by Wanda Watermann

In 2015 the world was rocked by the image of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, face down on a Turkish beach. Intensifying the shock of the photo were widespread social media messages that mocked and revelled in the child’s death.

The sheer vileness of the comments incited a small group of activists in Germany to respond, and not by becoming paralysed with despair or roused to violent reaction (neither of which have ever proven effective against hatred). Instead these few keen minds thought outside the box long enough to generate specific– and effective– solutions to the festering of racism in their country. No strangers to the power of irony, they were ready to use humour as a weapon against human folly, much like the culture jamming Yes Men in the USA, but with a twist.

The Annual Wunseidel neo-Nazi march– utterly sabotaged

Right Against Right (Rechts Gegen Rechts), whose name indicates the battle between democratic values and political extremism, weren’t debutants at staging public rebuttals to far-right shenanigans. They’d already been stirred to action on November 15, 2014, having decided to turn the annual neo-Nazi march in Wunsiedel, a small German town, into a walkathon to raise funds for EXIT Deutschland. (Founded by a former police detective and a former neo-Nazi leader, EXIT helps people quit extremist groups and begin new lives.)

According to spokesperson Fabian Wichmann, Right Against Right’s brainstorm took the shape of, in his words, “a creative counterattack.” Their stunt ended up raising 10,000 euros for the nonprofit. How did they do it? By getting the town’s residents and businesses to sponsor 250 neo-Nazis, pledging 10 euros for every meter the marchers walked.

The event was soon being called Germany’s “most involuntary walkathon.” The marchers didn’t know about the sponsorship until afterwards, even though Right Against Right campaigners had decorated the route with humourous banners (including one thanking the marchers for their donations).

No laws were broken. No liberties were squelched. The neo-Nazis were free to either keep marching and garnering money for causes they hated or to stop walking and go home, a thing the townspeople had been wanting ever since the annual march had first begun.

Right Against Right had intended a counterattack more famous than the march. It had worked. Now, after seeing the racist online responses to the death of a small child, they knew they had to move it up a notch.

Involuntarily paying for a just society

Right Against Right’s next stroke of genius – Hass Hilft (Donate the Hate) – was as beautiful as it was practical: Make racists pay for expressing vicious opinions online, and use the money to help fund a better world. They developed a graphic that anyone could download and paste at the end of any hurtful, hateful comment on social media, along with an explanation that thanked the commenter for thus allowing one euro to be donated to helping immigrants and deprogramming extremists.

These graphics are then collected and counted by a database. If a page blocks Donate the Hate, members can still count the badges manually, and everyone sends a euro to EXIT Deutschland or to Aktion Deutschland Hilft, an organisation that responds rapidly to the needs of refugees in crisis. Who donates? Partners and users of the system, not just ready to donate a euro for every barbed comment, are also willing to trawl the Internet for barbs to turn into gold.

What’s a poor white supremacist to do?

What does this mean for the extremists? Well, if they don’t want money donated to organisations that help immigrants and neo-Nazi deserters they just have to delete their comments. But many actually become so angry at the graphic that they post even more xenophobic messages and win even more hate badges – a bonanza for the causes they despise. And if they post enough hate messages their names will eventually appear on a list of the top ten “donors” (i.e. most frequent posters of vile comments). At the very least, the malicious comments simply stop coming.

The tactic presents a triple threat to racist groups by reducing online hate speech, aiding the people the speech is directed against, and helping their own members escape and live new lives.

We don’t need another hero

Another truly admirable quality of Donate the Hate is how the organisers have shunned posing and high-flown rhetoric in favour of working toward clear and lasting results, planning carefully in advance to avoid repercussions that might give their opponents a toehold. In the planning stages they were scrupulous about not doing anything that might lead to litigation further down the road. As a result of this early prudence they can now listen to the legal threats and accusations with total sangfroid.

The tactic presents a triple threat to racist groups by reducing online hate speech, aiding the people the speech is directed against, and helping their own members escape and live new lives.

Though often accused of limiting freedom of expression, Donate the Hate counters the charge by stating that they’ve never deleted racist or cruel comments. They also point out that freedom of expression doesn’t give anyone the right to send death threats or cruel insults, and that those who do so should remember that the right to freedom of expression grants others permission to openly disagree.

Donate the Hate is a lot like Aikido, the Japanese martial arts practice sometimes translated as “the way of harmonious spirit.” You find ways to use your enemies’ strength against them. It’s that simple.

How can you and I help?

“Spread the idea,” says Fabian Wichmann, “that hate has to turn into something good, because then the hate becomes small and the help and solidarity get bigger.”

Donate the Hate’s model of social media activism is now being imitated by countries the world over, including the USA. Social media, despite giving voice to the worst elements in society, turns out to be an ideal tool for creating conditions hostile to far right rhetoric. And the donations just keep pouring in.

Best-case scenario? One day Donate the Hate will no longer be able to find angry messages. Here’s to that day.