Social media is a double-edged sword. For all the improvements it brings to the efficiency and ubiquity of connection and communication, it does not guarantee any quality of content. As with any tool, it can be used to help or to harm. Such is what Germany is dealing with right now, as the country becomes one of the focal points of the current refugee crisis in Europe, and experiences a concomitant rise in illegal hate speech.
The cause of the refugee crisis is too complex to fully explain here (Vox has a good summary of what's happening) but the results are clear; a humanitarian crisis the Continent hasn't seen since World War 2. According to Amanda Taub of Vox, "more than 19 million people have been forced to flee their home countries because of war, persecution, and oppression, and every day an estimated 42,500 more join them."
Many of them head toward Europe, seeking a better life. And while most European nations are attempting to either refuse entry to refugees, turn them back, and limit the number they accept in, Germany has a declared aim of accepting 800,000 refugees.
This has lead to a great deal of anti-refugee sentiment in Germany, and, naturally, a lot of that sentiment ends up on social media. Now, via Reuters, come the news that Germany is partnering with Facebook to censor the rising level of hate speech on German social media. After a meeting with Facebook officials on Monday, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas announced that a task force was being created with Facebook, ISPs, and other social networks "with the aim of identifying criminal posts more quickly and removing them."
It should be here noted that Germany takes a much more circumspect view of hate speech than does the United States. Displaying the Nazi flag, for example, is illegal outside of historical or educational context, as is Holocaust denial. And Volksverhetzung, or 'incitement to hatred' is a criminal act. Posts of this nature are illegal on social media in Germany, and are often removed, but the crisis has meant a flood of hatred that many social networks have been unable to fully address.
I have certain issues with this kind of censorship. I've often thought that social media has a certain 'pressure release valve' quality to it, where people can say the ugly things they have to say online so they don't end up saying it to actual people, which could incite real acts of violence. But I admit that my viewpoint might be naive. The echo chamber effect of social media may actually encourage the repulsive views of racists and hate-mongers when they find theyhave large numbers of people agreeing with them online. That can be emboldening, and may itself lead to violence.
If those who are posting hate speech on social media see that they are being censored, will they, as a consequence, take their hate into the real world? Or will Germany's policies on hate speech help quell the potential for violence? I don't know the answer. Germany is simply taking steps to more strictly enforce its laws on social media. My hope is that the refugee crisis will be addressed fast and effectively, so that they won't have to do so for very long.