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Digital World

OK boomer: German grammar reaps Twitter ban

November 13, 2019

When does "the" mean "die"? A German-speaking Twitter user's response of "the boomers" reaped a 12-hour account lockout after it was interpreted as an English-language threat.

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Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Warnecke

Over the past weeks, the phrase "OK, boomer" has surged through social media platforms — a millennial and Z-generation's digital stab at the older baby boomer generation's alleged close-mindedness and condescension.

But on November 12, the catchphrase's collision with German grammar led to an unexpected consequence: A user reportedly being blocked from Twitter for 12 hours for hate speech over the word "die," German for "the."

On November 9, the user @digiom, located in Vienna, Austria, responded to a tweet by user @guenterhack with the words "die boomer," which in German means "the boomers." She then tweeted on Tuesday that her account had been locked for 12 hours and provided a screenshot of the Twitter message saying she had violated its hate speech guidelines:

"Because the German article "die" is read as [the verb] "die" by an English-trained algorithm, it can happen that twitter will block someone if they write 'die Boomer,'" @digiom explained in her tweet. In other words, Twitter had interpreted the phrase as a verbal threat to user @guenterhack's life.

Identified incorrectly as English

Social Media analyst Luca Hammer pointed out in response that the original tweet was written in dialect, which would not have been understandable without German knowledge. He said in a thread that Twitter would have identified @digiom's response "die boomer" tweet as English, in which case it would have been presented to an English-speaking moderator for review.

@digiom said via Twitter that she had not been contacted by the company after having her account locked, nor had she expected to be.

Twitter declines for reasons of security and data protection to discuss individual accounts. However, Holger Kerstin, a communication director at Twitter, said that the company's goal is "improving the culture of debate."

"On our way to achieving this, we sometimes make mistakes in how we apply our rules. We are sorry for these occurrences. We of course analyze the mistakes in order to improve and further develop our approach in promoting a contrastive, public debate culture," Kerstin said.

Read more: #ToxicTwitter: Do we need a new culture of debate?

Generational warfare or clever criticism?

The word "boomer" refers to the baby Boomer generation, born from 1946 through the mid-60s. The phrase "Ok, boomer" developed in response to older generations criticizing younger ones for being idealistic, narcissistic and irresponsible.

Some have argued it is ageist and has sparked generational warfare, while others have described it as clever critical retort.

Though it has been in use for months, it burst into the global headlines in early November after New Zealand politician Chloe Swarbrick, born in 1994, used it during a speech in parliament after an older parliamentarian expressed skepticism over the body's average age.

DW author Cristina Burack.
Cristina Burack Editor and reporter focusing on culture, politics and history