfully against digital violence and inspire others to do the same.
One well-known example is Renate Künast, a former national minister and one of Germany’s leading politicians. She was targeted on Facebook (now known as Meta) with an image-text post containing an offensive fake quote that became a widespread meme, accompanied by a flood of virulent personal insults and misogynist content. Künast tried in vain for many years to get Facebook to delete the posts, but the company didn’t intervene. Künast sought HateAid’s help, and together they took Facebook to court, and after setbacks in the lower courts, pursued appeals all the way to the highest court in Germany. It required Facebook to find and delete the posts, and to hire a sufficient content moderation team to do it, without relying on automated upload filters. The court also awarded Künast damages for personal suffering.
The ruling established a new precedent that all politicians have personality rights, so courts must review their cases accordingly.
“You cannot believe how big a relief this was and how big a response we had,” Anna-Lena said. “The court said there is a limit to what kind of criticism politicians must endure. That’s important because if they must put up with digital hate as part of the job, people won’t do this job. But now other politicians know that they can seek justice.”
Another example of a prominent HateAid client whose case inspired others is Luisa Neubauer, a German climate activist who is one of the main organizers of FridaysForFuture. FFF is a powerful, youth-led and – organized movement of high school and university students demanding climate action.
Neubauer was targeted by right-wing extremists and flooded with sexist and misogynist content. Attackers tried to hijack her social media accounts to send fake messages, dox her, and publish her home address. She sought HateAid’s help, and together they sued an attacker, winning a $6,307 USD judgment. When he refused to pay, his account was frozen, and the money was taken from him. A smart, outspoken young woman with a large online following, Neubauer celebrated her victory on social media, setting a powerful example for others.
“Her case was widely publicized via traditional as well as social media,” said Anna-Lena. “It’s important to have people like Luisa at the forefront of being outspoken about digital violence. That way, you reach so many more people.” One ramification of these court victories has been national policy reform. Germany’s Network Enforcement Act previously allowed platform owners to withhold the identities of the authors of offending posts, even if a court ruled the posts were illegal, making prosecution impossible. Anna-Lena and her team kept arguing against this in court, in legislative hearings, and in numerous meetings with policymakers, until the law was changed.
The case of Künast is not an isolated one, stresses HateAid managing director AnnaLena von Hodenberg. Local politicians, journalists and activists are particularly affected by defamation campaigns, hate speech and violence on the Internet – the majority of them women. They are people who are committed to democratic values, the rule of law, climate protection, equality or ending racism. - DER TAGESSPIEGEL
“Before, digital rape threats were not illegal in Germany; now they are,” she said. “Social media companies are now required to reveal the identity of users posting content that is ruled illegal.” Companies are also required to report such cases to the Federal Criminal Police Office. Identifying and reporting them clears the way to prosecuting them.
Building on its success in Germany, HateAid established a policy and advocacy branch in Brussels which participated in negotiating the EU Digital Services Act, agreed upon in April 2022. The DSA holds online platforms across the European Union to a new level of accountability for illegal or harmful content.
Beyond accountability for perpetrating or enabling digital violence, Anna-Lena is working to build a positive, proactive culture of solidarity among online bystanders who witness it. “We have statistics showing many people witness digital violence against others, but how many report it, call the police, or try to help the victim?” Anna-Lena asks. “When people know they can literally call the police, things change. You can now send law enforcement a link with something that looks illegal. You can press charges anonymously. You can also send victims supportive messages. We call this digital civil courage.”
It’s a mindset shift and a new norm Anna-Lena is working to establish. She is expanding options for bystanders to stand up against digital violence, including through HateAid’s online reporting platform. She is also working with law enforcement to establish their own platforms.
As a result of HateAid’s work with them, public prosecutors’ offices in Berlin, Hamburg, and Saxony now have their own online reporting platforms. The Hessian Ministry of Justice established a specialized public prosecutor unit on digital violence and a new department in the Central Office for Combating Internet and Computer Crime (ZIT). Four other German states are following suit. Many hundreds of prosecutions have resulted.
HateAid convenes digital violence fora with policymakers, civil society organizations, and tech companies. Anna-Lena is working to strengthen collaboration with social media platforms in particular as key partners in changing digital culture, ending digital violence and strengthening civil courage.
Anna-Lena believes achieving these goals is pivotal for the future of democracy. “The digital civic space counts as much – and maybe with covid even more – than the analog civic space,” she said. “This hasn’t fully sunk into society – – yet. But we are working on it.”
Anna-Lena grew up in a politically active German family during the 1980s. Her mother and father were part of “generation ‘68,” in which students questioned their parents’ generation’s role in Nazism. “My mother and father became politicized during that time,” she said. “That was extremely important in my family. We were taught not to look away and to do everything possible to ensure that nothing like Nazism ever happens again in society.” As a child, she was inspired by peace movements and took part in demonstrations.
She also grew up with an awareness of gender inequality. Her mother came from an old aristocratic family from Lower Saxony. Because she passed the family name of von Hodenberg to her husband and children, the rest of the von Hodenbergs excluded and ostracized them. “But by passing her name to us, my mother only did what men do routinely,” Anna-Lena said. “It was part of ‘68 spirit and standing up for democratic rights. I saw her as brave.”
As a student, Anna-Lena lived in South Africa and Argentina, where she witnessed the consequences of oppression, discrimination, and injustice on a daily basis. At university, she founded and led the press office during a major student strike protesting the advent of general tuition fees in Germany. It became clear to her that protest alone is unlikely to lead to social change.
On graduating, she became a television journalist, working with major networks. But in 2015, when the Syrian refugee influx triggered the rise of xenophobic attitudes across Germany, she left journalism to become a political campaigner for one of Germany’s leading anti-racism organizations. It found and leveraged opportunities to influence legislation to help counter rising right-wing extremism.
Ashoka social entrepreneur AnnaLena von Hodenberg — founder of HateAid — had a precedentsetting win of her own: a German court ruled that Facebook (now known as Meta) is accountable for removing “identical and core similar” illegal hate speech from their platform once detected. - FORBES
That work showed Anna-Lena the dimensions of the extremist threat, but it also made her realize the limitations of the legislative approach. “A legislative strategy to achieve fewer bad laws wasn’t enough,” Anna-Lena said. “The new threat of organized hate came from social media, so we needed a holistic approach to understand and propose solutions – not only legislative change, but changes in how social media platforms were regulated. The whole field was blank then, the mechanism of online hate wasn’t even fully understood. That’s why we founded HateAid.”
Today Anna-Lena is a recognized pioneer and expert in the field of countering digital violence. Policymakers seek her advice, and she was appointed to an expert commission on police misconduct.