The anti-refugee post on Facebook by a 29-year-old Berlin woman last spring seemed little different from many of the hate-filled rants that pop up on social media sites.
“Let’s get rid of the filth,” she wrote. Then, referring to a series of arson fires that have destroyed refugee housing under construction across Germany, she continued: “many more refugee centers will burn, hopefully with the doors boarded up.”
But there was a difference between her words and many others that appear online: She was a German, posting in Germany. And while social media globally might assume a more American character of erring on the side of free speech over censorship, Germany does not share this view when it comes to hate speech.
The woman was charged with violating Germany’s hate speech law, convicted and sentenced to five years of probation. She’s not the only poster to have run afoul of the law: A 25-year-old man from the small town of Passau in Bavaria was fined 7,500 euro (about $8,500) for a Facebook post offering to deliver “a gas canister and hand grenade, for free,” to a group of asylum seekers. A 34-year-old Berlin man was fined 4,800 euro (about $5,500) for posting: “I’m in favor of reopening the gas chambers and putting the whole brood inside.”
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Now, with the swelling number of refugees prompting still more such posts, German prosecutors are considering going after Facebook itself for acting as a home for posts that advocate racial hatred and violate laws against neo-Nazi speech.
German prosecutors are investigating possible charges against three Facebook managers, prompted by a complaint that they failed to act against racist comments about Europe’s refugee crisis.
We are constantly working to adjust our policies and procedures to be even more effective and sensitive to the concerns of local communities.
Eva-Maria Kirschsieper, Facebook policy manager
The complaint came from German attorney Chan-jo Jun, of Wuerzburg. In it, he claimed to have flagged more than 60 Facebook entries that would violate German hate-speech laws. In an interview in Die Welt newspaper, he noted that the posts he flagged – some even featuring Nazi insignia and people posing while giving a Nazi salute – are strictly forbidden by German law.
But, he said, Facebook responded to his complaints by saying the content didn’t violate Facebook’s community standards, and the posts were not removed. He made copies of the posts and sent them to Facebook’s German managers by registered mail.
“We need to put an end to the arrogance with which some companies try to translate their system of values to Europe,” he said.
In the complaint he filed, he noted, “Facebook Germany encourages the dissemination of offensive, punishable content through its actions in Germany.”
Germans have complained for years about what they see as warped morality on Facebook and other U.S.-based social media sites, where nudity is strictly controlled but posters are allowed to spout hate-filled screeds that Germany outlawed after the Nazi reign of Adolf Hitler.
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas recently announced that Germany would establish “a task force to combat hate speech on social media platforms, notably Facebook, and a number of social networks, including Facebook, are to take part.”
“Racist, inciting statements are inconsistent with our system of values and cannot be justified under any imaginable aspect,” he said. “One thing is clear: If Facebook gets complaints about racist and xenophobic messages that violate criminal laws, then the company must react and delete such posts quickly and reliably. . . . There must be as little space in social media for racism and xenophobia as there is on the street.”
Facebook has agreed to take part in and partially fund the task force, but for many it’s showing too little concern about a matter Germans take seriously.
Facebook has announced measures to counter hate speech. However, in the past it has also noted that the site “allowed discussions on the network to be conducted using robust diction.” Overall, German officials claim they have received word from Facebook that it prefers a policy of “discuss, not delete,” in many cases.
German news stories have quoted German Facebook policy manager Eva-Maria Kirschsieper as defending her company’s policies by noting that Facebook reaches a billion users far beyond Germany’s borders.
“It is a constant challenge to balance the interests of this diverse community and we are constantly working to adjust our policies and procedures to be even more effective and sensitive to the concerns of local communities,” she said.
Konstantin von Notz, a member of the Green party who is considered the group’s top expert on the Internet, questioned whether Facebook is following its own anti-hate speech guidelines. He noted that members of his party have been attacked on Facebook and have filed criminal charges. “Some of what is being posted not only goes against German law but also against Facebook’s own terms of business,” he said.
This week, the German tabloid Bild ran a two-page spread of nothing but hateful Facebook comments, complete with user names and profile photos. The comments were directed at the large number of refugees seeking asylum in Germany, and those who support them.
“Green Fascist pig, hang them all,” said one post directed at Claudia Roth, a pro-refugee Green politician. Another was more general: “A bullet for every Muslim and their supporters.” “Muslims are worse than cockroaches. We don’t want Islam in Germany and Austria,” read another. Another poster, identified as Silvio Bettin, asked, “Aren’t we all a little Nazi?”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews