Cyberbullying and hate speech are a pervasive part of modern life, sometimes leading to anxiety, depression and even suicide. In order to fight online bullies with facts, 46-year-old Hannes Ley launched #ichbinhier (#iamhere), a global network working tirelessly to make the web and the world a more tolerant place
If you have a social-media account, then at one point or another you might have been the victim of cyberbullying. From verbal attacks and threats of physical violence to sexual harassment, studies have shown that the majority of us will have faced some form of online bullying, regardless of age, gender or background.
Most recently, British singer Dua Lipa said she’s quit Twitter, leaving the platform in the hands of her management team, telling The Sunday Times: “Online criticism can make you feel like you're not good enough. [Twitter] felt like a breeding ground for hate and stopped me being proud of my achievements.” This toxic relationship between online abuser and victim is all the more difficult to diffuse due to the protective layer of anonymity behind which many tormentors hide.
So, how can we stop virtual vitriol? It’s a question that keeps Hannes Ley up at night. After having heard one too many stories of digital abuse, the Hamburg-based communication consultant — who earlier this year was awarded the prestigious Roland Berger Award for Human Dignity — founded the German branch of anti-hate Facebook initiative #ichbinhier (#iamhere). Today, the group has grown globally, joining a network with hundreds of thousands of members.
Vogue sat down with the activist to talk about what inspired him to tackle online trolls, how to deal with harassment, and about the people working tirelessly to make the internet a kinder place.
What prompted you to launch #ichbinhier in 2016?
“It was a crappy year, 2016. Trump was voted president, people voted for Brexit. The general mood was low, and social media, more than ever, became a breeding ground for political campaigning and hate speech. Browsing through user comments, I was stunned by how much hate was out there. That’s when a good friend of mine stumbled upon the Swedish organisation #jagärhär [#iamhere], which is made up of 70,000 people fighting hate speech on Facebook. That same day, I contacted the founder of the group, Mina Dennert, and asked her how she would feel about me kickstarting a German offshoot. The rest is history.”
How many members does the group have and across how many countries does it operate?
“We currently operate in 14 countries, with nearly 200,000 active members worldwide. In Germany alone, we’re 45,000-members strong. All of us work in the same way: by responding to hate speech with fact-based counter-arguments. Never with insults.”
Why do you think there is so much hate on the internet?
“A lot of people feel aimless and incredibly frustrated. The internet simply provides an outlet for all of this frustration. It’s so much easier to direct your anger at others than to look in the mirror and ask yourself some pretty tough questions. Introspection is a scary thing for a lot of people, and all this hate speech is highlighting how lost many of us truly feel.”
Tell us about the 45,000+ volunteers working for #ichbinhier. What unites them?
“The common denominator is a keen sense of justice; people who have a real problem with racism, sexism, homophobia or any type of discrimination. And, of course, there are rules for joining the group. We vet all potential members, sifting through their social profiles in order to ensure they have no history of hate speech, racism or any sort of right-wing populist rhetoric there.”
How has working at #ichbinhier changed your opinion on humanity? Have there been moments when you stopped believing in the good in people?
“It has to be said: what we do is Sisyphean task. You have to be a certain kind of person to keep going because, at least on a macro level, things don’t appear to be improving. But that’s exactly why we have to continue.”
Surely some comments must haunt you long after you’ve shut down your computer… How do you cope?
“I’ve developed a pretty sturdy coping mechanism. I’ve always known that there are more than a handful of assholes out there. What gives me hope is the fact that we’ve managed to assemble thousands of individuals fighting for tolerance and diversity. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been driven by the search for meaning and the question, ‘Why the fuck do I even get up in the morning?’ but I hadn’t truly found my niche until #ichbinhier. Knowing that I helped make this movement a reality is unbelievably fulfilling.”
Have you ever lost your temper at a comment you’ve seen posted?
“Absolutely. When someone writes, ‘Just puncture all life rafts and let the refugees drown at the bottom of the Mediterranean,’ it’s impossible to stay calm. I’ve had to learn that there’s no point in even starting an argument in cases like these. Instead, we’d report the person [to the authorities]. In extreme cases, for instance when our members are threatened with sexual or physical violence, we sue. At the crux of it, we don’t attempt to educate extremists. Rather, we aim to show those reading the comments that there are other ways of expressing an opinion. We want to stop the radicalisation of thought and show readers that there’s a better, more nuanced way of thinking about — and reacting to — certain opinions.”
Netflix series such as Don’t F**k With Cats have birthed a wave of self-made online vigilantes. Have any of your members ever taken matters into their own hands?
“The bulk of right-wing extremists spreading hate online are extremely methodical and organised, so it’s almost impossible to penetrate these groups. However, we do have quite a few members looking to dismantle hate groups from the inside, some of them working undercover. Personally, I’m more concerned with providing support and solidarity for potential victims. I don’t have the energy to deal with anti-democratic reactionaries.”
What are your thoughts on campaigns to deactivate comments across all social media?
“Every social-media platform should provide the option of deactivating comments. I’m not in favour of censorship, but some subject matters are so emotionally charged that they provoke extreme and potentially harmful reactions.”
What can we do when we see hateful comments posted online?
“When you see anyone posting hate speech, don’t be afraid to provide a counter-argument. Don’t use insults, but rather work with facts. And don’t be afraid to report threats of any kind.”
What advice would you give young people who feel overwhelmed by the current circumstances, be it Covid-19, terrorism or simply the pressure to present an Instagram-perfect life?
“It all comes down to finding purpose. A lot of us live a life that looks picture-perfect on the outside, but doesn’t really fulfil us. It’s important to pause for a moment and ask yourself, ‘Am I really happy? Am I happy in my relationship? Does this job make me happy?’ When something doesn’t feel right, try to be introspective and hone in on what you should calibrate. It all comes down to being honest with yourself, and that’s not easy because it makes you realise you can’t fake your life. But it’s the only way to achieve true happiness.”