This article was originally published as: Andre Oboler, “Social media in Germany combating hateful speech“, J-Wire, 28 December 2015
At one time Germany was the origin of racist hate speech which spread across the globe. Not just speech, but speech which turned into action and fed the flames. It’s no coincidence that today the Federal Republic of Germany has some of the strongest laws against hate speech in the world, and prosecutors who are unafraid to use them, even on some of the largest companies in the world.
In September Germany’s Justice Minister, Heiko Maas, called on social media companies to do more to combat hateful speech about refugees. The law in Germany has criminal sanctions not just for Holocaust denial, but for incitement to violence against any group of people on the basis of either ethnicity or religion. Maas called for more to be done to “better identify content that is against the law and remove it faster”.
It was the laws of Germany which a small group of us used to create a radical change in the social media world back in 2008. Until then companies like Facebook were facilitating the spread of Holocaust denial in all countries around the world. After a significant campaign we led to challenge them, they agreed it was possible to regulate social media content on a country by country basis, and therefore to comply with national laws like Germany’s ban on the denial of the Holocaust.
The companies pushed back, removing the explicit requirement to comply with local laws from their terms of service even as they began to obey the law in Germany. They simplified their terms of service and removed the explicit ban on content that was “derogatory,” “demeaning,” “harmful,” “defamatory,” “abusive,” “inflammatory” or “racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable.” Nevertheless, the US position on free speech, which since 1977 has gone so far as to protect the right of fascists in Nazi uniform to march through a town where one in six people were Holocaust survivors, now gives way to the law of the land in other countries.
In 2015 around a million refugees, largely from Syria, have arrived in Germany. While most Germans are supportive, seeing this as something that has to be done, Germany’s neo-Nazis are promoting xenophobia, spreading hate against refugees and Muslims in general. The hate has fuelled violent riots where calls of “heil Hitler” are mixed with “foreigners out”. There have been 576 attacks on refugees in Germany in the year to October, more than double that in the entire previous year.
The pressure from the German State was increased in November as the public prosecutor launched a criminal investigation against Facebook’s Managing Director Northern, Central and Eastern Europe, Martin Ott, for personal liability for Facebook’s failure to remove hate speech. The move was again directly linked to the spread of violence against refugees.
In the middle of November Facebook, Google and Twitter responded with concessions to the German government. The companies have each agreed to set up specialist review units in Germany to assess reports of hate speech. Given the context, the primary focus will be on anti-refugee sentiment, and specifically on ensuring faster compliance with existing German criminal law. The companies have agreed that 24 hours is an acceptable time frame in which to remove hate speech.
The move is a further significant shift away from global governance by the social media companies, based on their own values, but on conformance with national laws and the will of the people as expressed through their elected governments. This is not a good will gesture, but a means for the companies to protect themselves from liability. It is change long overdue, and one I first raised in a paper on new forms of regulation for social media back in 2010.
Outside of Germany, the onus is now on Governments to strengthen laws against hate speech so there is a basis on which to enforce their national sovereignty and demand local action and local review teams by the social media companies. Once laws are in place, other countries too can look at penalties where companies like Facebook, Google (including YouTube) and Twitter fail to remove content in reasonable time.
The Online Hate Prevention Institute, as Australia’s only specialist harm prevention charity focused on the problem of online hate, has been monitoring the problem and developing new tools and systems over the last four years. On Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th 2016, together with the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Department for Combating Antisemitism, we will be releasing a new report with a scorecard on how the social media companies are doing at responding to reports made to them by the public. We presented a preview at the United Nations in New York in early December. In March we will release a similar report looking at anti-Muslim hate, an interim report into anti-Muslim hate was released earlier this month for International Human Rights Day.
The approach of the Online Hate Prevention Institute is unique. It is powered by FightAgainstHate.com, an advanced online reporting tool we have built in-house. The tool has been praised by UNESCO, endorsed by the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism and supported by a wide range of community organisations. Using a simple process and a single click to register and login, it takes reports from the public and allows us to track how the companies respond. We can see what they take down, and how long it takes them. We can see what they fail to take down. We can also see the volume of hate and its “flavour” as it changes over time. Since the software was launched a year ago over 5,000 reports have been and over 4,000 different items of hate identified.
As the consensus for stronger action against online hate grows, the Online Hate Prevention Institute is proud to be working on the next generation of tools both to tackle the hate and to enable compliance monitoring which will surely follow. We’re please to have recently received funding from the Victorian Government to support our work, and are currently in talks with a number of donors about taking this to the next level. There is a need for drastic action on online hate, and here in Australia we are doing more than talking about it, we’re leading the way and everyone is invited to be a part of that, whether it’s by funding this critical work through tax-deductible donations, or reporting the hate you see online.
Let’s move beyond words and take real action. The push in Germany may be about Syrian refugees, but with a little effort, support and cooperation, it can change the landscape in the fight against hate.
Dr Andre Oboler is CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and Co-Chair of the Online Antisemitism Working Group of the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism
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