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Online anti-refugee posts lead to offline visits by Dutch police

A Dutch police campaign trying to counteract online incitement aims to let users know they're walking a fine line. So are the police.

In rare instances, Dutch police are knocking on social media users' doors and asking them to be careful writing posts about refugees that could lead to real-life violence and, ultimately, to charges of online incitement.

One example is Mark Jongeneel, a small business owner in the small city of Sliedrecht who tweeted his reaction to asylum plans in his city:

"The college of Sliedrecht has a proposal to receive 250 refugees in the coming 2 years. What a bad plan! #letusresist"

Hours later, his mother (with whom he lives) contacted him to say local police had visited her house and were now on their way to his office.

"I asked them what the problem was. And they said, 'Your tweets,'" Jongeneel told DW. "And they asked me to be careful about my Twitter behavior, because if there are riots, then I'm responsible."

'A meeting at the market'

Something similar occurred to Johan, from the town of Kaatsheuvel, who in a December Facebook post wrote:

"Just had a visit from the police with the friendly request not to call for a meeting at the market tomorrow or Monday."

That "meeting at the market" was Johan's call for a protest against the city's plans to house 1,200 refugees. He posted the call to Facebook.

Johan was not able to conduct an interview in English, but one of his close friends told DW the police visit occurred hours after Johan posted his call for a protest:

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Dutch police to social media users: Online comments can have real-life consequences

"There was a meeting in the council hall, an information evening, just for the people of our city. Johann wrote a message on Facebook - that we had to get together at the market square to have a protest, because, I will be very honest, we're not happy with the asylum seekers in our country."

Johan's friend, who asked to remain unnamed due to concerns of employer reprisal, said he knows of "seven or eight people" who were visited by police officers in Kaatsheuvel that day.

Proactive instead of reactive

Throughout the Netherlands, the police visits are part of campaign led by local authorities to address concerns related to social media at the communal level.

A spokesperson from the municipality of Loon op Zand, which governs Kaatsheuvel, told DW that police in her municipality only rarely pay personal visits to social media users. If they do, she says, the goal is to clarify that user's intentions and plans for real-world protests.

A police spokesperson from the Oost-Nederland region added that similar programs in his region are intended to be proactive rather than reactive: Local authorities let social media users know in advance that they're walking a fine line, and they also inform those users that they could face incitement charges if their calls for protests ultimately result in violence.

"It's not all sunshine on social media," he told DW.

These programs began in the Enschede municipality in eastern Netherlands, where authorities were concerned about numerous tweets expressing anti-refugee sentiment. These monitoring programs, though, are not high tech. Authorities do not follow hashtags, for example, or geolocate protesters' tweets.

Another spokesperson from the Brabant province, just south of the city of Sliedrecht (and Twitter user Mark Jongeneel), said authorities there tend to monitor anti-refugee protest pages on Facebook.

"It's an instrument that we don't use daily," the spokesman said, adding, however, that he thinks the program's effective.

That said, it is a fine line between keeping the conversation clean and muzzling the ability to express one's opinions online.

Mark Jongeneel says the increased attention has not changed his behavior online - nor will it.

"Freedom of speech is very important, and I will not be silenced," he said.

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