Cornelia Heyken is "Digital Streetworkerin". She tries to reach young people on the net before they radicalize. For example, in forums for homework.
Unfortunately, with all the beauty and usefulness that the Internet can do, it can do one thing well: radicalize. Because the time users spend on a platform is their money, algorithms are showing ever more extreme and attention-grabbing content. Meanwhile, most platforms have an army of content moderators to clear content and block accounts. Another approach is to protect the users of these portals from radicalization. Digital Streetwork tries to pick up young people in forums and engage in dialogue with them. Cornelia Heyken is the director of the "debate" project of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation.
SZ: What is Digital Streetwork?
Cornelia Heyken: Digital street work is prevention work. The idea is to transfer the methods and approaches of youth social work to digital space. As educators and social workers, we move in social networks to interact with teenagers and young adults who are confronted with right-wing extremist content. The interaction then happens on two levels: one-to-one, that is, in private messages, and one-to-many, by posting your own posts in forums or comment columns.
Who should be addressed?
People we can still pick up with our work. We are making prevention on the first two stages of radicalization: the first is empowerment, that is, encouraging reflection. And secondly, we are addressing adolescents who are in apprehension processes, whose contributions already contain certain keywords or tendencies. Contributions with, for example, defamatory or general content, which often also cover the same topics. However, we are no longer in contact with established right-wing extremists, which is then the task of the exit work.
This interview series is dedicated to current topics and will be published Monday to Friday at 7.30 pm on SZ.de. All interviews here.
How do you determine if someone is already a "settled right-wing extremist"?
Usually it is already clear after the first interaction, whether the other person is really interested in an exchange. For example, if someone sends us a four-page answer in which his beliefs are formulated to suggest a closed world view, we know that this will not be productive.
If the counterpart is not yet a case for the exit work: How does a contact take place?
Since the start of the project in 2015 we have changed that again and again. We started on Facebook and used our profile to write to young people who caught our eye in comment columns. However, this thinning of the comment columns was extremely time-consuming – and the response rate low. In the meantime, young people on Facebook are not that active anymore, that's why we are mainly on gutefrage.net. There we post in forums corrections and counter-notices and encourage young people to get in touch with us.
Which forums do you have in mind?
Students often use the homework forums of the portal. It was particularly interesting for our work when it was about homework assignments in the homework forum. A discussion there often starts with a very innocuous question and quickly goes into a critical direction, for example, when false information is disseminated or someone refers to dubious sources. Through our partner project "dehate", which conducts research into right-wing extremist networks, we also knew that there were calls in discord channels, a chat platform often used by new-right actors, to "shake up" the community in the homework forums.
Quite literally that is not possible – the moderation team would otherwise intervene and remove contributions. It is because then rather through the back door suddenly talked about the legitimacy of the NPD.
And how open are the young people?
By limiting ourselves to the contacts who really wanted to talk: very much! Mostly the talks went on for several months and it was nice to hear that someone had made someone think. Of course, in order to make that long-term and reliable, one needs completely different resources. Someone who comes from a pedagogical context as well as being digitally versed and knows and can decipher the different right communication methods. But then there is a lot possible.