#iComment: Germany’s on- and offline crusade against hate speech

by Ana Ribeiro

After cyberhate-related raids last summer, German authorities are pressing on against hate speech, with Justice Minister Heiko Maas perhaps as their most publicly active voice. One of their main targets is Facebook, and their efforts are getting quite a bit of media attention at home and abroad.

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The New York Times spoke with Maas in November 2016 and portrayed Germany as being in the forefront of “a growing push around the world to regulate what users are allowed to post online. (…) Germany has become an important test case globally for how the social network polices what may be published online, and how it should respond to inappropriate and illegal content.”

Disappointed both with the rate and speed of hateful posts’ removal, Maas has been advocating for European Union-level legislation carrying stricter sanctions against firms managing Internet content. He also has been seeking to get Facebook classified as a media company rather than a “technology platform”, so that it can be held liable under EU law for what it publishes. Perhaps relevantly, a leak to The Guardian last May revealed that editors more than algorithms choose the news Facebook promotes to its users.

Over the past several weeks, investigations and threats by the German government against Facebook’s handling of hate speech have been escalating. A crackdown on the platform’s users is happening simultaneously. This is a process that had already started in 2015, and includes a series of lawsuits in Germany against Facebook bosses, as well as proposed fines and users’ arrests.

Hate- vs. free speech is a divisive issue among the German public – as is the influx of refugees and other migrants that is being met with a wave of hostility on- and offline. Der Spiegel’sJan Fleischhauer tells the story of Jennifer Ulrich, who had taken to Facebook to condemn hostility towards refugees in a small town in the state of Saxony. The actress received graphic death threats as a response, and reported them to police and the site itself.

But Facebook blocked her account instead of the perpetrators’, after she called it out for not finding the post to be a violation. Facebook backpedaled after German star Til Schweiger and a Berlin newspaper gave the incident publicity.

Fleischhauer’s October 2016 article criticises the attitude of Mark Zuckerberg’s site – which has “29 million users in Germany alone” – as it relates to cyberhate in general:

“Facebook is offering de facto protection for hate speech,” he writes, citing the theory of a Pirate Party member and Internet activist facing troubles with the social media giant. “And that hate speech helps grow its traffic. (…) Facebook [also] encourages users to use ‘counter speech’ to combat hate, which also helps to drive traffic. It's an infinite loop: hateful comments are followed up by counter speech, which in turn generates further hate.”

The German justice system vs. Facebook

Unlike the NYT article, Fleischhauer suggests that action against Facebook’s related practices – including a task force assembled by Maas – has been too soft in Germany, where “a high value is placed on freedom of expression, but… not without limits – a product of the country's murderous, 20th century history.” Under German law, people found guilty of Volksverhetzung (“incitement of the masses” against certain groups via hate speech), can get sentenced to up to five years in prison; this includes denying the Holocaust or glorifying the Nazis.

In March 2016, Vice News ran an article on attorneys in Germany – Chan-jo Jun in Würzburg, Bavaria, and Christian Solmecke in Cologne – who wanted Zuckerberg to pay a fine of €150 million for allowing the illegal incitement of hatred and display of Nazi symbols on Facebook. The same attorneys had previously filed two lawsuits without much of a prospect of prosecution, against the company’s German executives and European operations manager, respectively.

Jun told Vice News:

I think Facebook has changed German society — not for the good. I wanted to find out if the German legal system would prevail against an American company."

A Munich court picked up the case against Zuckerberg in November 2016, and Jun gave an interview to Italian daily La Stampa about it following the announcement. In the interview, he accused Facebook of deliberately not deleting hateful comments from its page due to German leniency, but complying “with crazy demands in Turkey.”

Deutsche Welle writes in regards to the Munich case: “Zuckerberg is reportedly being charged alongside Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, chief Europe lobbyist Richard Allan, and his Berlin counterpart Eva-Maria Kirschsieper. (…) Although Facebook is obliged to remove illegal content from its site, it has repeatedly garnered hefty criticism for the time it takes to do so.”

Facebook has come under fire for its choices of what to censor, including recently deleting a post featuring the famous photo of a naked girl running from napalm during the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, a Gizmodo article quotes a former Facebook employee as accusing the team of “routinely [suppressing] news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential ‘trending’ news section.”

Police and political action

Earlier this year, in February, The Guardian had reported that at a town hall gathering in Berlin, Zuckerberg “conceded … that Facebook didn’t do enough until recently to police hate speech on the social media site in Germany, but said that it has made progress and has heard the message ‘loud and clear’”. He had talked about the issue already in September 2015 with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and had more recently met with her chief of staff.

According to The Guardian, Zuckerberg told the Berlin gathering that Facebook was “funding a team to work with police to combat hate speech on Facebook.” He also said that the company had learned more about German law and included cyberhate against migrants – which has experienced a recent spike in Germany, simultaneously with a large increase in hate crimes – on its zero-tolerance list.

The degree of cooperation between such a Facebook-funded team and German police is unclear. However, extreme right-wing hate speech taking place largely on a secret Facebook group led to police raids in 14 German states in July 2016.

In connection with the raids, the BBC quoted Holger Munch, president of Germany’s Bundeskriminalamt (federal police), as saying, “Today's action makes it clear that police authorities of the federal and state governments act firmly against hate and incitement on the internet.” Later on, in October, a Würzburg man was sentenced to two years and three months’ prison time for calling for the murder of Jews, refugees and foreigners on Facebook, according to Deutsche Welle.

Around the same time as the arrest, Volker Kaulder, a member of Merkel’s CDU party, proposed that companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter should pay a €50,000 fine if failing to remove hate speech within a week. Another suggestion of his was for social media sites to carry warnings similar to the ones on cigarette packs, regarding the harm to be expected from engaging with their content.

The BBC article from the summer also stated that the three companies had earlier gotten flak from German authorities for not deleting cyberhate quickly enough from their platforms, and had agreed to start doing so within 24 hours in late 2015. In May 2016, the European Commission announced a “code of conduct” signed by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft as a pledge that they would adopt a similar removal policy. But as it stands right now, the code is not legally binding.

German authorities, however, are currently monitoring Facebook (until March 2017) to see “how many racist posts” are deleted within 24 hours of being reported by users. Backed and pushed by Hamburg Justice Minister Till Steffen, Maas has threatened “to take legislative measures if the results are still unsatisfactory by then,” according to Reuters.