German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has said that the AfD party exploits online radicalization for political gain. He also called on social networks to take it upon themselves to more seriously police online hate speech.
In an interview with the German newspaper "Handelsblatt" on Wednesday, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party "takes advantage of radicalization online and elsewhere for its political purposes."
"Catering to xenophobic sentiment is part of the AfD's approach," Maas told the paper when asked if social media played a role in the AfD benefitting from the ongoing debate surrounding the refugee crisis in Germany.
In the interview, which focused on the broader issue of how social networks such as Facebook and Twitter should deal with online hate speech in Germany, Maas went on to say that the AfD posts xenophobic statements online only to walk them back later.
By the time the party starts qualifying its comments, "the oil has already been added to the fire," Maas said.
To counteract this effect, Maas said, ignoring the AfD would not do the job. Instead, he called for more direct tactics to factually counteract the AfD's message.
Maas is a member of the Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition.
Fighting with facts
With regard to broader policies, such as Germany's stance on refugees, Maas said it was a mistake to only search for party and parliamentary consensus without considering how the reasoning and facts behind a decision will reach the public.
"We need to do a better job of explaining the facts," Maas said, "because there's a lot of stuff being said online that simply isn't true. I admit it's challenging to argue against firmly held prejudices, but we don't have a choice."
Maas has been a vocal campaigner in recent months, calling on social media giants to censor user comments they deem inappropriate. The justice department had previously formed a task force with Facebook, Twitter, and Google to address online hate crime, and Maas said they had recently taken a look at the impact.
He said that when an online watchdog, such as Germany's jugendschutz.net (Jugendschutz translates as youth protection) reports a hateful post online, the comment is deleted relatively quickly. But if a normal user reports hate speech, only one percent of Tweets and 46 percent of Facebook posts are deleted.
"That is of course too little," Maas said.
Voluntary compliance vs. regulation
Maas said online platforms needed to take their customers more seriously. He also warned that Germany would take action if the task force's findings - slated for next year - show companies are not fulfilling their obligations.
Creating laws that forced companies such as Facebook and Twitter to be more transparent when it came to online hate speech was an option, Maas said, but he added that the companies had the opportunity to take the initiative themselves now.
"It is in no company's interest that its platform is abused to commit crimes," Maas said at the end of the interview.
mz/msh (AFP, dpa)