Germany is learning from the past and taking a zero-tolerance stance on racism. Social networks need to do the same.
The German government is currently exploring a variety of legislative options which will require social networks to take action against hate speech on their platforms. “We are already looking in detail at how we can make providers of online platforms criminally liable for undeleted content that breaks German law,” says German Justice Minister, Heiko Maas, who believes more pressure needs to be placed on tech companies.
Twitter set a precedent earlier this year by banning right-wing broadcaster Milo Yiannopoulos, after he incited the harassment of actress Leslie Jones. But aside from that one gesture, which came following a tidal wave of pressure from users, Twitter has an abysmal track record in dealing with hate and abuse. In fact, pretty much every network has been criticised at one point or another for inadequate abuse reporting tools.
This inaction on the part of privately owned companies is causing friction with lawmakers in Germany, where the rules around hate speech are non-negotiable. Last year, a task force was created with the goal of deleting illegal content within a 24 hour window.
“We urgently need more transparency,” says Maas. “We could imagine obliging social networks to publish at regular intervals how many complaints they have received about illegal hate speech and how they dealt with them. That way it would be visible for everyone how many complaints there are and how many deletions. That too would increase the pressure on Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others.” Maas also speculates about issuing financial penalties for undeleted content, as a means of incentivising companies to take action.
As Jean Genet said; “crimes of which a people is ashamed constitute its real history.” Far from shying away from the millions of lives lost during the Holocaust, Germany has taken great steps to ensure that such atrocities never happen again. Militant nationalism, xenophobia and hate speech are not tolerated under the law; inciting racial hatred carries a prison sentence, and Holocaust deniers are prosecuted.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, white supremacists are being rebranded as “alt-right” and are thriving on the free publicity offered by media outlets like CNN, who gush and coo about how “dapper” they are while disavowing themselves of any responsibility in the normalisation of racism. A recent article profiling Tomi Lahren and Milo Yiannopoulos, among others, portrayed them as some sort of latter-day Brat Pack while downplaying their racist views, regressive politics and highly dangerous influence.
“Companies that make money with their social networks have social obligations,” says Maas. “It cannot be in that company’s interest that their platform is used to commit crimes.”
Previous efforts by Europol to block extremist content have drawn criticism for excessive censorship, and it remains unclear whether Germany’s approach is at all feasible to roll out globally — but it is absolutely crucial that tech companies become more engaged in the conversation around hate speech and propaganda.
Because if there is one thing of which we can sadly be certain as we head into 2017, it is that there will be plenty more racism, misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism to go around in the coming year.