(Dado Ruvic/Illustration)

Is it okay to be a racist on the Internet if you’re a world leader? It might very well be, Twitter implied earlier this year, according to critics' interpretation of a blog post in which the company announced that “blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial tweets, would hide important information people should be able to see and debate.”

Twitter’s policy may save influential politicians from having their tweets or accounts deleted, but the Internet isn’t a totally lawless territory, an Austrian court reminded us last week. The same free-speech rules that apply to all citizens, the court argued, also apply to politicians.

The politician it was referring to is Bruno Weber, a city councilor with Austria’s governing far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in Amstetten, who went on a beer-fueled online rant earlier this year. Responding to an ad showing a white man and a nonwhite man holding a baby, Weber made racist and homophobic comments, describing the image as “filth” and using the Austrian equivalent of the n-word. He later apologized and offered his resignation, which was not accepted by his party.

Now, an Austrian court has sent Weber to a six-month-long counseling program that will teach him manners on how to behave on the Internet. Officials will also examine the possible roots of Weber’s racist and homophobic thoughts — and unless he shows signs of remorse and improvement, they can send him back to court.

The FPÖ politician is participating in a model project that was launched this year and has so far helped about 60 participants reflect upon their behavior online. Working in coordination with Austrian courts and prosecutors, a German-Austrian association developed the counseling under the name “Dialogue Instead of Hatred,” after charges over incitement of hatred jumped from 25 in 2006 to 827 one year ago.

Despite the significant increase in charges, courts still shied away from sentencing perpetrators in some instances, arguing that a criminal conviction would only embolden their determination.

“Once they are sentenced, many immediately start behaving like victims. They say: ‘I only voiced my opinion and now I’m being punished for that,’” said Andreas Zembaty, who works with the “Neustart” company that is expected to be in charge of Weber’s counseling sessions.

The office of Weber’s FPÖ faction did not respond to a request for comment, but Zembaty said he expects the politician to be officially enrolled in the company’s project in the coming days.

Instead of jailing Weber or others charged with online incitement of hatred, Austrian courts and prosecutors now have the option to first offer them voluntary participation in the sessions. If they refuse to participate, courts automatically move ahead with sentencing. But counseling is no easy escape, Zembaty cautioned. “At the end of the six months, an assessment concludes if sufficient progress has been made to drop the cases,” he said.

Similar procedures already exist in several Nordic countries and would be relatively easy to implement in other continental European countries, where incitement laws are similar. In the United States, free-speech laws may pose challenges to sentencing individuals in some cases. But European deradicalization professionals believe that a modified version could also work in the U.S. judiciary system.

Austria’s Neustart, which predominantly deals with Islamist and right-wing extremist suspects, has been careful to avoid the political stigma that could quickly attach to any such project in a polarized country.

“We’re not a thought-police force,” Zembaty said. Instead, the company’s experts examine factors that may have triggered a suspect’s vulnerability to inciting hatred. Often, perpetrators themselves have experienced insults — episodes they need to come to terms with to understand how their own actions impact others.

“Many hurt because they have themselves been hurt,” Zembaty said.

Besides psychological counseling, the team also trains participants in respectful communication techniques on the Internet and media literacy. Neustart says that so far, no participant has had to be sent back to court after the six-month training period.

In six months, Austrians will know whether far-right politician Weber has made sufficient progress in navigating the basics of respect on the Internet to avoid that fate, too.

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