Europe’s refugee crisis has spilled over to Facebook. In Germany, where thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing conflict in their own country are being offered asylum, Facebook has found itself being pressured by the government to do more to combat hate speech against immigrants. Yesterday the WSJ reported that Facebook has agreed to work with the German Justice Ministry to fight xenophobic and racist messages being posted on its platform.
In a statement, Facebook also said it is “striving” to partner with Germany internet safety NGO, FSM, to help “support users” in Germany, as well as “working with expert local input” to do more to tackle hate speech. For its part, the FSM said it welcomes Facebook’s efforts to become a member, with general manager Otto Vollmers adding:” Along with Facebook, we can develop joint solutions to address controversial cases referred to in this sensitive and difficult trade-off.”
The move to partner with a relevant local organization to combat hate speech is in addition to existing resources focused on the German market within Facebook’s community operations team, which the company reiterated “already includes German language specialists that review German content”.
Facebook also noted that its existing community standards prohibit hate speech against protected groups and the incitement to violence against others. However in recent weeks, as the WSJ notes, the German government has criticized Facebook for not being fast or comprehensive enough in removing hate speech from its platform. Hence the government now co-ordinating the creation of a task force — that will involve Facebook and other Internet competitors — aimed at evaluating whether content flagged as inappropriate should be considered acceptable freedom of speech. Or whether it’s actually illegal hate speech under German law.
Commenting on this in a statement, Facebook’s head of policy in Germany, Eva-Maria Kirschsieper, said: “We are looking forward to our meeting with Federal Minister of Justice Heiko Maas as we believe that the best solutions are often found when people in business, politics and civil society all work together on common challenges like online safety.”
In parallel Facebook said it would be setting up its own task force, inviting local community organizations to be involved in finding solutions to what it said is a “complex” issue. It added that only “a very small minority of people have posted content that appears to cross the line of acceptable speech” — noting also there’s been plenty of positive sentiment expressed about refugees via Facebook — and emphasized that it welcomes “political debate on our platform”, adding it believes it is “especially important to allow this to happen when issues are controversial”.
It’s fair to say that big U.S. tech platforms have increasingly found their First Amendment free speech positions are required to flex as they expand into other markets — whether it’s to comply with regional legal differences or because their profile means they come under acute political pressure on sensitive local issues, such as the current refugee crisis in Europe, or indeed on issues such as terrorism. The Internet does not have (many) boundaries yet crosses many international borders, so the bigger the tech giant, the more their operational policies needs must contain multitudes.
Working with local community organizations in Germany is one way for Facebook to be seen to be sensitive to local realities — in a bid to steer off further criticism from the government — while also spreading some of the burden of adapting its operations for different markets. Convening a mixed group to tackle a speech-based issue also likely allows Facebook to speak up for the pro-speech position, given that the German groups will be providing more expert input on what’s inappropriate speech under local laws and within local communities.
“Facebook believes that the best way to address complex issues like hate speech on the Internet is for companies, NGOs and politicians to work together sharing their expertise in different aspects of the problem,” it said. “The aim of this group is to find workable solutions to counter xenophobia and racism and the way in which this may be expressed online. Facebook will be inviting community organisations such as Netz Gegen Nazis, Laut gegen Nazis, and FSM to join the group as well as representatives of political parties in Germany, and of other online services. We are also inviting the German Ministry of Justice to participate in that dialogue.”
In a third push also clearly aimed at moving the debate onto ground Facebook is more comfortable with, it said it will be working to promote “counterspeech” as an anti-hate speech strategy — offering “interested organizations… best practice examples from all over the world on how to effectively use counterspeech”. So, basically, getting people to post more to Facebook as a strategy to counter problematic content that risks being taken off Facebook. Which of course makes sense for a business powered by user generated content.
“Facebook will bring key experts from Great Britain and the Nordics – countries that already today have great expertise on counter speech – to support organisations in Germany to even better use the platform for their initiatives and to enable them to fight against racism and xenophobia with the most possible impact,” it added.
The argument that ‘bad speech’ should be countered with ‘more speech’ is one that’s often deployed in defense of absolutist free speech positions (which view any takedowns as censorship). However where hate speech is concerned, the law provides some hard limits.