As of November 1st 2016, prosecutors were investigating 540 cases of hate speech or incitement. Last year there were a total of 513 cases. Experts predict around 640 cases by the end of the year.
The increase is partly due to the fact that Austria's justice system is trying to establish a uniform standard across all nine states for prosecuting such cases. Previously, Vienna had the lowest number of cases of hate speech and Neo-Nazi crimes that were brought to court, whilst Innsbruck, Klagenfurt and Graz had much higher rates.
However, this year the number of cases shot up in Vienna, after the state prosecutor demanded that more reported incidents of hate speech be brought to justice. Cases against people who have committed hate speech or Neo-Nazi crimes are now heard on an almost weekly case in the capital. So far this year, 16 people in Vienna have received prison sentences for such crimes.
However, judges sometimes have difficulty deciding when a crime is hate speech, or a violation of Austria's Prohibition Law (which forbids any revival of Nazism). If a crime is deemed to be the latter, the case must be heard before a jury. One such case involved a man who posted images of naked women on Facebook, with swastikas superimposed on them, along with violent criticism of Islam and the text “at home in the Empire”. A judge in Graz said he couldn't rule on the case as it was not incitement, but that it did break the Prohibition Law.
'Seeking a scapegoat'
Communications expert Fritz Hausjell told the Kurier newspaper that a prison sentence for hate speech offenders is not always the most effective approach. “This does little to develop the accused's empathy for his victims”. He said that many people who post hate speech online are “those who are disappointed with life and seek a scapegoat for their misery. They don't necessarily have a political overview for their prejudices - and they are letting off steam without realising the impact of their words”.
Hausjell recommends that offenders should be made to meet people who have suffered because of incitement - such as refugees. “Maybe then he will realise that these are human beings, they are not all rapists,” he said. He also recommends that offenders are given community service, such as helping out in a refugee camp. “Maybe that could be a task such as helping social workers teach refugees German”.
He said that it's also possible to engage with hate posters in online forums. “You don't have to friend them, but you can tell them that what they are saying is not right, and ask if they would have the courage to say that to someone's face. Often people will admit that they were out of order and take back what they said.”
Hausjell sees this as a matter of educating people, and says that techniques on how to deal with trolls and hate posters could be taught in schools. “We're taught how to deal with verbal insults, but not with digital ones,” he said.
According to Hausjell Facebook and the right-wing internet forum unzensuriert.at are the main digital platforms in Austria where people go to post hate messages. He says hate posts have increased dramatically since political parties started using social media as a way to communicate with voters, and that online comments and reactions should be well-managed, and if necessary temporarily switched off.