The hate that Jasmina Kuhnke has been facing on the internet for a year and a half was suddenly right at her doorstep.
The news reached Kuhnke on Sunday evening, 14 February 2021, at around 8 pm. Her private address had been published on the internet, in a video, as a journalist friend wrote to her. This video, which lasts just under four minutes, consists of several elements: in a game-like graphic apparently meant to represent Kuhnke’s neighbourhood, an avatar gains access to the backyard of her home and shoots a monkey there. An image of the globe is shown, zooming in further and further until Kuhnke’s house is visible. A picture of Kuhnke’s head on the body of a gorilla is shown, and the “animal” is shot. In the credits, her address is given. The video is set to the tune of Matthias Rheims’ song “Verdammt, ich lieb dich” (Damn, I love you), the lyrics re-purposed to say “Damn, I leak you”. The end of the chorus reads, “I wanna massacre you.”
Before Kuhnke could even finish watching the video, the doorbell rang, a food delivery in her name. Which she hadn’t ordered. Then another. And another. And another. “I stopped counting how many deliveries there were at one point,” Kuhnke says, “but I’d guess it was 40.” So, those deliveries were an estimated 40 threats. An estimated 40 ways to show her: we know where you live.
Kuhnke is 38, married, the mother of several children, and a comedy writer. She runs a successful Twitter account under the name @ebonyplusirony, followed by more than 80,000 people. On Twitter, she calls herself Quattromilf and gets upset about inadequate Covid-19 restrictions, sometimes she simply posts a heartfelt message for people who are not doing well, sometimes she makes fun of other Twitter users, sometimes she is provocative, polemical. Many people respond with approval. Some with hate.
What happens to Kuhnke on the internet also happens to many people. In Germany, according to a representative survey conducted last year by the Forschungsgruppe g/d/p (g/d/p research group), 18 per cent of respondents have already experienced hate speech on the internet, both publicly and in private messages. The Federal Criminal Police Office counted 1,524 cases of hate posts in Germany in 2019, which is just under four per cent of all crimes in this country. The agency attributed three out of four reported hate posts online to politically motivated crime from the far-right.
Not many people talk openly about these attacks, some withdraw from social networks altogether. Kuhnke does it differently, she talks and writes about it, she does not want to be pushed out of the discourse.
A tweet and its consequences
What resulted in the publication of Kuhnke’s address began a year and a half ago with Rainer Meyer, better known on the internet as Don Alphonso. Alex Urban, an acquaintance of Kuhnke, had followed Meyer on Twitter. The columnist, who works for the newspaper Welt, however, blocked Urban, as he apparently assigned him to a certain group that Meyer perceived as hostile. Meyer publicly wrote: “Pay a little attention to who is following you and put a stop to them”, “self-appointed hunters, controllers and opinion policemen” are not needed on social networks. Urban, who is a writer for the anti-fake news blog Volksverpetzer, then experienced a small “shitstorm” and was attacked by Meyer fans who wrote, among other things, that he himself was the problem, that he had started it.
In the midst of this shitstorm, Urban asked for Kuhnke’s support in a private message, the comedy writer says, which is why she got involved in the discussion: “I didn’t even know who Don Alphonso was.” She asked Meyer on Twitter if he had been “hunched too long over Höcke’s book”, referring to the AfD politician Björn Höcke. Meyer replied that this was just his opinion – and also immediately issued a threat: “You do not have to share my opinion, and can stay in the camp of those who will soon experience the consequences.”
An uneven argument
This may all sound like the kind of Twitter feud that happens a thousand times over. Someone writes something. Someone else replies. They then pile it on. And with them, their followers. A comment war breaks out among the tweets. Keyboard warriors jump to the aid of their allies by commenting and retweeting, often polemically, often with malice. Often it is no longer possible to reconstruct exactly how the whole thing came about, who started it and with what. In the end, both sides feel like victims or victors, as the case may be.
In Kuhnke’s and Meyer’s case, however, there is an additional factor: they are at opposite ends of the Twitter spectrum. Kuhnke represents more of an open world view, she fights against racism, against sexism, for a tougher lockdown in the pandemic. Meyer, on the other hand, represents conservative values, rages against lefties and greens, and opposes a tougher lockdown. Both have tens of thousands of followers and both are less than squeamish about other users. If Kuhnke accuses Meyer of making her the target of his followers, the other side complains: but Meyer is also the target of hate. Kuhnke’s supporters use the hashtag #Quattromob to go after Meyer publicly, sometimes violently. After his tweet in November 2019, they called him “Goebbels’ sidekick”, a notorious rabble-rouser, tweeted at his employer, and asked him to make a public statement.
Still, one can’t simply equate the two camps in their makeup and actions. It’s just not the case that Meyer simply has a debate-friendly following. Rather, they include many representatives who share right-wing or right-extremist views. The Volksverpetzer evaluated which accounts retweeted Meyer’s views after the attack on its author. 44 per cent of them also shared posts from the far-right Identitarian movement, was revealed at the time. In February 2021, the Volksverpetzer analysed data again and came to similar conclusions: 47 per cent of the accounts that often spread Meyer’s posts also retweeted those of the campaign of the far-right network Ein Prozent (One Per cent), which is monitored by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution; 36 per cent of them shared the content of AfD politician Höcke. When Meyer mentions people on Twitter, death threats, address leaks and shitstorms follow, writes the Volksverpetzer, which is “largely due to the fact that a not insignificant part of his following consists of right-wing extremists.”
In this way, Meyer forms a kind of bridge to right-wingers on Twitter, who, when he attacks a person, take notice and victimise him. “Meyer could, after all, appeal to his followers, could contradict the hate”, says journalist Karolin Schwarz, who has studied far-right structures on the internet for years and published the book Hasskrieger (Hate Warriors) in 2020. “Instead, it comes across as Meyer marking certain people online as enemies.” As a result, she has said that they are antagonised on social media, often for a long time. This is what happened to the author Sibel Schick, whose address was also published online after Meyer mentioned her on Twitter and threats followed. Political scientist Natascha Strobl had a similar experience, receiving threats every second after a Welt article by Meyer. She decided in March to stop commenting on Twitter altogether for the time being.
“It’s a sport for right-wing trolls to silence inconvenient people or people perceived as inconvenient”, says Schwarz, a journalist. “And anyone and everyone can end up on their radar.” Part of this sport, she says, are the typical threatening gestures, such as insults, threats, posting their address online and then sending people deliveries.
Racism and sexism
In Kuhnke’s case, it’s compounded by the fact that she doesn’t just hold opinions that are uncomfortable for some. She’s also a woman, and she’s black. Her opponents respond to both with particular hatred and especially drastic threats. “There is a clear difference in the form of insult between men and women”, says lawyer Severin Riemenschneider, who for many years has represented people who experience digital violence, including Green Party politician Renate Künast, environmental activist Luisa Neubauer and now, Kuhnke. There are often rape fantasies or threats of rape, he said. “Women are insulted in a massively sexualised way. You hardly see that in relation to men.”
Women in addition to other marginalised groups, women of colour, lesbian, bisexual, trans, intersex women, women with disabilities, ethnic minority women, or non-binary people experience even worse forms of abuse, according to Amnesty International’s Toxic Twitter research, published in 2018. US lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” several years ago. It is not simply the case of a racism problem here or a gender problem there or a classism or LBGTQIA problem somewhere else, Crenshaw once said. Often, these simple categorisations don’t show what happens to people who represent many such categories at once.
Hence, Kuhnke is also attacked because of her gender and skin colour. She is insulted with the N-word, sexualised innuendos are constantly made and comparisons with animals are drawn. These attacks show the structural racism, the structural sexism that people of colour and women also experience beyond the internet.
Police see no threat
This does not happen to Meyer, even though he also receives threats and is insulted on the internet. When asked by the Axel Springer publishing house, in whose medium Meyer’s columns appear, Welt editor-in-chief Ulf Poschardt said: “This is a brutalisation of discourse that makes any debate in the sense of an open society impossible. And this applies in particular to Twitter and other social media, where veritable hunts are launched against unpopular experts, authors and authors [sic!]” [editor’s note: In German he wrote “Autoren und Autoren”, mockingly using the masculine noun twice instead of masculine and feminine, as many do who want to represent both genders].
As a “little insight” he sent along more than a dozen hostilities against Meyer and himself, which he says were received as a result of a critical article about Meyer in Die Zeit. According to the screenshots, someone writes that he wants to kick Meyer in the face, another user writes that there used to be house calls for the incorrigible, another expresses that at some point Meyer will be spat on. According to Poschardt, the worst posts were deleted.
No protection from the state
Unlike others, Kuhnke does not want to be quiet despite the threats, she is still active on Twitter. And she has tried to get protection and help. Last year, when an out-of-date address of her husband’s circulated on the web, she turned to the non-profit organisation HateAid, a counseling centre for digital violence, and later to the Mobile Beratung gegen Rechtsextremismus Köln (Mobile Counseling Against Right-Wing Extremism Cologne). There, she found Felicia Köttler, who still looks after her today and takes care of many calls and arrangements. Kuhnke has also been working for some time with the initiative Hass melden (Report Hate), which automatically analyses tweets directed at @ebonyplusirony and checks them for criminal relevance.
Köttler also helped her that night in February when her address was published. Along with Kuhnke, she tried to preserve evidence and report the accounts to Twitter that shared the address. The day after, many accounts were indeed blocked, yet a caseworker at the police department signalled to her that they probably couldn’t get the IP addresses – Twitter often doesn’t give them out, Köttler says. That makes it virtually impossible to find the author of the posts. The video can still be found on the web.
Köttler and Kuhnke sent screenshots of the accounts to the investigating authorities. Initially, the Cologne criminal investigation department signalled to her that they had already seen the video on Sunday evening and that they were on it, says Köttler. During the course of Monday, a patrol would be sent to assess the danger, and the State Security would also assess the situation on the same day. But then nothing happened and no one came. Kuhnke and her family went to a hotel overnight, and the next day they moved back into their house.
On Wednesday, Kuhnke received a call from the State Protection Service: they did not see any threat, and the video did not relate directly to her. And they gave her another tip: if in doubt, she should first withdraw from the social network. She cannot understand this, says Köttler: “This is a trivialisation of right-wing structures.” When asked, the Cologne police wrote that they would not provide any further information in view of the current investigation.
Lawyer Riemenschneider says there is an application problem when trying to take action against digital violence on the web. “From a legal point of view, it is certainly the case that a person concerned who is depicted in a video with a picture and is threatened in it is recognisable and therefore there is also a threat situation.” But: “Investigating authorities can always decide that there is no indication that this threat is serious. No matter how explicit it is.” He said he could understand why those affected by such reactions might not feel safe.
Not everything in bad taste is punishable by law
At the beginning of April 2021, a new law against hate and agitation came into force, which should give those affected more opportunities to defend themselves. Among other things, social networks must now report death threats to the Federal Criminal Police Office in the future; they can no longer simply delete them. The penalties have also been increased, with up to three years possible imprisonment for threats of murder or rape.
But even with the new law, what is and isn’t an insult or threat is a matter of interpretation in many cases. What doesn’t make it any easier is that on the Internet it’s not always possible to clearly separate what’s meant ironically, what’s a bad joke, and what constitutes a serious threat – through the use of memes, gifs, or emojis, any statement can theoretically be meant as nothing more than a joke. Not everything that is in bad taste is punishable, not everything that sounds threatening is meant in the same way. But if even a single person is serious about their threat, it can end fatally for the person being threatened. This was the case with CDU politician Walter Lübcke, who had long been the target of online hostility before he was shot dead in his garden [editor’s note: Lübcke was an advocate for the refugee policy, and as a result of this, targeted by the far-right. In 2019, he was murdered by the right-extremist Stephan Ernst.]
The fear remains
Kuhnke says she is privileged because she has a network of supporters who report and denounce posts for her, as well as making phone calls on her behalf. She moved with her family in mid-March, four weeks after her address was posted online. Köttler helped with that, too.
As long as Kuhnke’s address is secret, at least no one can send threats to her home. But the fear remains that someone will find out where she lives again – and then maybe send more than just a food delivery. Kuhnke says her worry is that she could become one of those so-called isolated incidents – like Walter Lübcke, like the victims of right-extremist terror attacks in Halle or Hanau.