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Digital violence

Definition and differentiation

Digital violence is a collective term for the use of digital technologies to unlawfully attack other people and put them under pressure. The term covers very heterogeneous phenomena. It covers hate and hate speech in social media as well as image-based defamation through the unauthorised dissemination of intimate images or their coarsening through deepfakes, unsolicited confrontation with pornography, the digital dissemination of falsehoods, stalking and threats. The legal interests under attack vary; honour and the social claim to validity, the general right of personality and the equality of those affected play a prominent role at the individual level and public peace at the social level. The freedom to form and express opinions is always under attack: those affected are to be degraded, humiliated and “silenced”. The digital technologies used can also be very different; smartphones, messengers and emails can be used in the same way as social media and networked gaming worlds. Digital violence can be limited to individual cases, but it can also occur repeatedly, systematically and cumulatively as a result of filter bubbles and echo chamber effects; in the latter case, the phenomenon of the shitstorm comes to mind.

There are several basic types of digital violence. For example, digital violence can result from an individual conflict between two people who are or have been in a close relationship; one example of this is ex-partner stalking through the use of electronic communication channels. However, digital violence can also be directed against people with whom there is no personal relationship, but who are met with rejection and hatred. These may be members of disadvantaged minorities who are rejected for racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, gender-specific or anti-sexual orientation reasons, but they may also be elected officials or celebrities who are rejected for political reasons, envy or resentment. This second type of digital violence has a social significance that goes beyond the individual conflict: the people targeted are usually attacked as part of a group that is denied equality and equal value. Incidentally, not only individuals can be targeted, but also institutions, organisations and companies that attract rejection and hatred.

Digital violence is not a legal term. There are no laws that use the term to attach legal consequences to it. There are criminal laws that recognise the concept of violence; the offence of coercion(Section 240 StGB) is an example of this. In these laws, however, violence is always to be understood as physical violence that is caused by the deployment of physical force or by a physical impact of any other kind. Digital violence, on the other hand, works on an emotional and cognitive level via the explicit or coded messages that are transmitted with the act. The messages should express an imbalance of power; they should emphasise the power of the sender to act and the powerlessness of the person addressed. It should become clear that those affected are not recognised as equals. Those affected should be marginalised. They should feel discomfort and fear and behave according to the position assigned to them.

History

The concept of digital violence originates from civil society, which has been campaigning against digital violence since the end of the 2010s. Counselling centres such as HateAid play an important role in spreading knowledge about the phenomenon.

The phenomenon first attracted wider attention in 2019 when Alliance 90/The Greens politician Renate Künast, with the support of HateAid, took legal action against a social media platform for spreading hate comments. After the lower courts had initially rejected the claim for information about the inventory data of an account in whole or in part, Künast was successful two years later before the Federal Constitutional Court (BVerfG, decision of the 2nd Chamber of the First Senate of 19 December 2021 – 1 BvR 1073/20).

In April 2023, the Federal Ministry of Justice presented a key issues paper in which the concept of digital violence was made the starting point for legal regulations for the first time. A law against digital violence is planned, which is intended to strengthen the legal options for taking effective action against this and, among other things, for blocking accounts.

Application and examples

Digital violence occurs in various forms. In quantitative terms, hate speech and incitement to hatred spread online are the most significant. The Federal Criminal Police Office refers to hate postings when there are indications from the statement that it is directed against a person or a group because of their political stance, attitude, ethnicity, skin colour, sexual orientation, physical appearance or similar characteristics that could lead to discrimination. There is no separate criminal offence for these hate postings. However, they can constitute the offences of insult(Section 185 StGB), coercion(Section 240 StGB), threats(Section 241 StGB), incitement to hatred(Section 130 StGB) or other offences and in this case lead to criminal investigations and punishment. Also very common is the unsolicited sending of intimate images or videos (“dickpics”, “nudes”), which constitutes a punishable offence against the ban on confrontation(Section 184 (1) No. 6 StGB). Somewhat rarer are cases in which other people, e.g. former partners, are digitally stalked(Section 238 StGB), in which intimate images or videos are produced or distributed unnoticed and without authorisation (e.g. while sleeping or on the toilet)(Section 201a StGB) or in which people, movements or data are unlawfully spied on and the information obtained is passed on to third parties(Section 202a StGB).

Criticism and problems

On the one hand, criticism of the concept of digital violence is directed at the vagueness of the term. It is feared that it devalues and trivialises the concept of physical violence.[1] On the other hand, criticism is levelled at the fact that the problem is not being taken seriously enough.[2] As an example, reference is made to the key issues paper published by the Federal Ministry of Justice in April 2023: The paper focuses primarily on the area of hate speech and ignores other forms of digital violence; overall, no coherent concept is recognisable.

Research

Given the different forms in which digital violence can occur, it is difficult to summarise its frequency and prevalence. The Federal Criminal Police Office’s Criminal Police Reporting Service for Politically Motivated Crime (KPMD-PMK) provides information on the frequency of one specific form, namely digitally disseminated verbal violence (hate postings). In 2022, 3,396 offences were reported, most of which were classified as incitement to hatred or insults under criminal law. For 2021, only 2,411 offences were reported by the Federal Criminal Police Office, which corresponds to an increase of 40.9 % compared to 2022.[3] The KPMD-PMK figures reflect the special assessment and selection processes that the police go through for offences that come to their attention. In the dark field of crime, which can be illuminated with representative surveys, the frequency figures are significantly higher.

Reference should be made in particular to the report “Security and Crime in Germany”, the nationally representative dark field study by the Federal Criminal Police Office (SKiD 2020). The prevalence rate of people affected by verbal online violence in the last twelve months was 4.4% in 2020, the prevalence rate for the individual offence of “personal insults online” was 4.6% and the individual offence of “threats of violence online” was 1.6%.[4] The figures show that the KPMD-PMK bright field data only represent the tip of the iceberg. Further evaluations of the SKiD 2020 show that the number of multiple victimisations in online offences is strikingly high: those people who stated that they had ever been victims of verbal online violence experienced an average of twelve incidents.

Men were affected more frequently than women; the prevalence rates in the SKiD 2020 were 4.8% and 4.1% respectively, although the difference was not significant.[5] In our own surveys, which only dealt with the topic of digital violence, it was shown that the gender differences are reversed when specifically asked about sexualised verbal violence, e.g. sexist comments or sexualised threats. In this case, women give significantly higher values than men. The way the question is formulated has an influence on the result.[6] Moreover, dark field studies, which are also carried out by the state criminal investigation offices in some federal states, show that the binary comparison of male and female does not exhaust the problem of digital violence: in a survey in Lower Saxony, the highest values for social media offences were given by those people who could not assign themselves to one of the two genders.[7]

Further links and literature