Facebook has major problems monitoring hate speech and Germany is not having it

Over the years, Mark Zuckerberg and other senior Facebook spokespeople have promised to crack down on people posting hate speech. We’ve heard it all before: they’re taking it very seriously, they want to create a positive social media experience, etc. But as recent user activity makes clear, Facebook hasn’t done much to monitor hate speech on its platform.

On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 anti-Jewish campaign of murder and vandalism in Nazi Germany, an Israeli restaurant owner living in Berlin found that his establishment had been added to a neo-Nazi group’s list of Jewish-owned businesses titled “Jews Among Us.” He soon started receiving anonymous phone calls from people telling him, “I hate Jews.” However, he didn’t report the incident to Facebook, because he thought they wouldn’t do anything. As he told The New York Times, “I have reported things to Facebook at least 20 times, and 100 percent of the time they have refused to take it down.” That is a lot of leeway given to hate speech, some of which could endanger people’s lives.

The neo-Nazi group and all its posts were eventually removed from Facebook, but only as a reaction to public anger rather than any sort of proactive measure on the company’s part; according to EU guidelines, Facebook is not liable for the content of user posts. But what would have happened if the public hadn’t stepped in?

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Based on recent statements from the German government, it looks like this could become a moot point if Facebook doesn’t get its shit together. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has been talking for some time about bringing criminal charges against Facebook unless it manages to take satisfactory action against hate speech. To make this happen, Facebook and other social media platforms would need to be categorized as media companies instead of technology companies, since media companies, such as TV or radio broadcasters, can be held legally accountable for the content they distribute under EU law.

Earlier this year, Facebook’s German branch hired a business services unit to spot and delete racist posts, which is better than nothing, but still places the responsibility for monitoring hate speech on an outside party. That probably won’t be enough to bypass Germany’s anti-hate speech laws, which are known for being pretty tough — for instance, you can go to prison for denying the Holocaust or inciting hatred against racial minorities. Under that sort of legislation, outsourced vigilance is not going to be adequate.

If the possibility of criminal prosecution turns out to be the kick up the ass Facebook needs to start thinking about its users’ safety, this could have far-reaching implications for the platform’s future in other countries as well. Right now, though, it seems the responsibility for monitoring hate speech on Facebook lies with the government, not with the company that seemingly doesn’t mind its users being threatened.