Author and columnist Virginia Heffernan tweeted this in December. A tweet, which subsequently went viral:
PSA. For anyone beset by Nazi and brownshirt bots: I changed my Twitter address to Germany at the suggestion of a shrewd friend, and they vanished. Germany has stricter hate-speech laws.
— Virginia Heffernan (@page88) December 4, 2017
In her tweet, Heffernan was drawing attention to the sheer amount of far-right and Nazi- sympathising accounts on the social media site. It is true that you can log on and see scores and scores of hate-filled posts and targeted abuse towards minority groups which have not been taken down.
There are many ways that these far-right accounts ‘subtly’ identify themselves, such as with images of Pepe the frog, an image which is now regarded as a symbol of hatred. To the untrained eye these accounts may go undetected if their posts don’t reveal their inclinations first. However, the more you know about the nuances of far-right memes, inside jokes and linguistic signifiers you begin to see just how widespread the community is.
It is no secret that social media sites such as Twitter have been under fire for not cracking down on online abuse hard enough and there has been significant pressure put on those companies to remove the perpetrators faster. However, the UK crackdown hasn’t been as swift or as hard-line as the German response to the problem.
Germany has some of the world’s toughest laws on hate speech including defamation, incitement to commit crimes and threats of violence. Social media giants can now expect the imposition of fines of up to 50 million euros for failing to remove hate speech promptly. This has meant that those companies have been scrambling to get their sites in order and hatred-free so as not to feel the weight of potential loss of profits. In fact, Facebook hired hundreds of new workers based in Essen, Germany, to grapple with the workload the new legislation requires.
Virginia Heffernan’s viral tweet brought attention to not only the amount of far-right accounts on her timeline, but also reiterated a clever social media hack – just reset your country and profile location on your Twitter account to somewhere in Germany and a large proportion of those accounts will disappear off your timeline. The accounts will still exist on the site, however you will be notified that the account has been ‘withheld in (country)’ Although the algorithm doesn’t ensure 100% far-right removal, it does noticeably decrease numbers.
For a while Twitter seemed to be staving off criticism regarding their sloth-like tackling of online hate speech by insinuating that they were trying their best, but ultimately the popularity and size of the platform made it difficult to regulate. It seems strange then, that actually, they are able to find, correctly identify and withhold various far-right accounts and regulate them accordingly.
The problem seemingly is solvable and not necessarily linked to a lack of resources. When companies such as Twitter are bound by a law with significant financial penalties – it seems that hate speech crackdowns can be achieved quite easily.
If Twitter is able to regulate and restrict in this way, it can be argued that they should bear more personal responsibility for what is on their platform and not only care when it is contingent on certain laws and fines. The majority of people understand that inciting or allowing the incitement of racial/religious hatred isn’t right or good. People seem to understand that sentiment independent of specific, explicit prohibition and/or monetary loss; so why only do what is right in the face of repercussions and not enact it as a blanket policy to foster a safer online environment?
Freedom of expression is not an untouchable, sanctified entity where anything goes. Although some loud individuals may feel that they are entitled to their opinions and to express them however they so wish online, hate speech and inciting discrimination of minority groups is not a protected loophole within freedom of speech law. Inciting racial or religious hatred ultimately infringes upon the freedom of expression of communities who are being targeted.
The simple answer is that maybe these companies do not actually care, but pretend to care when financial penalization may occur. However, societal and user demands are progressing and the weight of public outcry is forcing change. It is time for social media companies to bear more of the responsibility in keeping people safe and free from discrimination – and not only because a country’s law mandates it.
JAN Trust’s pioneering Web Guardians™ programme is designed to spread awareness amongst mothers, families and communities about the dangers their young people may face online and how to safeguard them. Find out more here: https://jantrust.org/project/web-guardians/.