A new German law makes social media responsible for what they publish

by Cathrin Schaer / 25 January, 2018
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo/Getty Images

The German government has cracked down on social media companies in what's being seen as a test case for Europe.

Social media is awash with emotion. Waves of overexcited birthday greetings roll through your timeline, followed by tsunamis of Trump-like rage-tweeting. Just look at intense reactions to the Facebook video of a young woman whose tinsel-flecked breast was groped at Gisborne’s Rhythm & Vines festival. The idea of ever trying to rein in that kind of online hysteria seems like a whole new kind of crazy.

But starting this month, the German Government is trying to do exactly that. On January 1, the magnificently named Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, or “enforcement of social networks law”, came into effect. At its most basic, the law – NetzDG for short – is trying to get social-media heavyweights such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to take responsibility for the vilest stuff they publish.

Thanks to the NetzDG, which is being seen as a test case for all of Europe, these online social networks now have 24 hours to take down hate speech – or face potential fines of up to €50 million (NZ$84 million).

The law quickly claimed its first victims. “What the hell is wrong with this country?” read a New Year’s tweet from the deputy leader of the country’s anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany, Beatrix von Storch, who was furious that local police had sent out season’s greetings in Arabic. “Did they mean to placate the barbaric, Muslim, gang-raping hordes of men?”

The police, who often tweet in different languages, including English and French, charged her with inciting hatred and Twitter blocked her account for 12 hours.

The NetzDG’s next victim was satirical German magazine Titanic, whose Twitter account made a joke about von Storch. Apparently, Twitter can’t tell the difference between hate speech and parody, because that account, too, was promptly blocked.

There was an immediate uproar as von Storch and her fellow racists complained that the blocks marked the end of the constitutional state. Titanic’s editors expressed shock. A handful of left-wing politicians demanded the NetzDG be abolished and journalists’ groups fretted about corporate censorship and free speech.

But free speech is far from endangered in Germany. Folk such as von Storch still get to peddle their populist poison in Parliament, in the press and on the street. And an open internet has always been both nasty and nice, depending on what we, the people, make of it. Recently, though, it feels as if the main thing that free speech on social media has been good for is making money for its parent companies. Outrage equals interaction; as the title of a talk by US-based techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci so aptly puts it: “We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads.”

Think about it. When was the last time you had a reasoned debate online? Arguing politics on Facebook is a bit like road rage. While you’re in the car, partially anonymous, you honk, swear and rant as loud as you like. If you had to get out of the car to explain, face to face, to that unfortunate pedestrian why you’re so angry, you’d (hopefully) be more restrained.

Social media amplifies the passions of the digital mob, for better and for worse. It also facilitates misanthropic online ghettos where, as recent research has shown, the truth doesn’t count; all that matters is what you believe.

There’s no doubt Germany’s hastily written new law needs fine-tuning. In the wrong hands, it’s a blunt instrument, easily abused. But if it takes some of the extremism out of online arguments and makes social-media giants admit culpability for what they’re doing to society in the name of profit, that must be, if not completely positive, at least a place from which to start a desperately needed discussion.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash, based in Berlin. 

This article was first published in the January 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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