In key respects, the advent of social networking sites has aided right-wing extremists. Platforms like Facebook can be used to spread racist propaganda, and such activity appears to be increasing in Germany and beyond.
Facebook user Susanne W. has an appreciation for canines, evident in her profile photo and from the pages she has liked. She supports animal protection initiatives and is a fan of pages such as "Romania's dogs."
Equally apparent, however, is her lack of support for asylum seekers in her home country, Germany. She is a member of several virtual "civil movements" that oppose refugee shelters and has written on some of their pages that money spent on such institutions would better be spent on animal shelters.
Just a few years ago, it's likely that Susanne W. would have only expressed her opinions to close friends and acquaintances. But since becoming a member of social networking sites like Facebook, she's had ample opportunity to share her views with hundreds of like-minded strangers. One such platform is the Facebook page "Mut zur Demokratie" ("Daring to Uphold Democracy"), which has over 20,000 fans. Some of the most commented topics on it are "Misuse of the asylum system," "Foreign infiltration" and "Proud to be German."
Hundreds of similar pages on the social network have been created in Germany. According to Felix M. Steiner, they are mostly set up and administered by members of the far-right scene. Steiner is one of the authors of Publikative.org - a blog that monitors right-wing extremism on the Internet and reports on issues such as racism in everyday life and in the media. In 2013, the site won the most user votes in the "Best Blog, German" category of The Bobs - DW's online activism awards.
According to Steiner, extreme right-wing pages on social networking sites are there to "spread propaganda." They serve as "platforms through which asylum seekers and migrants are attacked in the most malicious way." And although the number of people who "like" such pages is far higher than the number of those who demonstrate in the street, Steiner said that the overall impression conveyed is one of large-scale support for such causes.
The trend of publishing right-wing material on social networking sites in Germany has been monitored for several years by Jugendschutz.net, a state-sponsored child protection service. Its latest annual report, published in mid-2013, indicates a strong increase of online right-wing activity, especially on pages popular with young users, such as Facebook and YouTube.
According to Jugendschutz.net representatives, the typical way of disguising online hate speech is through "black humor." In Germany, satirical statements are protected to some degree by the constitution, so long as a case can be made that they do not attack the dignity of a group of people. On the other hand, in the US, where many of the largest social networking sites are hosted, the relevant laws are more lax. This is why, according to Christiane Schneider, head of the anti-political extremism department at Jugendschutz, it is sometimes difficult to convince the administrators of such sites to delete certain content.
A legal dilemma
Most social networks do have a function that allows users to report content they deem to be inappropriate, but very often the items in question remain online. One such incident involved a Twitter hashtag published in France in October 2012: #UnBonJuif (AGoodJew), which triggered a wave of anti-Semitic jokes and slogans. The hashtag was the third most tweeted subject in France on October 10, 2012.
After a long legal battle between Twitter and the French Union of Jewish Students (UEJF) backed by anti-racism groups, Twitter revealed to prosecutors the identity of the person who posted the hashtag: Gregory P., who faced court in January 2014 on charges of incitement of the people - the first person ever to be charged in France for hate speech via Twitter. The #UnBonJuif hashtag has not disappeared, however. In fact, it has trended again recently. Many of the hashtag's users say it's a question of their right to humor and freedom of speech and deny any anti-Semitic or racist intentions.
Exposing racists online
In the US, the right to freedom of speech has a particularly high status. But one Twitter user has found his own way of bringing racists to justice. Logan Smith, a journalist and social media expert, set up the YesYoureRacist account on Twitter one and a half years ago. He uses it to retweet racist statements he comes across, especially when those responsible start sentences with "I'm not racist, but…" or mark their tweets with the hashtag #notracist.
"I want to show how widespread racism is in everyday life in America, especially among young people - even though you'd assume that they are more tolerant," said Smith. His account has over 46,000 followers.
A similar initiative was started on Twitter in Germany by a group of bloggers in September 2013, using the hashtag #schauhin (payattention).
"In Germany we only talk about racism when a murder happens or when a new study is published," said blogger Kübra Gümüsay. "We wanted to build up on the successful Outcry initiative against sexism in everyday life [started on Twitter in Germany in January 2013] in order to put a spotlight on a phenomenon that we're all familiar with."
In the campaign's first weeks, many German users took part and contributed tweets. However, the hashtag has since then largely been hijacked by racists, and around 80 percent of the content is now driven by racism, according to Gümüsay. "It's not a defeat, though - it's a demonstration of how ugly the Internet can get," she added.
Gümüsay says society too often views racism as if it were something far removed from everyday life. "But all these tweets show that it's right there among us," she said. "We, as a society, need to talk about racism in order to get better at combating it."