Tackling hate on the internet

Researchers in public are sometimes subjected to spiteful reactions, like Christian Althaus or Susanne Wampfler. The University of Bern stands behind its researchers.

Eine neu gegründete Aktionsgruppe engagiert sich an der Universität Bern gegen Hate Speech. © Mika Baumeister/Unsplash
Employees from various departments and faculties of the university of Bern have formed an internal working group due to the recent incidents © Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

"Shut up" or "Uncreative bureaucrats": This is what has been said about researchers at the University of Bern who are in the public eye. Since the beginning of the corona pandemic, Dr. Christian Althaus from the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine is one of those people who are confronted with hateful comments, following his public statements. "There are fierce reactions every now and then on Twitter," he says. The comments don't bother him much: "As long as it's not a threat of violence, I'm fine ignoring it." However, he confirms that hate speech on the internet is an issue among researchers.

Prof. Dr. Susanne Wampfler from the Center for Space and Habitability (CSH) does not have a Twitter account and her Facebook and Instagram profiles are set to private. She still had to deal with hate comments and sexism after she made an appearance on the SRF program "Einstein" on the subject of women in science, of all things: "Negative comments are just one aspect. I've also received, for example, friend requests with a profile picture of two frogs mating, or emails in an aggressive tone."

Dr. Christian Althaus und Prof. Dr. Susanne Wampfler © Keystone SDA / Alessandro Della Bella, © Universität Bern / Vera Knöpfel
Dr. Christian Althaus and Prof. Dr. Susanne Wampfler © Keystone SDA / Alessandro Della Bella, © Universität Bern / Vera Knöpfel

As the Equal Opportunities Officer at the CSH, Susanne Wampfler has already had to intervene in the past when such comments were made to other researchers and knows that these are not isolated cases. She also talks to other researchers about hate speech: "We observed, for example, that different aspects that do not fit the typical image of an astrophysics professor lead to negative remarks, like racist comments to researchers from abroad, sexist comments toward female researchers or doubting the expertise of younger researchers."

Where does hate speech begin?

Sophie Achermann, Executive Director of alliance F, the non-partisan umbrella organization of more than 100 women's organizations, and head of the "Stop Hate Speech" project, locates the origin of this phenomenon in the introduction of commenting options on social media and on the part of media companies: "There are certainly algorithms which encourage this, leading to more traffic and interaction on social media in particular. That's also financially attractive for social media ." However, it is difficult to define where hate speech begins and how much one has to tolerate. Sophie Achermann: "Basically, dealing with nasty comments is very subjective. Accordingly, the threshold at which an insult is no longer tolerable and so-called hate speech begins is different for all those affected. Relatively little is prohibited by law in Switzerland. That's a problem, especially in the area of sexism, for example."

So what can you do if you are affected by hate speech yourself? Sophie Achermann's advice: "Generally, I would recommend not stepping in yourself. A tip in this context: Temporarily hand off the social media channels to a person who will sift through the comments and save any criminally relevant ones. At the same time, it is also useful to mobilize the people around you to actively respond with counterspeech. Standing up to hate speech is an effective strategy but it still does not happen enough." For this purpose, alliance F has developed an algorithm as part of the "Stop Hate Speech" project: the Bot Dog. It is trained by volunteers to detect hate speech, which is then countered accordingly.

Taking a stand

Christian Althaus and Susanne Wampfler say that they are not intimidated by hate speech on the internet. Wampfler thinks it's important for hate speech to be addressed publicly, adding: "I would rather see the focus back on my research. On the other hand, I don't want to be silenced by such comments either, as that's precisely one of the goals of these comment writers."


Comments received by University of Bern researchers (in German). © zvg

The University of Bern supports this position and stands behind the researchers. The university condemned the negative reactions to the SRF broadcast on its official Twitter account. Rector Christian Leumann also commented on Twitter: "I am deeply shocked by the primitive, demeaning responses we have to read over and over again about researchers engaging in excellent scientific endeavors. These researchers have my full support." In addition to this public support, the university also offers various points of contact for people who have been affected by insults and discrimination (see info box). In particularly serious cases, university employees can also count on the support of the Legal Services Office. Employees from various departments and faculties have also formed an internal working group due to the recent incidents. As a first step, the working group will develop a website on which those affected will find numerous tips on how to deal with hate speech, and compiled addresses of contact points at the University of Bern, among other things.

The two researchers interviewed were also pleased that the university is aware of the problem. Susanne Wampfler: "After all, if no one says anything, the fear is that the limit of what's acceptable will slowly be stretched further and further. It is therefore important for public perception, in my opinion, that a respected institution like the University of Bern has sent a clear signal against hate speech."

About the authors

Isabelle Aeschlimann is a university intern in the Communication & Marketing Department at the University of Bern.

Brigit Bucher is Head of Media Relations in the Communication & Marketing Department at the University of Bern.