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Germany introduces anti-hate speech laws for social media

Germany Social Media

Germany introduces anti-hate speech laws for social media

It’s fair to say that the last year or so has seen social media develop from a fun and useful way to communicate, into something much darker and more sinister. Terms like “fake news” have become heard a lot more readily – sometimes accurately, sometimes misguidedly – and people are becoming a lot more suspicious of what they see on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

As of yesterday, one country has started enforcing a law that requires large social media sites to remove certain content. Given a classically German name of Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (why use three or four short words when one big long one will do?), the law came into effect in October 2017, but social media sites were given a grace period of until the end of the year to prepare for its official enforcement.

One prominent German who seemed desperate to get in there with her bile before the law became official was Beatrix von Storch of far-right party AfD. While most people were enjoying New Year’s Eve with a tipple or two, spreading messages of goodwill and formulating resolutions, von Storch took to Twitter to deliver a venomous slur against Muslim men. Twitter suspended her account as a result, and she may face criminal charges for her outburst.

People getting themselves into trouble for what they post on social media is nothing new, but what’s interesting about the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG) is that it places the onus on social media sites themselves to remove “obviously illegal” material. If they fail to do so, they may be hit with a fine as high as €50m (£44m).

Myself, I’ve never been sure whether completely censoring hate speakers is the right thing to do. I often think the tactic of allowing fools to talk themselves into a corner is more beneficial, along with educating people better on who and what they are interacting with. That said, anything that encourages social media sites to be a little more proactive has surely got to be a good thing.

Twitter and Facebook are probably the most direct sources of social media unpleasant content, but I think YouTube is arguably a worse culprit. Its comments sections have long been an ugly stain on an otherwise fabulous site, and my experience watching a football match on the video streaming site in October really drove home how nasty people can be online.

Football is actually a good analogy for social media. If a club’s fans are found guilty of engaging in racist or otherwise hateful behaviour, it’s the club itself that gets punished. As an example, last month, Russian club Zenit St Petersburg was hit with a fine and partial stadium closure due to a racist banner being displayed in the ground. This isn’t to say that the directors, players or anyone else involved with Zenit is racist, but the club is being used as a platform for racism, and the fine is a way of saying to Zenit “this isn’t acceptable – do something about it!”

Fining social media sites for hate speech is exactly the same. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and co. are not inherently racist, but if they fail to address some of the underhand ways they are being used, they are complicit in helping racism and other discrimination spread, and should therefore expect to be punished. Good on you, Germany!

John Murray
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