Hit by criticism over hate-filled online comments – including a xenophobic post that celebrated the drowning of a young refugee – the social network Facebook has vowed to crack down on cyber-smearing.
The recent photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, wearing a red shirt and blue shorts and lying face down in the sand, stirred the world’s conscience over Europe’s deepening refugee crisis. But it also prompted hatred on the Internet, including on Facebook where one commenter posted: “We do not mourn him, but celebrate.”
Media outlets reported the post was made to the Facebook group “Berlin Defends Itself,” a far-right-wing page dedicated to anti-immigrant sentiments. Police searched the apartment of a 26-year-old Berlin man suspected of the post and seized his computer and mobile phones.
But critics want more action. They are appalled at the recent rise of hate speech regarding asylum seekers, and have called on social networks like Facebook and Twitter to help stop it.
“We have to consider whether some regulations could be expanded to new services and platforms on the Internet.”
Facebook’s European chief, Richard Allen, agreed to meet this week with Heiko Maas, the German minister of justice. In addition, the social network announced a series of measures to deal with online hate speech and wants to form a task force on the issue.
Facebook said it hoped to join with politicians, the justice ministry and non-profit organizations, such as Network Against Nazis, to confront xenophobia and present solutions online.
The measures Facebook proposes would be voluntary, but justice officials indicated they would press for a tougher response. A justice ministry spokesperson said Mr. Maas wants the social network to expand staff in Germany to review comments. In addition, he wants Facebook to disclose the number of deleted or registered posts.
Facebook’s promises likely won’t sway critics who want questionable comments deleted purposefully. The social network apparently prefers to discuss content. In Facebook jargon, that’s called “counter speech.”
Pressure from the European Union could also grow. Günther Oettinger, the E.U. digital commissioner and a Social Democrat, told Handelsblatt that Internet companies like Facebook should be held liable for their content, in accordance with regulations that already apply to television channels.
“We have to consider whether some regulations could be expanded to new services and platforms on the Internet,” Mr. Oettinger told Handelsblatt.
The domestic policy speaker for the Greens party, Volker Beck, demanded that legal authorities take harsher actions on racist or hate-filled posts. “In many cases,” he said, “police and state prosecutors are not striving to identify the offenders criminally and to indict them.”
Facebook has struggled to control hate and cyber-smearing across its global network. The company said it has an internal “community operations team” to oversee and edit user comments. It plans to add “German language experts” to the team, a spokesman said.
Facebook claims that as a technology service provider, it is not responsible for what users post because of a so-called liability privilege. But that changes if users report offensive content and Facebook doesn’t take it down.
In that case, Cologne media lawyer Christian Solmecke believes Facebook is under a legal obligation.
“Currently, however, thousands of users have reported seditious comments to the company,” he said. “If Facebook does not delete the unlawful contents, the company itself is liable.”
Meantime, some worry the refugee crisis could fuel a political swing to the right that goes beyond the Internet – if the German government can’t solve immigration bottlenecks and put aside divisive political battles on the issue.
“If Facebook does not delete the unlawful contents, the company itself is liable”
Political scientist Hajo Funke, an expert on extremism, told Handelsblatt the mood on immigration could shift, to the benefit of right-wing parties like Alternative for Germany, or AfD.
In an interview, he blamed bureaucratic delays in processing asylum seekers, defensive attitudes and internal battles within the ruling conservative bloc – the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.
Overall, the majority of Germans have welcomed refugees, but right-wing resentment has boiled over in protest marches and attacks on refugee centers. And now the issue is splitting the Christian Democrats, with Chancellor Angela Merkel working to accept and process refugees while her CSU allies oppose her.
“If politicians do not manage to quickly cope with the refugee crisis, the mood could shift,” said Mr. Funke, adding that Ms. Merkel’s plea for a national policy must be implemented.
“The question is whether the work of the Federal Office for Immigrants and Refugees can be sped up,” he said in an interview. “The central task is to overcome bureaucratic bottlenecks.”
Mr. Funke said the CSU’s opposition to the chancellor’s plans – including a possible alliance with parties to the right – was risky for the government and Germany.
“Between the AfD and the (far-right) National Democratic Party, there already are ideological intersections in the defensive attitudes against immigrants,” he said. “Something similar is now possible between a partly right-wing populist CSU and the AfD.”
Anja Stehle is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Tina Halberschmidt covers social media. Ruth Berschens is the Brussels bureau chief. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com