'#IAmHere': The people trying to make Facebook a nicer place

BBC Technology 09 Jun 2019 11:25

'#IAmHere': The people trying to make Facebook a nicer place

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A network of tens of thousands of online volunteers is fighting hate speech on Facebook. They organise under the slogan "#IAmHere".

It's 7:30 in Berlin, and Nina's alarm clock is going off. Before getting up and making breakfast for her 13-month-old daughter, who is sleeping in the next room, she reaches for her phone.

Unlike many of us, Nina's not checking her emails, the news, or looking at gossip sites or posting photos. Instead, every day Nina opens up Facebook and heads straight to the closed group #IchBinHier ("#IAmHere").

Nina is part of an international movement working to find and combat hate speech on the platform. She and her fellow #IAmHere members spend their spare time scanning Facebook for conversations happening on big pages, often run by mainstream media organisations, which are overwhelmed with racist, misogynistic or homophobic comments.

The volunteers also say they don't target conservative views or any other mainstream opinions. Instead #IAmHere activists - there are tens of thousands of them in groups across Europe and around the world - say their mission is to change the overall tone of online debate, counteract hate storms and make Facebook a nicer place overall.

Why do they do it?

Her husband is from Uganda, and she says they both have felt angry and scared by what they perceive as a rise in racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric on social media over the past few years.

"I cannot imagine [my daughter] growing up and reading all these things. I do not want this culture."

Nina posted her first comment on behalf of the group in February 2017 after #IchBinHier was endorsed by a popular German TV presenter. "My heart was beating a lot the first time I used the hashtag… It felt amazing to finally have a group behind me."

#IAmHere was founded in Sweden, where it is called #JagArHar, by Iranian-born journalist Mina Dennert. Around three years ago she says she noticed social media becoming, as she describes it, "flooded with hatred", so she began trying to counter misogynistic and racist comments "in a calm, non-aggressive way".

Media attention soon followed and the Swedish group grew to 75,000 members. As word spread, similar groups began popping up in other countries including Italy, France, Slovakia, Poland and the UK. Today, there are 14 different #IAmHere groups working towards the same goals in their respective languages.

The German group, #IchBinHier, was founded by marketing consultant Hannes Ley. It currently has 45,000 members.

Ley says he had "a really positive gut feeling" the minute his friend explained the concept. "I was reading comments for many years and I felt rather helpless because of the quantity of hate speech. I thought, OK, we can try to make another majority to confront the hate speech crowd."

Intrigued to see whether he could find some kind of organised activity taking place, he began doing data analysis.

Dealing with the backlash

"You can see these groups coming together and engaging in harassment on Facebook, which appears to be both silencing moderate discussion and dominating certain discussion points."

Members of the Swedish group were doxxed - they had their personal information posted online. Dennert, her husband and two children requested police protection after the threats got particularly vicious.

She admits that being confronted with hateful comments on a daily basis can take a toll on members' mental health. "It depends on my daily mood," she says. "Some days I can take so much I amaze myself. Others, I feel my skin is very thin."

Facebook has provided the volunteers with free ad credits and support in organising meet-ups. Despite being grateful for the help, many #IAmHere members believe the platform should do more to combat hate speech. Ley says Facebook needs to "live up to its own community standards" and be quicker at deleting comments.

Starting in 2018, Germany's NetzDG law required social media sites to remove hate speech within a day of it being reported, and analysis shows that explicitly racist posts have decreased on Facebook since then. A study of #IchBinHier activity by researchers at the University of Dusseldorf also found that its commenters are often successful at changing the tone of online debates.

On the other hand, research carried out by Kreissel and the ISD found that coordinated right-wing extremist online hate campaigns have increased three-fold since December 2017.

But this is another reason she keeps going. "I think it's made me more courageous in offline situations," she says. "Recently, two men were shouting at each other on the subway and I just got in between them and said, 'What are you doing?'

"It's in me… It's part of my life."

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